No expense spared but one

My students are big fans of Game of Thrones, and this semester they begged me to arrange Ramin Djawadi’s stirring theme music for our cello ensemble. I did so, writing it down by ear from a YouTube clip. After a few hearings, it really began to irritate me that instead of hiring a live cellist to play the melody, HBO had used a MIDI version.

When I mentioned this to the students, one of them sent me this blog post by Lara St. John, complete with homemade videos featuring St. John dressed up as Daenerys Targaryen with a pet iguana as the dragon, plus a real cellist she’d hired to play the theme music. The videos and the post are brilliantly funny, but they make a serious point: HBO, while willing to spend between six and ten million dollars per episode, decided to economize on the music by not hiring a cellist–a cost St. John calculates at around $50 per episode.

This is shocking, but sadly not surprising. “They” always economize on music, either by nickel and diming performers, or simply not bothering to hire them at all.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way so many times. When I was a student, I played at weddings to supplement my income, and I figured out pretty quickly that you had to make sure you got your cheque before the service, because afterwards everyone is celebrating and having their photo taken and the mother of the bride isn’t likely to feel like interacting with a disgruntled cellist, if she can be found at all. They might send you your cheque afterwards, but probably not, especially not if the wedding was a very fancy one. Moral of story: no one likes to demand payment up front, especially not a shy teenaged girl, but you simply have to.

Later on, I had a similar experience playing for the Aspen Ideas Festival, an organization from whom musicians might reasonably expect some enlightened treatment. My quartet and I were spending the summer at the Center for Advanced Quartet Studies at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the school’s gigs office had asked us if we’d play for an AIF reception in honour of former president Bill Clinton.

By that stage, we didn’t usually do “gigs” any more, but it seemed like a fun opportunity, so we said we would. Contracts were delivered to us, offering us a sum we thought was pretty paltry–well below half the standard gigging rate for most Colorado cities.

We went to negotiate with an administrator at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and she agreed with us, and changed the contract to a more agreeable amount. Everyone left the meeting happy.

A couple of nights later, we showed up at the extravagantly opulent reception. We goggled at the sight. Liveried waiters were arranging vast platters with hundreds of lobsters. Truck drivers were unloading crates and crates of the most expensive champagne money can buy. The decorations were spectacular–they’d brought in wonderful artworks and sculptures, doubtless at immoderate expense. My memory may be faulty, but I think they had ice sculptures too–at the height of summer, no less. We looked around us, and wondered if we should have asked for more money.

We sat down to play (Haydn and Schubert, as I recall). The moment we were finished, we were hustled out a back door by a woman in Louboutins, presumably so that we wouldn’t besmirch the presence of President Clinton with our commonness, and given an envelope with our cheque.

Which, we discovered, was for the original, insultingly small amount.

The next day, we went to try to get the amount we’d been promised, and were flatly refused. We tried to show them the contract, and they showed us a security guard.

I went back to the gigging office in the hopes that they could help us negotiate. An administrator reluctantly called the Aspen Ideas Festival to find out what had happened.The woman she reached told her that we had shown up and threatened not to play unless the pay was increased (which was not true), and that there was no contract stipulating that we should be paid more (which was also not true).

I am not proud to admit that I threw a bit of a tantrum. But what were we to do? Sue? That would have been ridiculous, and we couldn’t afford it, and they knew it.

Well, I hope they felt good that they economized a scant $200, considering their lobster/champagne/shoe expenses.

I wonder, do “they” screw over and rip off their caterers, wine merchants, decorators and so on like this? Or is it only musicians that get singled out for shabby treatment?


One thought on “No expense spared but one

  1. On your pay at the Clinton affair..

    The rich love to be seen giving money to charities but they hate paying for actual work done. There’s no glory in it.

    I’ve had several jobs where I had some contact with the CEO/owner sort of person. Every one of them talked as if he was the last person in the country doing an honest day’s work and everyone else was just “sitting around the welfare office.”

    That is their internal rationalization for cheating people out of agreed-to pay and other elaborate wage-theft schemes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s