The History of JAMS (so far),
by Keith Stratton,
co-founder of JAMS Music Education
Like many young musicians, I went into a university music program at age 18 knowing that I was entering a ‘difficult industry’. My passion for music and my desire to advance my skills was stronger than my doubts and reservations that I would have a hard time making a living. I developed an attitude that I should ‘say yes’ to just about any music-related employment that came my way, and that I should be grateful for any work I received. While this attitude led to many positive experiences and connections, my mentality as a young music professional has left me vulnerable to exploitation from employers. Even after many years of continuing education and professional experience, I only saw myself to blame for failures in obtaining a living wage, benefits, or appropriate recognition of my labour, as if it was my fault for choosing a ‘difficult industry’ or I wasn’t ‘saying yes enough’.
This experience is not just my own. Through my years as a music student and professional performer, composer and educator, I have worked with dozens of colleagues who have had similar struggles and taken on similar attitudes. I could tell that there were serious institutional problems at the heart of the industry but it felt beyond my control and means to do anything about it. What could be done? ‘That’s just the way it is’.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cracks in the system began to show more than ever. In July 2020, my friend and fellow musician Daniel Ramjattan posted to Facebook questioning the inequity of teachers who work for private music studios in Canada. Among his observations, he noted that:
“Teachers at music schools are often highly educated and highly qualified (with often a Master's Degree in music or more), but almost always work as independent contractors in music schools, which often take 33% to 50% of teacher's profits, while charging students and parents more. This means that music schools often charge students around $60 an hour, while paying the teacher $30 or less. Typical music schools leave teachers with zero benefits and zero responsibilities on behalf of the employer. This exploitative model is a lose-lose situation for both parents, students, and teachers.”
This Facebook post was a wake-up call to me as well as many other musical colleagues, and initiated a broader conversation about injustice and inequity among music professionals. Soon afterward, I started a Facebook group called “Music Professional Seeking Equity” and invited dozens of others who shared experiences and concerns.
And what are our experiences and concerns? What does equity mean to us? Don’t take it from me, take it from the entire board:
“I want to be able to discuss and make decisions as a group. I want to be supported as a musician as well as a teacher.”
“I want to avoid teaching things I am not qualified to teach (ex. Jazz vocals, advanced piano) just because we do not want to turn away students. I want to avoid huge amounts of money being taken off my pay.”
“I want transparency of the breakdown of costs for the school, so that teachers are not taken advantage of financially and otherwise. I want a fair system where all teachers are treated equally and are valued for their work and experience. I want to avoid dealing with administrators who see teaching as a side-gig for musicians. I want to avoid low-paying wages.”
“I want to work in a small way to overthrow capitalism by working within and creating business models that defy conventional imperialist methods of corporatization and expansionism. I want to avoid creating a situation where individuals are dehumanized by stealing their labour, and I want to create an environment where they feel truly and authentically engaged with their work.”
“I want to be valued. I want to be in the room where it happens. I want to create a new and equitable model for music education. I want to benefit the workers and not the capitalist overlords.”
“I would like to receive compensation for my work that's valued at what it's actually worth. As a part of a co-operative, I'd like to have a say in the decisions of an organization that facilitate change in the industry than I can on my own. The last thing I want to do is revert to industry standards of an unfair economy.”
“I would like to have better control over how a music school is run, and have more job security. I want to have a say in the school's decisions. I want to know where my pay cut goes. I want to avoid bosses who profit and keep the workers powerless. I want to work for a music school where the teachers can have a future.”
“I want to have a flexible schedule. I want to avoid being forced to teach students.”
“No CEO is an obvious one (yay more money to the actual workers!). On top of that, I look forward to feeling incentivized to collaborate with other teachers, whenever a student has a super specific question that another teacher may have amazing answers to.”
“I'd like to avoid competition between each other.”
“I would like to have a connection between the school and myself which I've never felt from the music schools where I worked for in the past. Since I was exploited by receiving nearly minimum wage, I want to avoid the same situation.”
By August, the group set up a Zoom call to discuss possible ways forward, and nine members agreed to begin their own new music school, a co-operative that would build on the foundation of seeking justice, equity, and a better way of doing things for teachers and students alike. We call it: The Just and Accessible Music School, or JAMS for short!
Within the nine founding members of JAMS, there lies a wealth of experience and knowledge of both the Canadian music scene and the pursuit of music in general! Naoko Tsujita, Máiri Demings, and Corey McBride were all colleagues of mine at Acadia University. Caitlin Berger and Aryo Nazaradeh I met while studying at McGill University. Gavin Tessier, Daniel Ramjattan and Zain Solinski are all more recent associates of mine since moving to Toronto. Together, we represent a range of backgrounds, experiences, and each member brings so much to the table. I am humbled to be working on a Board with musicians that I hold in such high esteem, and I am beyond excited to see what we can accomplish together.
JAMS represents a community response to institutional injustice and inequity. In launching our co-operative, we intend to provide an alternative to employers who do not fairly support the working lives of music professionals.
‘It’s a difficult industry’ - but it doesn’t have to be.
Keith Stratton, Toronto, Dec. 2020