Some of you may have read or heard about rock musician Amanda Palmer, and her decision to recruit instrumentalists for her current tour with the promise of beer, hugs, and high-fives. The announcement caused an uproar from the professional music community, who in no uncertain terms demanded that she pay her backup musicians. That New York Times article can be seen here.
A response article appeared the next day in the LA Times, here, which poses the argument that within the indie/avant-garde rock scenes, choosing to crowdsource musicians can be an aesthetic decision rather than a financial one. However, in a world in which most musicians live in abject poverty, it is important to take into consideration the motivation that goes into a decision like this. It's not an uncommon occurrence for performers to undercut their backing musicians--or so I've been told. Of course, the action has to be spun in such a way that it doesn't appear as though people are taking advantage of their performers. Ms. Palmer's justification for asking for volunteer horn and strings players is that individuals ultimately decide how they choose to share their time and talent. In a lot of ways, she's exactly right--we put a value on our craft (or we agree to some external value). But professional musicians depend on the precedents of others in determining their wages, and when people are taking gigs for free, the value for a musician's time is in danger of decreasing.
The flip side of this argument is that a musician's choice to take a free gig only affects other musicians if they are not offering something a buyer wants at a price they will pay. With such aesthetic diversity among people who freelance in music, hypothetically there will always be a gig for a performer who is proficient enough in the style of music they are asked to perform. "Proficient enough" is becoming commonplace, though--because amateurs are all too willing to do the work for free that professionals used to charge for, it is imperative that professionals constantly work to redefine the nature of "proficient".
I hope this debate isn't too rehashed, and that my post sparks some additional discussion about the ways we as musicians value our talent and time.