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Let's talk about privileged access to a career in the arts

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

by Sarah Kim

It’s always about who you know. You see the same people at the same gigs.

It’s almost as if it’s not a freelance scene after all, but rather an unofficial company of select full-time employees (who aren’t necessarily guaranteed steady work, but get it anyway) who all have the same background. Rarely is it wildly fascinating to meet a new person at a gig – everyone went to the same expensive schools, the same expensive festivals, studied with the same expensive teachers, and, and, and…

The problem is not that there isn’t enough work. In fact, because it’s the same people doing all the work, everyone is overworked and burnt out.

“I hate to say it, but the pandemic shutdown made me realize how exhausted I was.”

And they don’t necessarily need to be in order to make ends meet; In fact, they’re probably better off working one fewer gig per week. “I realized that there was no good reason for me to have a full time professorship AND play 8 Broadway shows a week AND play gigs and recording sessions with multiple ensembles regularly.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. But because a contracting job is a job in itself, and we like getting jobs done as easily and quickly as possible, and we’re comfortable working with people we know, and we’re raised with the idea that we have to say yes to everything in order to continue working and that the career we signed up for is a “hustle,” we feed into this chaos without thinking. We let our work consume us rather than allow ourselves to be intentional about how much we’re working, who we’re working with, and whether it’s better to hire someone else for a gig instead.

…and in my experience, most everyone is a White cis male.

Everyone in that jazz orchestra. Maybe 95% of pit musicians I’ve played with. Nearly every single music director I’ve worked with on a production. Love them all dearly, but, they’re pretty much entirely White cis male.

The “diversity hire” became a trend post-shutdown, in terms of racial diversity. Yes, it’s sad, but that’s what it is known as by everyone in the industry because it is that obvious, tacky, isolated, and yes, tokenized. (I feel like there have been scattered attempts to improve gender diversity, but there was never really any traction with that… This woman is still waiting.)

There’s a lot of chatter surrounding this chair. The positives: we’re becoming more conscientious of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, so that it is more representative of existing talent in our industry – we are seeing members of marginalized communities working (some, at least…). The negatives: the diversity hire is not necessarily respected or welcomed by the “veterans” as fairly as new talent representative of the veteran demographic.

Worse, the diversity hire is only one chair – most likely representing just ONE of the many ethnic groups while everyone else is White. Sure, it’s a step in the right direction? But, in reality, it’s just checking a box and NOT increasing visibility because the concept shoves every other race that is NOT White, into one clump. Even worse, this hire is sometimes the only female/nonbinary/trans person in the workplace, too. The whole hiring thing and “box-checking” situation needs a major revamp if we want our workplace to truly be representative of the incredibly diverse talent pool we have.

And it’s not just about race and gender.

Equipment is expensive. I had peers in college (everywhere, not just locally) who played on instruments worth up to $1M USD. There were also some who had instruments only worth a couple thousand. Obviously one would (should) sound better, and have an easier time executing, on nicer equipment – and stand out above everyone else. It is also worth noting that if you have the money (whether it’s you or a sponsor), you can rent out all the famous halls for solo recitals as you please, and you’ll have the (appearance of) credits no matter how well that went. This is not equitability.

I know a musician who took a full scholarship at a no-name music school in order to be able to emigrate to the United States. I don’t know anyone in my network who has any connection to that school. This person was lucky enough to be able to enroll in a graduate program at a bigger name school, which is what allowed me to be connected with them. They are one of the greatest young musicians I have ever heard in my life.

What if they didn’t have anywhere to go after their initial, no-name program?

Because they wouldn’t have been part of the “club” due to lack of accessibility, they by no means would’ve had equal opportunity to build a strong career as easily as the plentiful mediocre-to-solid musicians who were raised with the privilege of being able to work towards, then attend, a “name brand” school that would then automatically place them in this “club”. Not a club member? Not noticed, not hired. This is not equitability – this is a worn and predictable, unfair and inequitable, pipeline.

If you’re not set up well by this pipeline, it’s harder to get work – meaning, you need to invest more into marketing, but likely don’t have the funds to do so. If you don’t have the funds, you also need to be hustling in order to make ends meet, so you don’t have the time you need to be putting into your career. Hmm… Tricky.

Example: Artists hire web designers/developers, social media managers, agents, personal accountants, you name it – to be able to market themselves as hirable and essentially operate independently as a small business, without any tools or training within their field to do so. Some are SO desperate for this kind of help, but cannot afford it, that they would go through a string of connections to ask ME, someone with zero experience, to do it all for them.

They didn’t even know what they were asking for, because they didn’t even know what they needed.

If they could afford to hire experienced professionals in these fields, I’m sure their career would take off in a heartbeat. But since they can’t, and don’t have the training/ability to do it themselves, how will they be marketable and convincing enough to be hired?

But the key here is: These problems are all problems because your career in this industry depends entirely on who you know.

People in our industry only know the same people of the same demographic(s) because those are the only people they are interacting with on a regular basis. It’s the same people who have accessibility to the experiences, resources, people, etc., “necessary” in order to establish a significant career as a freelance musician. That’s why it’s always the same people at the same gigs – they had no opportunity to meet anyone else.

In turn, those casting, hiring, and tastemaking only have access to this same, insular pool, and then make the excuse that they didn’t have “diverse candidates” applying. But we all know that most jobs in our industry are never publicly posted – you hear about them through your connections… within said pool.

But on Stagetime, anyone can connect with anyone. Anyone on Stagetime has equal opportunity for marketability without the steep cost of a designer, developer, and/or marketing/PR staff, and is able to showcase their portfolio in a clean, efficient, professional manner. For free.

You can connect with people you know. You can discover people you don’t know. You can connect with former peers/colleagues you may have missed from studies/work at a shared institution/company. But you also don’t have to run into someone at a gig, top tier music school, expensive summer festival, or through shared TikTok fame in order to meet them! And their skills speak for themselves.

There are so many great artists to celebrate.

There are so many great artists to learn from.

There are so many great artists to share and experience art with.

There are so many great artists from so many different backgrounds.

We, as individuals and therefore as an industry, are made better by learning, sharing, experiencing, and celebrating with all the amazing artists by whom we are blessed to be surrounded. So let’s surround ourselves – or, better yet, immerse ourselves – in this beautifully diverse community, rather than accepting that the same people will always be playing the same music at the same gigs with the same perspective we’ve all heard before.

And let Stagetime be a powerful place to start.

To join the conversation and connect with Sarah, sign up for Stagetime here. For help getting your profile started, connect with our team for a complimentary profile building session here.


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