Theft of Ideas – You Get What You Pay For

Have you ever been in a storytelling mood? I am in one right now. This is a true story. Names have been omitted to protect all the parties involved.

In the summer of a year not too long ago, I received a phone call from one of my agents. He is creating a show for a company coming to Orlando in January of the following year. We have 6 months to prepare, but they need a proposal this week. He came up with the concept “Orchestrating the Future,” and as his primary string musician and orchestral contractor, he asked me to join him in creating the proposal. Between multiple emails, draft proposals, price list comparisons, and numerous conversations, we had the finalized proposal ready within that week. Everything was in writing. Given the fact that it has now actually been done and performed, here is what we decided for the proposal:

The client wanted a theme and a session opener with live entertainment. The agent created the title “Orchestrating the Future.” We both decided it needed a 28 piece symphony with a conductor, plus 3 attractive female violinists playing in front of the orchestra. We decided it would start with one soloist, then add the 2nd , then the 3rd, then the full orchestra would be revealed onstage joining them for an approximate 4-5 minute high impact song. I chose the song “Explosion” by Bond, and pitched the 3 violinists doing improvised solos that led into it with the full orchestra. This would lead to the introduction of the keynote speaker and then the orchestra would disappear until the end to close the session. We were still undecided about the closing song, but we thought a choir with an orchestra would be an excellent ending, kind of like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony finale (shorter, of course).

The orchestra would need to be a union orchestra (that’s how I do business), and I priced everything to include paid rehearsals and appropriate rest times/breaks and sound checks. I based it on an 8-hour day for the show day, too. It included pension and work dues payments for everyone. It even included full backline support and technical crew as an option, if desired.

The selected song would need to be arranged for full orchestra, and I even included an arrangement fee. All costs were included, even proper insurances for everyone involved. Of course, this price was getting pretty steep (even though it was bid at union scale), but it was what was necessary to do business properly. When discussing the client’s budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars for entertainment for this event, we did not think it would be an issue, as long as we kept it at a real price.

The agent put together a beautiful proposal, including photos, links to videos, etc. and submitted this to the client.

Months went by. In November, I followed up with the agent to check status. He replied “we lost the orchestra bid to a local orchestra, but we are still holding for the 3 solo violinists.” Okay, we lost the big business, but I’m still in the game. Cool.

I ask again in December; same reply.

Christmas Day in December with the event in two weeks, I received a phone call from a local contractor asking me to be in the orchestra for an event that happened to be the same dates as I was holding. He told me the pay, and I told him I don’t work for less than union scale – period. He balked, but then agreed. I did not mention anything about the proposal as I did not know it was the same event. I simply replied that I would need to check with the agent as I have a hold for that date. The next day, I spoke with the agent who told me “we just lost the gig. The client says they want to go in a different direction. I’m so sorry we had to go through all this.”

Now, for those of you in this world, you know when they say “the client wants to go in a different direction,” it actually means “THEY FOUND SOMEONE TO DO IT CHEAPER.” And that’s exactly what happened.

I phoned back the contractor who asked me about the gig, and I told him I was available and reconfirmed the rate. It wasn’t until a few days prior to the actual gig dates that I had the details that it WAS THE SAME GIG!!! I phoned the agent and told him what happened and asked if I should take the gig or not. We agreed I would take the gig (as long as I was paid union scale) and that there would be no bad blood. The agent knows that I like to be ethical, and when I found out it was the same gig, I didn’t want to create any issues if I took it. Needless to say, he appreciated my honesty, and insisted I take the gig, if I wanted. I thanked him, and I did take the gig.

A few days prior to the show, I received music in my email. The song? Bond’s “Explosion” arranged for orchestra with conductor. Okay – first idea stolen. Theft number 1 and 2 – exactly 28 piece orchestra with conductor and exact song. Now what? I get a call from the contractor asking if he can rent my music stands and lights. I say sure, so I arrive at the rehearsal 60 minutes early to help set them up.

