Sept. 19 2012 02:19 PM

Local musicians union up in arms against touring performer

Amanda Palmer
Photo by Shervin Lainez

The labor union representing musicians in San Diego County is not happy with Boston alt-punk songwriter Amanda Palmer.

Last month, Palmer put out a call on her blog for local string and horn players to play a couple of songs with her and her opening act at individual stops on their current tour. These would be musicians from whatever city she's playing that particular night, not touring musicians with whom she's traveling. In exchange, she wrote, the locals will be paid with beer, merch, high-fives, hugs and thank-yous, but no money. (Update: Several hours after this article came out, Palmer announced on her blog that she's decided to pay guest musicians.)

Palmer's request for free labor hasn't gone over well with many fans, musicians and musician unions. This week, Musicians Association of San Diego County, American Federation of Musicians, Local 325, entered the fray, urging its nearly 600 members to spread the word and organize protests. (Palmer will play with her band at House of Blues on Sept. 24.)

"Musicians should be paid for what they do. Just like any other profession, it has value to it," Local 325 President Andrea Altona tells CityBeat. "Unfortunately, many musicians—because they love what they do so much—don't often place enough value on what they do."

Not everyone is outraged. Several local musicians contacted via email say money isn't an issue if a show is particularly special, or if it's a rare chance to play with someone they admire.

"I might have signed up to play for the sole reason that I genuinely like to perform music," says Mike Hom, who plays tenor sax in jazz combo The Trunks. "I personally haven't heard [Palmer's] music, but to me, any opportunity to play with other musicians is an opportunity to grow as a musician in one aspect or another."

But some point out that Palmer recently raised more than $1 million in a Kickstarter campaign to fund her new album, Theatre is Evil. Palmer told The New York Times that she couldn't afford the estimated $35,000 for added tour musicians, but she wrote on her website that touring bassist and opener Jherek Bischoff has kicked down some of his merch profits for musicians.

To some, even a nominal fee helps. "While it wouldn't be remotely close to union scale, even $40 says, ‘Hey, you're a professional, so I'm going to pay you something, even if it's not as much as I should,'" says Kathryn Hatmaker, a violinist and co-founder of Art of Élan. (The local union rate for a 75-minute show plus two-hour rehearsal is $240.)

It's unclear if Palmer's found San Diego musicians to play at House of Blues; CityBeat sent an email to tour-mates who're coordinating recruitment, and it went unanswered. None of the musicians who spoke with CityBeat knew anybody who's participating.

With volunteers onstage, songwriter Joel P West wonders if the performance will be up to par.

"I guess my vibe on it is less ‘You're stealing from your fans and discounting the music economy' and more ‘Cool, we'll see how that goes for you,'" he says.

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.


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