Olympic Fleece
17 Jul 2012
Inside the Classics

Um, no. Not that kind of fleece.

So, can we talk about this Olympics thing? I know everyone’s been piling on the organizers of this summer’s London games for everything from crowd control issues to ticket lottery debacles to God only knows what else, and I hate to add to the din, but this whole mini-scandal over asking hundreds of professional musicians to show up and perform for free just makes my blood boil.

It’s not that I’m remotely against musicians donating their services in a good cause, you understand. I play benefit concerts all the time – I’ve played at least three this year, with several more scheduled for the fall – and I give of my time and talent to play for and visit with kids every chance I get. So do most other professional musicians I know, regardless of whether they play in a string quartet, a symphony orchestra, or a garage band.

But this isn’t that. This is a ridiculously well-funded, multi-national organization that’s overseeing the expenditure of some $14.5 billion on this summer’s Games alone. They erect multiple stadiums – the kind of massive infrastructure project that requires your average city to spend ten years hemming and hawing over financing before even breaking ground – in a brand new location every two years. Millions of dollars are hurled at the arguably corrupt International Olympic Committee just to convince them to place cities under consideration for future Games.

On top of the more obvious luxuriant expenditures that drip from the Olympic piggy bank, the organizers employ countless thousands of people to do all manner of Games-adjacent work. Are the fry cooks working at the brand new World’s Largest McDonald’s in London’s Olympic Village told that they should come and sling burgers for free because the event offers such “great exposure”?

Ivan Hewitt of London’s Telegraph really summed up the disconnect nicely last week, writing that the Olympic organizers are “not alone in thinking of musicians as different from other professionals. We all do. We all know that musicians love what they do, and if they weren’t paid, they’d go on playing anyway.

“Added to which is a lingering prejudice that what musicians do isn’t really work because they so obviously enjoy themselves. A musician acquaintance of mine was once asked about her job at a party. ‘I play the cello in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,’ she said. ‘Yes, but what do you do for a living?’ came the reply.”

Yup. There’s not a musician alive who hasn’t gotten that question, and pretty frequently, too. (Here in Minnesota, I must say, it’s usually phrased far more politely than the above, usually something along the lines of “So, is that a full-time thing, or part-time, or what?”) I never mind answering it, because why should someone outside the music biz know who’s counting on the gig for their weekly paycheck and who’s just having a bit of fun on the side?

But like I said, this isn’t that. When an organization as flush with cash as the Olympics, whose organizers know exactly how the music world works, start summarily expecting musicians to play for “exposure” rather than cash, that’s taking disrespect to a level that approaches actual fiscal malfeasance. But I suppose I shouldn’t expect any better from an organization that’s bringing in the London Symphony Orchestra to pretend to play at the opening ceremonies. I’m sure that will be one stirring fake performance.

<January 2020>

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