Occupy Music School

November 20th, 2011

In the world of providing instrumental music lessons, there’s an unwritten code out there.

Let’s say you’re a musician turned businessperson and you want to start a private music school. You rent the premises, you do the advertising, you pay the bills, and you hire teachers to teach for you and you split the takings with them 50-50.

Fair enough. You have overheads and you also need to make a profit. Without you, the school wouldn’t exist, without the teachers, the school wouldn’t exist either. 50-50 is fair.

It’s amazing how universal this business model is. I’ve taught in music schools in Germany, Malaysia, and New Zealand and 50-50 seems to be the magic number. But there’re exceptions. I’ve even been paid up to 70 percent and I know there’s a music school here that actually pays 75 percent to their teachers.

Now, suppose a businessperson comes along and he decides to change this model to 75-25, in his favor. (Without naming names, I know of at least one establishment that’s doing this.)

Let’s say he’s surveyed the market and he’s discovered that there’re a lot of hungry music students who would take the job even at 25 percent. Especially since some of them are working minimum wage jobs at the local McDonalds.

In his mind, teaching guitar is no different from flipping hamburgers and he reasons he’s doing these hungry music students a favor by offering them a job that pays more than minimum wage.

(For our discussion, let’s say that the going rate for lessons is $40 per hour lesson or $20 per half-hour lesson. 25 percent of $40 is $10, much better than the minimum wage of $7.25.)

Here we come to the basic question of fairness. Which is what the occupy movement is all about.

Fairness depends on who you ask.

If you were to ask the teachers, they would probably say it’s not fair, if you were to ask a businessperson, he would probably say it’s fair, he has a right to make a profit.

As a teacher, you can probably guess where I stand on this issue.

To me, it’s clear that teaching guitar is not the same as flipping hamburgers. It takes years of practice and training for someone to get to the point where he can sit down and teach someone to play guitar. (In some cases, four years of college with all the attached costs.) It takes less than ten minutes to teach a person to flip a hamburger.

You decide if it’s fair to equate teaching guitar with flipping hamburgers.

I agree that the profit motive is important. Businesses exist to make a profit. But how much profit is reasonable profit and how much is greed?

If the only motive in businesses is to make a profit, I would say, why not go all the way? Why stop at 25 percent? Why not zero percent? They did that years ago. It’s called slavery.

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