Contemporary circus troupe Cirque du Soleil will stage five performances of its “Corteo” show at the Smoothie King Center this weekend. Thousands of tickets will be sold, grossing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last week, a Cirque du Soleil employee solicited the local Soul Brass Band to perform at a private event at the House of Blues on Friday, after Cirque’s opening night show at the Smoothie King Center.
In the offer, submitted through an online form on the band manager’s website, the Cirque rep requested Soul Brass Band play two sets, starting at 11 p.m.
But in lieu of payment, she proposed a “service exchange”: Two free Cirque du Soleil tickets for each musician.
That didn’t sit well with Oren Krinsky, Soul Brass Band’s manager.
“It’s an egregious example of exploitation,” said Krinsky, whose clients include several other New Orleans bands. “As a talent manager, I see so much of this, and it's disgusting.
“What really struck me is that Cirque du Soleil can absolutely afford to pay the musicians fairly.”
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Cirque du Soleil’s own roots are humble enough. The troupe was founded in 1984 by street performers in Montreal.
Supported early on by grants from the Canadian government, they developed an innovative, thoroughly modern circus. No animals were used. Instead, aerialists, acrobats, dancers and other performers in artful costumes create characters and convey a storyline set to live music.
Cirque du Soleil has grown into a hugely successful global brand, reportedly the largest producer of theatrical content in the world. According to the company, its 42 different productions have played to more than 180 million spectators in 60 different countries. The company employs more than 4,000 people from all over the world, including 1,300 performers.
All of them, presumably, are paid.
Krinsky responded to the “service exchange” offer to Soul Brass Band by pointing out that musicians can’t pay rent with Cirque du Soleil tickets. His email concluded with, “You should never ask bands to work for free, it’s offensive.”
He received no response.
Thirty minutes later, he sent a follow-up email that spoke to the source of his growing outrage: “Almost 1 billion dollars of revenue annually at your company, and you come to New Orleans and ask musicians to work for you free?”
Still no response.
“It wasn’t the most pleasant email, but neither was the offer pleasant,” Krinsky said. “I responded forcefully, but that’s how people should respond to these kinds of offers. If we're too nice, no one will know there's a real problem.”
The Soul Brass Band originated as a fictitious brass band for a music video. It quickly turned into a real one.
So he called the Cirque employee to “give her a chance to do the right thing” and make a reasonable offer, with a real payment, for the band’s services.
Instead, according to Krinsky, she informed him they had nothing to discuss, and hung up.
After the phone call, Krinsky, who previously posted about the exchange privately on Facebook, made the post public and encouraged musicians to share it.
“I felt like I needed to speak up,” he said. “This is a caricature of exploitation.”
I reached out to the Cirque du Soleil employee who made the initial offer. She didn’t respond. However, a Cirque du Soleil publicist did.
“The situation is an unfortunate misunderstanding,” Maxwell Batista wrote in an email. “The service was requested for an employee’s private event and not for an official Cirque du Soleil company event. We are sorry if the band manager was offended by the proposition. Therefore, we will not make any further comments.”
Whether the House of Blues gig is a “private event” is debatable. On the online form, the Cirque employee named the “buyer organization” as “Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas” and described the party as a “company event.”
Maybe the employee was tasked by her boss with putting together a party on a limited budget. Maybe she genuinely believed a group of New Orleans musicians would be happy to give up a lucrative Friday night in exchange for tickets to a Cirque du Soleil show and whatever networking opportunities may result.
And maybe some musicians would be. Some accept gigs for less — for free drinks, for tips, for “exposure.”
There’s not necessarily anything nefarious here. Someone makes an offer. Musicians are free to accept or decline.
And placing a dollar value on a performance is not an exact science. How much is a musician’s time worth? How much are the years of practice they spent to be able to play the music worth?
More than 8 million people have seen Cirque du Soleil’s "Corteo" since the show premiered in Montreal in 2005. None, however, have seen it lik…
As Krinsky sees it, music should at least be valued enough to be considered a mandatory cost. Cirque du Soleil pays plenty of costs during a tour — airfare, hotel rooms, venue rental, backstage catering, etc.
At the House of Blues on Friday, “there will be a whole bunch of people there doing their jobs and getting paid,” Krinsky said. “Why shouldn’t the musicians get paid? The notion that the music should just be free is weird.”
He sees a larger problem, one that many New Orleans musicians, especially brass band musicians, sometimes face.
“The music of New Orleans is sacred. When anyone who has money wants the music for free, it’s an insult to the culture. I think we should all be asking Cirque du Soleil and any other companies who do this, ‘Why are you attempting to extract this culture for free?’”
As it turned out, Soul Brass Band wasn’t available Friday night anyway. Several of its members, including founding drummer Derrick Freeman, also perform in the hip-hop tribute band the Low End Theory Players. They’re scheduled to perform a tribute to OutKast at Tipitina’s on Friday.
And they won’t be working for free.