Rehearsal day. As I arrive, I am greeted by the Producer of said event. He says he is very happy to meet me and work with me. I’m a bit puzzled, especially since I am only a section orchestra violinist. We chat for a while and I learn he is from St. Paul, MN. We start to discuss the lockout (at the time) of the orchestra musicians, and I give my opinion. He brings up a blog post he recently read about the death of the symphony, and says that the author said the exact same thing! “Did you read it on NPR, too?” I again look at him quizzically and said, “No, I wrote it. It’s on NPR?!?!” He immediately jumped up and said, “You’re the VINYLINIST?!?!” I said, yes. He then told me how much he loved my blog and that it was on NPR and rambled on and on about it. I was in shock. I had no idea. He then went on to say how much he really was looking forward to working with me that day. At this moment, there were 3 violinists in a corner warming up with a different song than the one given to the orchestra. The Producer said, “Wait. Aren’t you one of the violinists?” I said, “Yes, but I’m in the orchestra. Who are they?” He said, “But it was YOUR picture in the proposal and in all the materials for this event. Are you NOT the featured soloist?”

Theft number 3 and 4. Stole my idea of 3 female violinists starting before the orchestra, and using MY picture as promotion without my permission.

My surprise on my face clearly showed I was not the soloist. I kindly said, “No, I didn’t know they used my proposal and apparently copied it and shopped it to the lowest bidder. And by the way, this is not a union orchestra. I know, because I created the proposal as one and didn’t win the bid. I’m only here because the contractor asked me and I accepted before I knew it was the same show.” The Producer was visually shocked and unsettled. He kept shaking his head. “You mean this is not a union gig? I only work with union musicians.  I was assured this is a union orchestra.  I was lied to.”

“I am afraid so. Is there anything I can do to help?”

He signed loudly. “If this is what I have to work with, I need to go work with these ladies. Please excuse me.”

I smiled and nodded, and gracefully stepped away.

We proceed to rehearse on a rolling stage that is about a foot tall and sitting on a stage about 4 feet off the ground. The “rolling” part is done by a line of techs who literally push the stage (with all 28 musicians plus conductor and all instruments, chairs and stands) through a set of parted LED light doors, then pull it back through those doors when the song is finished. Push and pull a few tons of weight. Yeah, I’m shaking my head as I am in the back of the section where I can hear these poor guys grunt and moan each time.

We spent several hours rehearsing the same 5 minute song, and the 3 soloists still could not get their parts to line up with the video (even with in-ears!) The technicians kept trying to place microphones on the orchestra that would work well to balance the sound. The contractor kept asking the musicians to play the “style” of the music – didn’t we listen to the recording he sent? After several frustrating hours, we think it’s all set and ready for the next morning.

The next morning – show day. Theft number 5 – the screens displayed “Orchestrating the Future.” Although this was not theft from me, it was from my agent who came up with that phrase.

Our call time was before 6am sometime. I arrive early (as usual), and find that they painted the rolling stage all black to match the lower stage. They had removed EVERY music stand, chair and microphone. All of the parts were in a stack, regardless of any order. The contractor is frantic, and I immediately jump in to help. I sort the parts while he puts stands on stage. The tech crew is frantically trying to figure out where each mic was placed as they did not move or remove them; whomever painted the stage just took everything off and put it on a pile on the floor. We have fewer than 90 minutes to get everything back in place, sound checked, and final rehearsal before doors open. I remind the tech crew to please put reflective tape on the edges of the rolling stage so we don’t fall off. I remind them to put it on the stairs to the stage, too. They agreed, but I guess they got sidetracked. We finally get the music sorted and on stands, and the contractor makes an announcement to the complaining musicians about what happened and to please look for their parts within their section. We did not know whose part belonged to whom, but we did our best. After much mumbling from musicians about the fact it wasn’t “their stand” or “the right part,” we got it sorted out and were able to sound check again. Poor guys pushing and pulling the stage again. We did it at least ten times, before the call was made by the head tech (behind me on his headset to the producer) to “just use the G**d*** track! This isn’t working! The musicians can’t play it right and the soloists can’t get it in time.”

The orchestra breaks for a quick bite while they finish preparing for doors to open for guests. The 3 soloists are chatting about checking out of the hotel. Apparently they had rooms the night before so they wouldn’t be too tired to drive in early.

