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Berklee refused to raise musicians' pay for years. So this worker quit

Berklee College of Music. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Berklee College of Music. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boston’s Berklee College of Music consistently ranks among the world’s top-tier music conservatories. But a former contractor says the school refuses to pay musicians top-tier rates.

Adam Gautille quit his regular gig contracting freelance musicians for recording sessions at Berklee when the school refused to raise its hourly rate, he said. “How can an organization charge top dollar for training, but the second you are out will under pay you?” Gautille wrote in a Facebook post earlier this week. He shared a similar message on Twitter.

Gautille, a trumpet player from Jamaica Plain, began organizing recording sessions for Berklee’s Contemporary Writing and Production Department in 2014. His job was to hire orchestral musicians to perform demos of original compositions by the students, for use in the students’ professional portfolios. Gautille said that when he started, Berklee paid these session musicians $20 an hour. He convinced the school to bump the rate to $30 an hour, and pitched a plan to raise it gradually over five years to $36 an hour, which would put it more in line with typical union rates for similar gigs.

“I had this maybe misplaced hope that Berklee was going to follow through and, you know, pay musicians properly, because in 2014, I had the evidence that they were [willing] to raise the rate for musicians,” Gautille said in an interview.

Instead, in a meeting in January with members of Berklee’s Contemporary Writing and Production Department, he was told there was no budget to increase the rate, Gautille said. So he quit.

“What Berklee is doing is kind of existential for all musicians,” Gautille said. “We’re not being paid appropriately by a college that’s trying to train the next generation of musicians. And it’s like, if they’re trying to train the next generation and they’re not going to pay them once they’re out — I mean, it’s unconscionable.”

Berklee declined to make its president, Erica Muhl, available for comment, instead providing a written statement.

“Students enrolled in Berklee’s Contemporary Writing and Production (CWP) major are provided, as part of their educational experience, the opportunity to have their work recorded by an orchestra in order to create original demos,” the statement read, in part. “Professional musicians engaged for these sessions are compensated for their work. The current wage rate is periodically reviewed, and an adjustment is currently under consideration.”

Session rates set by the American Federation of Musicians average about $42 an hour or more, depending on the instrument, time of day and length of the session, said Patrick Hollenbeck, president of the union’s Boston chapter.

“Obviously, it goes without saying it’s inadequate,” Hollenbeck said of Berklee’s $30-an-hour rate. “We live in an area where the expenses are high. And most of these younger musicians have mountains of student debt, instrument loans, all sorts of issues. So it’s just not good enough.”

Berklee’s faculty union president did not respond to a request for comment.

Gautille also took issue with the fact that Berklee outsourced demo recording sessions to an orchestra in Budapest during the pandemic. He estimated session musicians lost five semesters worth of gigs as a result. “Boston has some of the best musicians in the country,” Gautille said. “And I find out that instead of supporting their local musicians that are affected by the pandemic, they decided, ‘Well, we’re going to outsource to Hungary.’”

In its statement, Berklee said the recording sessions were temporarily outsourced to Budapest during the 2020-2021 academic year because “the on campus safety protocol did not allow large groups of non-Berklee musicians to gather for these sessions.”

Complaints of substandard pay extend beyond session musicians, and the Contemporary Writing and Production Department at Berklee. A staffer at Boston Conservatory, which merged with Berklee in 2016, said that the rates for vocal accompanists — pianists who accompany singers — had gone up only 30 cents in the past 19 years, to $21.30 an hour.

“The fact that the pay is so low means that the accompanists [sic] work doesn’t have almost any value,” said the staffer, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of harming their working relationship with Boston Conservatory. “Which is not true, if you talk to any [singer] who is studying there. A pianist can make or break the performance, audition, lesson, you name it. I am being asked constantly to play for voice lessons, because I have so much experience and I know so much [repertoire]. But I always say no, unless I get paid double.”

Two days after Gautille posted about Berklee’s session rates on Facebook, Boston Conservatory announced in an email to staff that it had standardized the rates for all accompanists to $35 an hour, and changed the title of “accompanist” to “collaborative pianist.”

Gautille said that he had enjoyed his job at Berklee, which allowed him to help young composers bring their scores to life for the first time. But, he said, the $30-an-hour rate sometimes made it hard to book quality musicians. Berklee paid him a flat rate to organize the recording sessions, Gautille said, and he sometimes donated part of his own fee to increase the pay of the musicians he hired.

The problem only intensified during the pandemic, which precipitated months of lost gigs for musicians and decimated Massachusetts’ creative economy. A 2021 survey by the Massachusetts Cultural Council tallied more than $30 million in lost personal income from individual creative professionals.

Adding to the crisis is Boston’s rising cost of living, which continues to drive artists from the city. And then there is the ballooning price of a college education. Since 1980, college tuition in the U.S. has risen 1,200% — more than five times the rise of inflation. Berklee’s own tuition increased 30% in the past 10 years.

“They’re touting that they’re training the next generation of musicians, and they’re charging exorbitant fees to do it,” Gautille said. “And then they’re, at the same time, telling these musicians, while they’re being trained, ‘You need to advocate for yourself. You need to charge proper rates.’”

That might be the worst part, he said — that Berklee refused to pay its former students what it had taught them they were worth. “I just don’t know how you square that.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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