When I started my self-sustaining approach to being a musician, I had deliberately sought a life where music and my own sense of freedom and integrity as a performer would not be compromised by my need to earn an income. The contract I had with myself was this: either find a way of growing an audience following based on my merits as a musician, or hang up the gloves and move on to another career. I carried an awareness of enjoying a very particular freedom as a musician, and I always felt a sense of privilege and impermanence in being part of the musical tradition. Bit by bit, the audiences at my concerts grew in numbers along with my own sense of amazement and relief that I could make a living from being a musician and that I could do it in a way that I found acceptable, challenging and very enjoyable.
But I lived with the mistaken belief that managing my own concert life successfully and having a growing audience base would give me immunity from the deceptions and random events that can make life difficult – or even diabolical. And living in a very finely balanced personal economy, as I was, left me much more vulnerable than I cared to admit.
Sometimes a small error of judgement can change the course of life. This error for me, came in accepting an opportunity that at the time looked very promising, but remembering the moment, I did have some misgivings I should have heeded about both the offer and the person who was making it.
In 1999, the parent of one of my students who came from a prominent and wealthy family of Melbourne doctors asked me if I might be interested in creating a recording of calming music that could be used to play in the waiting area where parents and children sat before undergoing painful lumbar puncture procedures. I had taught her son and daughter for some years, and had formed a close friendship with the family. They attended most of my concerts, and took a keen and helpful interest in the maverick way I went about being a musician. The mother of my student was a junior doctor at one of Melbourne’s larger hospitals, and had involved herself in promoting music therapy as a component of her work at the hospital.
At first I was reluctant to be involved. I did not believe I understood enough about the set requirements of music therapy; and I was aware this doctor, although well-meaning, had very little understanding about music or the way I as a professional musician viewed my role in relation to the art-form. However, over the next year or two, our conversation kept coming back to the subject, and I started to think it might be an interesting and worthwhile thing to do. At the time, I had an on-and-off cello duo going with Scottish cellist, Niall Brown, and I had been arranging the occasional well-known encore piece for the concerts we had been playing together. I started choosing Arioso styles over lively Paganini in my encore arrangements, and discussed with Niall that we might have a go at recording the growing repertoire of restful encores so they could be played for the benefit of stressed parents and their very sick children. Niall thought it a good idea, and with the best of intentions we made a recording of a good forty five minutes of restful cello music which was soon being played in the lumbar puncture waiting area of the hospital. It drew very grateful and appreciative feedback from patients and staff.
Had I left it at that, the recording would still be playing soothing music within the confines of the hospital. However, I had the idea that if the recording were made into a proper compact disc, it could become an outstanding fundraiser for the hospital. The idea was met with some enthusiasm from the doctor who had commissioned the recording. She suggested I put together a business plan setting out how this fundraiser might work and present it to the director of the hospital’s foundation.
Not long after, we were sitting in the hospital fundraising foundation’s office. The director of the foundation thought it a great idea, but said that the foundation could not put any money into getting the project up and running and did not have the staff resources to administer the marketing and management workload that would be involved in getting a project like this off the ground. He said that if I could find the resources to do this work myself in such a way that the project would not suffer from a false start, the foundation would be happy to oversee the fundraiser once it was a going concern. I explained to him that I had been through the process of creating and successfully marketing compact discs several times, and was confident to do the work. I also explained to him that as music was my livelihood, and the creative and marketing effort I would have to make to get the project to succeed could not be remunerated whilst the work was being done, I would be happy to be paid after the project was a success. This met with approval, and we decided that setting up a royalty system based on the number of discs manufactured for sale would be a fair way of remunerating me for my work without putting the foundation out of pocket.
We agreed that I should come back with a detailed and complete marketing plan, which the foundation’s director would either approve or reject. We agreed that if the project was approved, I would do the planning, supply the graphics, do the marketing legwork; and be remunerated by a royalty of ten percent of the sale value of the compact disc, which the hospital would pay to me as soon as funds from the project were sufficient for the royalty to be paid without any impact on the foundation’s finances. It was also agreed that I was to be given some control over the project in that production rights for the recording were to remain with me, but I was to accept that if the project was a failure, I would not be paid at all.
I had already committed my imagination to the idea, and I believed it would be an outstandingly successful fundraiser if I put enough time and effort into it. The doctor who had commissioned the disc was part of the Melbourne’s moneyed network, and it would be relatively easy to draw media attention if she used her influence to open doors. I had set out a plan that included selling the discs through postal outlets, on Virgin flights, from bookshop counter tops and along with an outline of how the project could go national by co-opting hospitals in other states of Australia.
I started creating graphics for the disc, point of sale material, press releases and I created a detailed plan for a national retail campaign. This was then presented to the hospital foundation and approved. After a month of banging on doors and meeting with various buyers and retail managers, the disc was produced, point of sale material printed, and distributed for sale from counter tops all over Victoria and not long after – nationally.
After the disc went on sale, I continued to put most of my of time and effort into building a brand image for the recording, and following through on all the marketing ideas and plans I had put forward to the hospital foundation. At first, the process of working with the foundation and the doctor who had commissioned the recording was energizing and fun. It was hard work, but really exciting. We were a team of two on a mission. I strategized the campaign and created the marketing material, and did a lot of the legwork; and my doctor colleague opened doors so we could meet the right people to get the disc talked about in the media and on counter tops the shops and post offices.
