The Hustle of a Cellist in New York

Peter Sachon is a professional cellist in New York City (he is also my cousin). We spoke recently about his money and his work.

Have you been working this week?
Last week I was on tour with a rock band, and this week I’m playing rehearsals with a new show.

The last time we talked, you were feeling pretty down about your prospects. Are you still bummed?
I’m feeling bummed that there’s not more work, but I’m doing the things that I can do — subbing and networking. I can only go forward, it’s the only choice. Thinking any other way is only hurting me, it’s not helping me at all. It’s not that I’m not aware of the situation, I’m taking all the steps I can do to to address it. And if all I do is worry, what’s the point?

Do you keep an emergency fund for when work is light?
I have a little bit of money left from when my mom died, but it’s not much, and the way it’s set up, I can’t touch that until I retire. It’s an annuity, and if you pull it out before retirement, it triggers all sorts of fees. They take a percentage out that’s so high — I think it’s 40% or something insane — because they don’t want you doing this. I don’t have an emergency fund — it’s something I wish that I could change. It’s something I’ve been trying to do since college. I try to keep $10,000 in my account, I guess that’s my version of an emergency fund.

I know we’re in different places in our lives, but that’s so much money.
But it’s not. It is really not. My adjusted gross income in 2011 was $60,000. Our grandparents talked about $60,000 a year like it was something, and it’s not, now it’s $100,000. Technically, I shouldn’t be able to live in Brooklyn Heights on what I make. I see it coming on all sides — the rent, the taxes, my healthcare costs, and just living my life here, that’s the minimum I can make. And our friends who went to law school are making $300 an hour, not to mention our friends who are bankers, they’re all making six figures. I feel like I’m in in the ocean and I have just enough strength to get my mouth above the water. That’s how secure I feel.

Can we talk a bit about how you find jobs? I assume it’s not from an ad.
Right. There will never be an ad. It’s all networking. People form these networks in college at conservatories and in the freelance scene of New York. There’s a political back and forth. You’re only as good as the last gig you did. It didn’t exist like this when any of us started doing this. There was always this politics and there was always the drama, but it’s particularly squeezed nowadays.

Is there are retirement age in music?
No. But again, the old guys, if they’re still in it when they’re old, not all of them but some of them have a lot of connections, they know everybody, everybody owes them a favor somehow, so many of them are actually set.

Do you have retirement savings?
I do have that money from my mother, but that’s it.

Do you get health insurance?
You can buy into a slightly okay plan if you’re a union member, which I am. Joining a musicians union is simply a matter of writing a check. But the union doesn’t mean anything to you unless you work; the perks of being in the union aren’t there unless you work. If you work enough, you’ll have health insurance. But you’ll only have it you work x number of union gigs, and they take a percentage of your paycheck out, and if those numbers add up to whatever the minimum is, then you have health insurance. As a member of a Broadway show, that’s very easy to achieve. But as a freelancer now, I have no health insurance.

Are there shows opening consistently or is there a small window for work?
People looking for shows will be as aware as possible of what shows are opening. You have to constantly be aware and thinking, “Do I know any of these people? Is there a way to find out? Is there a cello on the show?” Everyone is calling in every favor, trying to get a gig.

When was the first time you were paid to play cello?
I won a competition in high school, and I got paid $35. I certainly didn’t always know I was going to be a cellist. I’d thought about it, but I also thought I would be a cook, that I would be a marine biologist. When I got to the end of high school, I thought, well, I play the cello well, let’s see where that gets me. So I auditioned at schools in New York and Boston, and I got into one school, The Mannes College of Music. So I came to New York to see if I could hack it. I was nowhere near the best cellist, in fact I was near the bottom, and I had to work my ass off. In New York and other places, kids start at four years old, and then by the time they get to college, they’ve been playing chamber music with their friends for ten years! I made all-state orchestra, that was the extent of my accomplishment at the time. But I worked really, really hard. And I feel like I deserved to work because I worked really fucking hard, and I still do. I’m still learning new instruments and new computer programs and new notations, whatever comes up that I have to teach myself to do, I do.

Did you take out student loans to go?
I did. I have about $9,000 left to pay. I’ve been paying it off since college, like twelve years or something. I don’t even notice it. They take it out of my account each bill, it just disappears! This is why I’m always looking for more money, things just disappear.

How often do you have to replace or repair your instruments? What are the costs associated with that?
My dad bought me my classical cello, my acoustic cello years ago. There’s upkeep and repair on that, and every time you bring it to the shop, it’s $500. I bought the carbon fiber cello because I didn’t want to bring the classic cello into a lot of the situations where I end up playing gigs — playing on an ice rink, playing on a lake, playing with fog machines, playing with fake snow, playing with props and pieces of the set being banged around. And then a few years ago I was trying to get a double on Broadway, where you play more than one instrument, and you get paid 50% more of your original salary. So I found someone who made electric violins, and we designed a six string electric cello, and he built it and I bought it, for something like $5,000. But then of course there’s the amp and the pedal board, so all in, it’s an $8,000 cello. So I played it for a bit, and then after playing it, I knew that I didn’t want a six string, I wanted a five string, so I bought another one, and then I didn’t want this pedal, I wanted that one, so that’s more.

