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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On business and friends,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? 'Hi Alice,

I once played with you on a quartet date (you may not remember, as we were both about twenty-five at the time!!) Anyway, I am feeling very upset about a friend's treatment of me, and I would value your advice.

This friend, I'll call him Tim (not his real name) is an admirer of my violin playing, and he invited my string quartet to play for his twentieth wedding anniversary about ten years ago. My then partner was another violinist, and she generously agreed to play for really very little money for the event (I played for nothing) making it a very good deal for Tim. At any rate, life moves on and Tim is now about to turn fifty and several months ago he asked whether my quartet could play for his fiftieth birthday, and I agreed, though noting at the time that I had split up with the violinist I'd been with and it would be more expensive. He asked, 'How expensive?' and I said I could get him the trio (not the quartet) for two hundred and forty pounds.

As the date approached Tim called me up and said, as we're pros and so brilliant, that he'd like to showcase us at his birthday. I assumed that he meant that we'd perform something to be listened to, and made a few suggestions -- but no, Tim had it in his head that we'd love to play for twenty minutes or so as a concert. I tried to explain that this would normally require more money (a lot more money) but Tim couldn't believe that we'd rather be background artists than foreground artists. In the end, I decided, since Tim was my own disaster-zone -- sorry, friend!!!! -- that I should take the hit personally, and told the other two players that I'd get them a hundred pounds each on the day, and I'd put up with forty pounds and a warm handshake myself, knowing that even this was trespassing on two long and dear friendships (with X and Y, of the trio.)

Then I learn that what Tim had in mind is our playing background for three hours, then having a long break and then performing a short solo slot ...

I object, pointing out that we'd have to be on the premises for four hours and that this is now looking a truly ludicrous fee even for the others. So back comes Tim, with a 'bright idea' (or so he tells me). He suggests that the trio not bother with background at all, but play for forty five or fifty minutes as a recital, suggesting that we halve our fee, as we'd 'only have to be there less than an hour.'

This is all so outrageous that it takes my breath away. How can I get through to this prize prat that, although we are old friends, I do not intend my own friends to be taken for a complete ride? Or that a recital is rather different to background music? The trouble is, Alice, he thinks he's doing us a favour!

Please help!

Ask Alice

Alice Dear 'Joe',

You are right to seek professional help. Your father should have told you what mine told me: never do business with friends!!!!!!!!!!
(And, if you do, put everything on a professional basis, and in writing, immediately!!!!!!!)

As it is, you are the author of your own misfortune. Your friend may indeed love music, but understands nothing about how it works. He is probably confusing amateur musicians (who would probably kill for the chance to inflict their string trios on guests) and pros, who long for an easy life of background music (only interrupted by occasional concertos with local orchestras). Had you made all this clear at the outset, in short, you would have no worries. As it is, you are in deep trouble.

It is probably no good trying to convince your 'prize prat' that, deeply though you value his friendship, and willing though you might be to be taken advantage of yourself, that your colleagues still need to (a) pay mortgages (b) keep up with their bills and (c) fork out for their kids' music lessons. People who fondly imagine that musicians are only in it for the applause are frankly hopeless, and should be shot.

You could, just for the fun of it, suggest to Tim that he contact the Royal College of Music (or Guildhall etc) in order to see what the going price is for pupils to play string trio recitals (after all, everyone needs a good laugh once a year) or even that he inquire at the Musicians Union what a reasonably experienced group might expect to receive for same. After the good laugh, however, you wouldn't find yourself much forwarder, so my advice is to cut your losses now.

As long as you have made clear the exact situation to 'Tim' you need have no compunction in casting him out, where there is wailing and knashing of teeth.

People who treat musicians like dirt don't deserve to have them performing at their functions -- and you, personally, have already 'gone the extra mile' by arranging to hand over half your fee to your friends. They wouldn't expect their plumber to deliver a lecture on plumbing for a call-out fee, would they??

Yours furiously,

Copyright © 3 July 2009 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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