It took off like a rocket. Everyone was happy with the result. The first production run sold within weeks. I was paid my royalty and signed off a second production run, which also sold out very quickly.
I was proud of the project, and I felt very relieved and grateful for the royalty payments. They were a perfect stop-gap for the decline in income from my teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts and the University of Melbourne. There had been more cutting of funding for music tuition, and one-on-one teaching had taken a heavy toll. I was having serious trouble making ends meet for the first time in ten years. However, I lived with the belief that everything would be fine. More and more people were attending my concerts, and I had signed off thousands of discs for production for which, eventually, the royalties would be paid. I knew exactly how much I was owed, and it was more than enough to cover for the lost teaching. I started with one credit card to cover the shortfall while I was waiting, and as this one maxed out, I took another one. It was a time of easy credit, and in any case, I knew the royalty payment would cover it soon.
In the first six months, the hospital was more than happy to pay my royalty on time. However, as the project became more and more successful, the payments slowed down, and I had to remind and cajole to get the payments to come through at all. Along with this, I noticed that the doctor who had worked with me as a team in getting the project up and running had seen a career opportunity as a consequence of the project’s success. It was a bit alarming that she had no qualms in appropriating my creative ideas, marketing initiatives and hard work as her own. But I took the attitude that I had no long term plan or involvement with the hospital, and I was not looking for recognition through this project, so if she needed that as a boost, good luck to her. I did feel proud of the success my hard work had created, and the six figure amounts it was raising for the hospital were pretty amazing. I wanted it to continue to have as good a run as its product life cycle would allow. I had worked hard for that, and I waited patiently for the hospital to honor their promise and pay my royalties.
The first rude shock came when one of the staff at the hospital foundation told me tens of thousands of compact discs had been produced without my knowledge or approval. I was told the hospital was currently holding more than 14,000 units in stock that I had not been informed about.
Up to that point, I’d had complete trust that my production rights would be honored by the hospital. When I questioned my doctor colleague about this, the responses were vague and evasive, though she did tell me that the production rights and royalty arrangement would have to be re-negotiated, and she would meet with me about it when she returned from her summer holiday. This was just before the Christmas of 2003, and I told her that I did not have enough money to get through the summer and there were back payments owed for previous that I had been promised and was depending on receiving months ago. She said she would make sure the hospital paid me, but that this was not her responsibility and in future I would have to negotiate with the hospital myself.
She didn’t follow through. After that my phone calls to her went unanswered. When I called the hospital, they told me my doctor colleague would have to sign off on the royalty payment, and as she had gone on holiday, it would have to wait until the end of January.
I had no money at all and two credit cards that were up to their maximum. It was the week before Christmas, and January was not a month in which there was much teaching to be had – or any music related work of any kind, for that matter. In desperation, I went to another bank and was issues with yet another credit card.
When my doctor colleague returned from holidays, she called a meeting with me. She said she had decided to “pull the plug” on my recording, and she wanted to be selling discs only if she could control the production rights. She said she had been planning a series of recordings with other prominent Australian musicians, and would be putting her energy into that from this point forwards. I asked her about the royalties that were owed to me going back more than six months. I also wanted to know what was happening from now on with my disc, and I was desperate to have any information that could give me an indication when the financial nightmare I was in might be over. I could see that her new project was intended to replace the cello duo disc, and I begged her to hold off with it until at least until the sales of my disc had tailed off.
I think she sniffed vulnerability and went for the kill. She said she would no longer be involved with my recording, and I would have to negotiate with the hospital foundation for the payment of any owed royalties.
I had a chat with the hospital foundation. They gave me vague answers, and referred me back to my doctor colleague.
I was aware that if I mounted a legal battle with the hospital to be paid for the royalties they owed me, I would probably win. But it might be long and drawn out, and the only way of affording it, would be to sell my cello – which was the only item of value in my possession. It would also mean being tied to a dispute for a long period, which I do not regard as a good use of precious life-time, and my situation was too desperate to consider solutions that might come a year down the track – if at all.
The window faced envelopes from the banks stood in a pile on my table; my children needed me to provide for them; and for the first time in my life, I was terribly depressed and unhappy about my situation. I saw no way out except to sell my cello.
I wrote a letter to the hospital foundation informing them that I would be donating any owed royalties, and that they could dispose of the stock of discs as they pleased.
To my surprise, the cello sold quickly. I paid out my debts, and enrolled in a Master of Commerce degree. The grief and hollowness of that period was terrible, and I don’t know how I got through.
Some time later, the director of the hospital foundation invited me to lunch at his club and thanked me. He was relieved that I had solved his problem. Nevertheless, I never received an official thank you from the hospital for the hundreds of thousands of dollars my music and hard work raised for them. I believe they remain under the mistaken belief that the project was the brain child of my doctor colleague. It was not. She contributed no creative or commercial initiative in the project. She did make good contacts for it, but hers was a glory role that relied on the creativity and hard work of others. The music, the very idea for the project, and every strategy and idea that went into the commercialization and marketing of it had come from me. On top of that, I did most of the hard yards in getting the project going and driving it on to succeed.
My doctor colleague was promoted into a senior position at the hospital, and has built her power base within the hospital on the sale of a series of fundraising recordings.
I have changed my career, and set about rebuilding. 2004 was a terrible year, and I don’t know how I survived it.
I still love the cello. Its been eight years without it, and I can’t describe how relieved I am, that to some degree, I can still play.