Those of you who know or follow me know that I live in Chicago, a city with a HUGE community of all kinds of artists. As a singer, producer, director, and designer of opera, I am extremely familiar with the local classical singing community. Over the last couple of months, I have had, and observed, a great number of conversations with current and former members of the Chicago singing community. Some of these conversations were troubling, and they have really made me think about pervasive ideas I have encountered here that have bothered me for some time. This entry will be the first of several posts that focus on the vital conversations being had about the state of arts careers in today’s world, with a particular lens into the Chicago scene.
I had written a ton of exposition for this post, but I think if you’re reading it, especially if you’re from Chicago, I probably don’t need to introduce this topic very much.
We need to have a talk, fam.
In order for you to call yourself a “professional” artist, you must be making a WAGE for your work. And in order to receive a wage, you must be creating a product that people will pay for.
If these two criteria are not met, and we call ourselves professionals anyway, we are undercutting the importance of real jobs in the arts.
Left and right, made incredibly visible by the recent Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra strike, there is a persistent devaluing, both culturally and institutionally, of the labor of professional musicians. The arts (especially the performing arts), are thought of as a place where people with “talent” go, and it is hard for many non-artists to understand how much training, expense, and just… WORK, go into being a successful professional musician.
But there is another force that is devaluing our labor, and that is artists ourselves: the way we use language to talk about what we do, and the way that language informs our behavior.
Back in August and September, there were a couple of very well-trafficked posts in Facebook forums that exposed a toxic defensiveness, both about the quality of our art-making, and about how we talk about ourselves to people who are not artists. One of these conversations began as a discussion of whether someone was an “aspiring” artist just because they hadn’t made it big yet. I agree with the consensus that you are an artist, and not an “aspiring” one, regardless of your perceived success. However, the thread turned into something else altogether, and that was a discussion of when you can call yourself a “professional.” Being “an artist” and being “a professional artist” are not the same.
This is what we need to talk about.
Please know that I deeply understand that the easiest way to dismiss someone in the arts is to deny them the title of “professional”– it is sometimes used as an intentional slight, even among other artists. It sucks a lot, emotionally and existentially, when someone looks you in the face and says “you’re not a professional.” But it is so important, for the health of the field on the whole, to understand how we use (and don’t use) the word, and what its implications are in the world outside of our community.
When you introduce yourself to someone and say “hello, my name is [ ] and I’m a professional singer,” that should mean something very specific. What it should mean is that singing makes you a significant proportion of your income. Significant meaning, if you lost all your singing income, you would not be able to meet the cost of living, even if that is for a finite period in the year.
Now, it is undeniable that the American economic system does a terrible job of financially supporting the classical arts. BUT, when you call yourself a “professional”, what you are doing is claiming a position in the economic system that we have. In this system, we have a minimum wage. And if you are making nowhere close to the minimum wage, and you tell a non-artist you’re a “professional,” what they hear is either “I’m a sucker, being taken advantage of,” or, perhaps worse, “this is as good as it gets for employment in the arts.” What you are doing is showing them that THIS is the benchmark of work in the arts– making no money, and spending the vast majority of your time and labor doing something other than singing.
But that’s only half of the discussion.
Any discussion of what it means to be a professional would be incomplete without also talking about a standard of quality. Because, in addition to there being a financial expectation of calling yourself a professional, the hard truth is that work must be of a certain caliber to deserve a professional wage.
Now, before you get up in arms with the argument that “the arts are subjective,” let me offer you this:
If there are no standards, then the arts cannot be a profession.
Let me explain what I mean. In ANY job for which you receive financial compensation, you must prove competency in order to first get hired, and then to remain employed. If you are bad at the job, if you do not meet the requirements for its success, if you don’t have enough technical knowledge to complete its tasks, if you don’t have enough aptitude to learn on the job…etc, then you cannot reasonably expect to be hired, or remain employed, doing that job.
Further, even if, at this job, you were to work lots of overtime, and dedicate hours and hours to it, if you still were unable to meet the standard set by your employer, you would not have a job. Time and labor spent on creating a product that is not sellable do not earn you compensation.
When we demand that ALL artists, regardless of the quality of their work, be paid a living wage for it, what we are doing is NOT, as we may think, demanding that we be treated “fairly”– but instead, what we are asking is to be given special treatment that no other employees are given.
When we talk about art being “valid,” or about “being an artist”– that is an intrinsic value— a value that is measured by meaning, and not compensation. When we talk about something being “professional,” we are talking about extrinsic value— value assigned and measured by a system or individuals outside ourselves.
Further, and at least equally as importantly, calling an objectively inferior product “professional” dilutes the respect of audiences for the profession of art-making.
Let me let you in on a secret: AUDIENCES ARE SMARTER THAN YOU THINK THEY ARE. Audiences can tell when a product you’re selling them isn’t what’s been promised. When you try to convince them, either explicitly or implicitly, that your product is comparable to something they would see at a professional house, they will see you calling yourself a “professional” and putting out an unpolished, spotty product, and either roll their eyes, or lose a little bit of respect for other artists who call themselves professionals. It is a simple truth that full-time artists create more polished products than people who must spend the majority of their time at other jobs.
If you try to sell an objectively inferior product and demand a price for it by calling it “professional,” audiences have every right to refuse to pay, or take their money elsewhere. I believe in truth in advertising, and I also believe that people should pay to see art, and it is demonstrably true that people will just as easily pay money to come see art billed explicitly as “community theater” or “semi-professional” and have a great time, because they have different expectations.
We all know that the arts are drastically underfunded. You can, and should, openly talk to non-artists about the lack of funding available for more jobs. You should claim and hold up the mantle of your non-professional status to prove to them that there should be more ways for people to do this for a living.
And here’s where the good news comes in.
Just because you’re not being paid a wage to make your art doesn’t mean it can’t be good, moving, or important. If the system has not given your art extrinsic financial value, you are not a professional, but that doesn’t mean your art isn’t valid, or meaningful! In short, your reward for being an artist is a fulfilling, rich, and wonderful life, but if you want to be paid, you must create an extrinsically valuable product.
There is, of course, a way to make these things intersect. It is absolutely possible to make art which is at once of a high quality, moving, emotionally communicative, and also created with an audience who will pay for it in mind. It is also possible to grow into being a professional, by continuously striving to raise your standards of excellence, and THAT is the conversation that I want to see us having, especially in Chicago.
1. I would like to take a moment to clarify that “being a professional” and exhibiting professional-ISM are not the same. Some some professional singers have TERRIBLE professionalism, and there are many non-professional singers who demonstrate amazing professionalism. Some qualities of professional-ISM include:
- being, at a minimum, musically prepared enough for rehearsal to stage the number that has been called
- being cordial and agreeable in rehearsal; doing what the production team asks you to do
- not creating disruptions which damage your castmates’ ability to focus
- knowing the schedule and being on time
- taking personal responsibility for your level of preparedness and performance
- listening with grace to criticism which is intended to improve your performance and doing your best to meet the requests
- having clear communication with artists and staff about every aspect of the production, including compensation
- having a clear schedule and sticking to it, barring any unforeseen crises
- having a plan in place for what to do in the event of crises
- knowing what everyone’s job (including yours, the producer) is and not demanding that people to perform tasks outside their job description
- having a clear hierarchy in place for who is in charge
2. Let it not seem as though I am putting all the burden on individual singers to hold up the mantle of being a professional– it is incumbent on COMPANIES, should they desire to call themselves professional, that they both adhere to professional standards, and pay their artists a wage.
In conclusion…. DISCUSS! GO!