Musicians tend to be open optimistic people. We tend to look at the world and other people with a trusting point of view. We also are generally very sharing people. Music itself is a sharing of talent to create and use sounds to move others. Such is the nature of most musicians. Sadly, because of this, we are often our own worst enemies.
Choosing music as a career, whether it is full time or part time, has never been one of life’s most lucrative endeavors. Very few musicians can actually make a decent living by playing music alone and even fewer become wealthy as a result of choosing music as a career. Most of us have to work a full time “day gig” and play music when and where we can, usually on weekends. We do it simply because we love doing it. We love sharing our talents with others. We love performing. Most of us aren’t in it for the money and most of us are realistic enough to know that “making the big time” will remain an impossible dream that happens to someone else…not us. For most of us life will be an endless parade of one nighters and and weekend gigs here and there. And really? That’s ok. We’re doing what we love and as long as we are paid reasonably and treated fairly that is enough.
Unfortunately, probably because of our sharing nature, some musicians forget basic common sense. As I mentioned earlier very few of us expect to become wealthy as musicians. We do it because we love it but……there is, even on a small local level, a reasonable amount of money you should ask for when performing and a reasonable and fair way you should expect to be treated by those who would seek to hire you as a performer.
For example, lets use a venue that is, for the purposes of my post, 50 miles away in a popular tourist town. Our example venue is a small establishment that features live music as one of the selling points they tout to draw in the large population of tourists that visit the town every weekend.
Since this venue is 50 miles away we are looking at a round trip of 100 miles for each vehicle that is used by a band to get to and from this venue. Most bands have some sort of equipment Van to carry all of the needed gear to play a gig. Vans are not noted for their amazing gas mileage. We are immediately looking at an gas expense somewhere in the range of $25.00 to more depending on the Van used. If the band has multiple members there is likely to be at least one more car involved, maybe even more. For the purposes of our discussion lets say that collectively the bands immediate transportation costs are going to be $75.00 give or take.
Ok, so we’re at $75.00 and we haven’t even begun to play.
Lets assume this job has the band starting at 8 p.m. in the evening. Since the job is 50 miles each way we are going to have to plan at least a hour each direction. Now our bands costs are at 2 hours plus $75.00.
Most live gigs run around 4 hours of playing time. For instance in this case the band starts at 8 p.m. and finishes at 12 midnight. Now we’re at 6 hours total used time plus a fuel cost of $75.00.
Once we arrive at the job the band will have to unload all the gear from the Van, set it up and and test the sound system. That can take generally about an hour if we’re working at a steady reasonable pace. Now our example job is up to 1 hour for set up, 2 hours for driving both ways, 4 hours for actual playing and $75.00 in fuel costs. Time so far….7 hours.
All of that music gear doesn’t magically tear itself down so at the end of the nights job the band is looking at another period of time to break down all of the equipment and get it loaded into the vehicles. Probably another hour, maybe less if they feel like rushing after the previous 6 hours of effort. Total time so far….8 hours plus $75.00 in fuel costs.
So up to this point the band is looking at 8 hours total time with an up front fuel cost of $75.00.
Now the following scenario is likely to also happen, but not every band would choose to do this.
Since the job starts at 8 p.m., based on the above example the band members would have to leave for the job by at least 6 p.m. to be able to arrive in time to setup. That is 1 hour of driving time and 1 hour to set up. But……musicians are only human too. After driving that far and working hard to unload all of that music equipment and get it set up most musicians are going to need to take a small break and maybe even…..eat something. So for the purpose of discussion lets assume that relaxing and having dinner takes about an hour. Now we’re leaving at 5 p.m., getting home at 2 a.m. and up to a total of at least 9 hours of time involved plus the $75.00 in fuel costs.