Theft number 6. I had asked for hotel rooms for key players and conductor, mainly for dressing and preparation, but it was negotiable. These soloists were ALL from out of town, brought in by the contractor. Of course, most of the orchestra was brought in from out of town, too, as the musicians were people he liked to work with in classical symphonic settings. No wonder the style wasn’t right – the players played everything classically, not like the recording in a rock style. I wonder where they all stayed?

Showtime. We take the stage, thinking that everything will be performed live. The conductor and drummer knew we were on a track and made sure to conduct accordingly. The rest of the orchestra? I don’t think anyone knew but me. The soloists may have known they were only “bow syncing,” but I doubt it. They really did play along, but I know it wasn’t them live at the actual showtime. The sound was different.

The orchestra is pushed out through the doors, play our parts, then are pulled back. Doors close and lights are out. We sit still. Nothing. The conductor tells us to get up and leave. The contractor then makes an announcement for a select group to stand by as they were needed for another song. What other song?!?! And for how long?!?!?! Apparently, there was a choir coming and they would play with them.

Theft number 7. Final number with choir and orchestra.

Everyone gets up to leave the stage. Still no reflective tape. Still no lights. CRASH BOOM OUCH! One of the musicians’ chair falls backwards over the rolling stage, she proceeds to continue falling off the four foot stage onto the floor. The contractor immediately whispers loudly to the whole orchestra: “I don’t have insurance!” WHAT?!?!

Okay. Now it’s really a sticky situation. Her contract was with the contractor. The contractor’s contract was with someone in the line of meeting planner/producer/client. And he didn’t have proof of insurance? He didn’t have the necessary items to bid on the gig in the first place? So who’s at fault? The production company for painting the stage and not taping edges? The tech crew that built the stage? The hotel since it was on their property? The client for having the event in the first place? The contractor for not insisting on (or realizing the need for) reflective tape on the edges? Oy vey!

Most of the surrounding people were more interested in seeing if she needed an ambulance or other medical help. In the end, she had a concussion, cracked ribs and a broken instrument worth over $30,000. I think to this day she still is trying to get her injuries covered and recoup the cost of repairing her instrument.

Back to the show. The remainder of the orchestra was either dismissed or asked to wait in the green room for the 2nd song. I am told I am dismissed, but I tell the contractor, “Thank you, but you are still using my stands and lights. I can’t go, yet.” He replies, “You can pick them up later from my house.” I say, “No, I’m not leaving them here. They are expensive, and I’m not driving 45 minutes to your house to get them.” He then says that he should have had me in the first stand since I have to stay anyway. I remind him that I will be paid for the whole time anyway, and he agrees. I offer to play, but he says no.

In the back hallway, one of the staying musicians is realizing that she will not be finished by the time she has to be at her class at school. She is frantically calling the principal and trying to get a sub. The contractor’s stated end time was not feasible with the schedule of the session. They had to wait until almost noon for the final song. The contractor is busy arguing with the Producer about overtime and that he did not plan for it. He thought the second song was close after the opening song. I honestly don’t know how this part turned out, but I do know that I was paid the whole time in a check that was later mailed to me.

At the end of the day, I saw how one meeting planner shopped for an original idea from an agent and got the proposal, chopped it up and bid it out to the lowest bidder for each part, without realizing how tight it needed to be to be executed properly. Agents, producers and their teams of artists and crews work together to create concepts and price it accordingly for everything that needs to be done. It’s hours and hours of labor, research, and collaboration with all of the parties needed to put the pieces of the puzzle in one place and it to be a professional production.   The orchestra ended up being for “show,” the soloists bow synced, they wasted money on live musicians and a façade, and people were hurt in the process. Physically, the tech guys were injured from pushing and pulling the stage. The musician who fell is still suffering from her injuries years later. The agents and producers don’t want to work with this meeting planner ever again. And I became very protective of every idea, every proposal and every creative brainstorm. I don’t discuss ideas with many people without confidentiality agreements. Everything is in writing to prove it was my idea/concept/proposal. I copyright every proposal now. Whenever I get the answer “The Client has gone in a different direction,” you can assume I’m likely to research what was chosen and why. In the end, you get what you pay for.