And then you have to buy computer programs. I had to buy Logic for $1,000, and I had to get a tutorial and you sit here with a book and the program opens and you learn how to use the program. I spent two months learning how to use the program, because everyone uses the program. because there’s this whole group of people who grew up with this who thinks sound manipulation just happens, and it doesn’t. People like me have had to learn every step from analog till now. I’m constantly catching up and it’s exhausting. And it’s expensive.

Can we talk a little about the industry — how it works, what has changed?
You have to understand, I didn’t get into this thinking that I want to do something really specialized and really difficult that there’s no market for. My entire history of what it is that I do, comes from people, ever since I can remember, expressing to me that the fine arts and classical music in particular were well-regarded, well-respected, well-paid jobs. It didn’t seem like a ridiculous thing. There are conservatories all over the country, all over the world, symphonies in all mid-market cities, the recording scene in New York, doing soundtracks and jingles, and then of course Broadway.

There were people who just did jingles. They went from jingle house to jingle house, this is what the studios were called, and they’d get back-end on that, too. They would get a penny or five cents every time the jingle played. But now the recording companies go anywhere in the world where people are willing to work for less and sign away rights for less.

It used to be, if you worked on the soundtrack for film, you’d get backend, which is a tiny percent of sales. A friend of mine who lives in LA used to play on soundtracks, and I was there one summer when he got his residual check, and he said, “Oh, it’s low this year. It’s only $425,000.” And this was .00001 of one percent, or whatever it was. And I’m not saying that musicians in the world should be getting that kind of money, but for the people that are at the top, the people at the level I’m currently at, there used to opportunities for this.

Now the way these things are done are completely different. Before, it’d be like, “Okay, we are trying to achieve something here, with this music. Let’s try to achieve the sound of the shark swimming through the water.” And so they’d pay what it took to get the sound of that. Now, they call up a composer and they say, “We’ll give you $50k, and that’s all-inclusive.” That means he has to write the score, record it, hire the musicians, sync in with the movie, and whatever is left, that is his fee. So instead of hiring studio musicians, he tries to do it as cheaply as possible, because if the studio only cares about profits, the composer will only care about profits. Every once in awhile there is a movie like The Artist, and all the sudden movies have something to say again, but other than that, Hollywood has just become this sea of white noise and badness. Essentially, the system is set up to do everything as cheaply as possible. Even if a composer wanted to do it right, he couldn’t do it on the budget given.

Not to mention that we used to make albums that people would buy. Even then the label would take 75%, but it was still enough to make a living. But we don’t have that now because now corporations have decided to focus exclusively on profit. At this point though it’s a moot point. It’s happened. The fight isn’t still happening. We’ve lost. We’ve now lost the impetus to record for money. We may record for different reasons, but it’s not so we can support ourselves with our art.

At what point did you realize the industry you’d been promised, or the one you expected, didn’t exist anymore?
There was never a moment when I said to myself, AHA! After all, so much of the business depends on others’ perception of my talent. It’s easy to believe that jobs aren’t coming because there are more talented people taking the gigs … but, I can tell you that after the third time I took the New York Philharmonic audition, and for the third time they didn’t hire anyone at all, I began to see the industry differently.

One of the reasons I’m freaking out and worried about how much money I have in the bank constantly, is that I’m being constantly reminded that my industry is in decline. In the newspaper, at work. Right at this moment the Olympics in London have adopted a policy that all the musicians involved with the Olympics will not be paid, they will be paid in the “exposure” for the privilege of playing at the Olympics. It’s crazy. And that’s what they do. That’s the corporate mentality. Or at least, the American corporate mentality.

I’m always scraping, but now it’s much more difficult than it’s ever been. And that’s not going to change.

Has the downturn in the economy affected you as well?
The economy affects us quite a bit. My business is playing on Broadway, and if people don’t have money, then they aren’t going to shows. So shows close, or don’t even open in the first place, and then there are fewer gigs. Another thing that is happening more and more is that shows are choosing to have recorded music or cut down music. This year, Paul Taylor dance company had their season at Lincoln Center, but for the first time ever, they did it with taped music. They said they couldn’t raise the the money, which may or may not have been true, but it’s the perfect example of them saying that they don’t need live music. At some point, it’s going to occur to someone that the recording they have was recorded by live musicians, and in order for us to be able to do that we have to have an industry in order to make a living.

I remember you telling me that you were starting to realize that you weren’t a classical musician anymore. That your career was these gigs.
It started with the Hollywood Bowl in LA. I never thought I would be playing there, or doing what I then thought of as Pops music. I toured with Pink Martini after that, also a surprise. Death metal with Dee Snider. All the time, I thought of myself as a classical musician who is just paying the bills till my classical career started. There’s no moment of clarity, you just look back one day and see your life through clearer lenses.

Do you have hope for the future of your industry?
I really don’t know. I think the level of consciousness in our country is alarmingly low, and I think people are generally good and they mean well in their way, but I think that we as a society think really small and short term and in a shallow way. It’s part of the political culture, it’s part of the popular culture, and there’s a place for that, but it’s taken over the entirety of our country. And acting differently from that is not rewarded, these days.

That’s dark, dude.
It’s not that bad. I can’t think about it this deeply, most of the time, because I can’t control any of this. I can react and try to plan my way forward as much as I can, and that’s what I do.

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