Assuming there are 4 members in the band and all 4 take a break and eat dinner we should now consider what additional cost that may have. A decent meal in most tourist towns is likely to cost in the range of $10.00. I’m sure it could vary one direction or the other, higher or lower, but lets just say $10.00 to keep the math simple. Now we’re up to 9 hours total time involved plus $75.00 in fuel and $40.00 in meal cost.
So to this point we have only been looking at the actual amount of time and money spent on the job itself. I will only mention but not factor in the incredible number of hours spent rehearsing and the costs of all the equipment needed for the job plus vehicles themselves. Those are there too but lets just focus on the basics.
So at this point we’re at what I consider a fairly conservative estimate of 9 hours of time and $115.00 in basic expenses.
Ok, so what is the band worth? Lets assume this job is just the one night performance and that the band consists of 4 members, which is pretty typical. For our discussion purposes lets use $400.00 as the amount the band is supposed to be paid. How does the math work out using this scenario?
Well first we’ll have to subtract the expenses so $400.00 minus $115.00 in basic expenses = $285.00
Next we have to split that $285.00 between four members. $285.00 divided by 4 = $71.25 per band member.
But wait……we also have to factor in the time spent to actually do this job. That is not just the 4 hours playing but the actual 9 hours consumed out of each members life to accomplish this job. So $71.25 divided by 9 = $7.92 per hour. In other words, after all that each member actually made LESS than minimum wage in the US. In my state minimum wage will be $9.19 in 2013.
Ok, earlier I said most musicians are not in this to become wealthy. The above example is probably pretty close to the actual situations most bands commonly deal with and even though $400.00 may seem a bit low in some areas, in my area its considered a reasonable starting point.
Now….lets throw another wrinkle into the scenario. Lets say the venue expects to pay the band by….wait for it…..passing the hat for tips! Rather than guaranteeing the band a fixed amount the venue actually wants to pay the band by collecting tips from the audience. Let the insanity of that sink in for a moment……..
Years ago I got to know the owner of a very popular club in my area. The club featured live music and was generally packed several nights a week. During one chat he mentioned he had found a buyer for the club. I was surprised to hear this and given how successful the club was I asked him why he was selling? He said, the best time to sell a club or restaurant like this was at its peak, when you could show high numbers to the prospective buyer and walk away with a good profit based on those numbers. In his case he planned on moving on to another location and using some of the profit to restart the same process again and eventually sell out again. While we musicians realistically never expect to become wealthy, the owners of the establishments we are likely to play in are generally in it for the money. Unlike us, they are likely to make some pretty substantial dollars amounts when they do eventually sell it, especially if their establishment was successful.
Now here is the really important thing I want my musical brothers and sisters to understand….and really the purpose of this long post. YOU are a big part of that club owners features. Whether you realize it or not you are a part of what makes that establishment desirable to patrons and YOU will be a part of what is mentioned as a selling point to that eventual buyer of that establishment when the current owner does decide to move on and make the big bucks he is unwilling to give you a part of.
Like most musicians, most of us are not wealthy. We often cannot afford a brand new car. Many of us do not own our own homes. Often we are struggling by having to work a day job to take care of our family responsibilities and working extra hours to even be able to perform at all. In the meantime that club owner likely DOES own a brand new car and likely does own their own home and likely can afford medical coverage while you may not.
Is it even close to reasonable of our example club owner to ask you to go through all of the above……by passing the hat for tips? (Are you farking shitting me?????????)
Most musicians these days are not a member of a Musicians Union. There is no one protecting us but ourselves. Remember that the next time someone offers you an opportunity to perform for substandard pay…..or worse…..nothing. As I mentioned earlier, we musicians tend to be open sharing individuals. Don’t let that desire to share your talents with others overwhelm your basic common sense. Do the math before accepting a gig. Remember, its not JUST you that is affected when you accept a job that doesn’t at least come up to a reasonable pay standard. Any time you accept a job with substandard pay and conditions you in turn cause the next musician to have to deal with the same conditions.
Use the power of No. Do your fellow musicians and yourselves a favor and simply say….NO!