The Live Music Climate: An Appeal to All Musicians

 

While the complaints of musicians in respect to what they are paid on gigs is not a new topic, I have recently heard more complaints from musician-friends than ever before. In some cases, these musicians perform at commercial venues (e.g., restaurants-bars, clubs, lounges) for little or no money. And these are excellent musicians, not second-rate players.

SHIRKING RESPONSIBILITY

The owner and/or managers are often the first to be damned by musicians for taking advantage of them and their fans who patronize the venues. Many of them want or, in some cases, expect the musician(s) to play for free or for a pittance. But as much as some musicians would like all of responsibility to fall on the shoulders of the owners, this is only part of the problem.

The majority of the responsibility for these expectations is on the musician-yes, that's right, the musician. After all, the musician(s) is the one who ultimately accepts these conditions by accepting and performing the gig.

Is there a long line of plumbers ready to offer their skills and services for nothing or a few dollars if a club owner's place has a plumbing problem? Hardly. Is there an endless line of lawyers willing to give free advice if the club owner seeks legal counsel? I think not.

Yet when it comes to providing live musical entertainment, the many owner know that there are plenty of musicians who will perform for free. Sometimes the venue will offer the musicians free drinks and food in lieu of monetary payment, but this amounts to very little when you consider the actual cost to the venue itself.

As incredible as it may sound to some people, there is an emerging trend among amateur musicians (i.e. play music on the side) who will pay the venue to perform there!

"Well, it's my right to play a free gig if I want!" No doubt. All I am asking if for you to understand the repercussions of doing so are not limited to only you; they affect all working musicians.

If your livelihood does not depend on music in any way, take a moment to imagine what your job would be like if you had a slew of amateurs offering to do it for free. How would you feel about it? Do you really think you would be able to easily find a company that offers reasonable wages for your line of work?

PERCEPTION IS REALITY

Sadly, the majority of Americans need to be told what quality music is; they don't recognize it even when they literally walk right by it as was the case with Joshua Bell. The famed violin virtuoso's experiment at a Washington D.C. subway station is evidence of this. (http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/bell.asp)

The monetary value live music has is one of an individual's perception. The fact that live music is intangible compounds the challenge of establishing a value.

Musicians I know prefer to be paid a reasonable amount when they perform for a commercial business. But if so many musicians are willing to give it away to a venue for nothing, how can the perception of the average venue owner change?

A person may pay $100 for a mediocre seat to attend a professional live sporting event. Do you know of any professional sporting events that are $5.00 for a decent seat? If they were, who in their right mind would offer twenty times that? The buyer perceives that the ticket is worth $100 not because it is a universal law; the $100 is paid for a ticket because that is what experiencing the event live is worth to the person.

FREE RESPECT?

Love it or hate it, we live in a society in which most people correlate a person's fee with their level of expertise. As superficial and presumptuous as it may be, most will respect skilled professionals more who charge a higher fee. The same goes for how many assess items in a store. (e.g. when comparing two televisions with identical screen sizes and features, most will assume the more expensive television is of superior quality.)

What does a musician say to an owner or manager of a venue when he or she is willing to play for little or no pay? Not sure? Here are some likely considerations:

The possibility that your group might consist of unskilled musicians who can barely hold a tune together; however, if that is the case, you won't be performing at that venue again any time soon. The venue may even fire you on the gig if your music is that noticeably lacking. On the other hand, if your band is good or great, then your performances essentially become a cash cow for the venue.

MUSICIANS: YOU CAN BRING ABOUT CHANGE

Musicians must first realize that they can bring about a change by not offering to play for free or food/tips. If musicians started to set a reasonable base fee that is not negotiable, the perception that these owners/managers have would change.

Yes, I know how fun and exciting it is to perform at a venue and have fans come out to support you. There are other routes to go. For example: play house parties or rent a space in a local community center and sell tickets. Just as long as you are not performing for a commercial business, you won't be perpetuating the current expectations of most commercial business owners.

ESTABLISHING A REASONABLE BASE FEE

So what is a reasonable base price for commercial venues to pay for live music? Over twenty years ago, the average three-hour restaurant gig in the Philadelphia area paid me, then a 17 year-old mediocre musician, at least $40. Weekend gigs (including Friday night) paid $50 or $60. In today's money that is $65, and $80 or $95, respectively (http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm); this is about the absolute lowest that any commercial venue should be paying each musician.

BRINGING AN AWARENESS TO NON-MUSICIANS

Based on the interactions with non-musicians over the years, most patrons assume that the band is getting paid, even when they are asking for tips. Patrons consider the tips to be supplemental to whatever the musicians are being paid by the venue. I have come to find that non-musicians are often appalled when they hear that there are bands that play for nothing but tips. When these patrons pay a cover charge, they also assume that the majority, if not all of the cover, goes towards the band.

As much as musicians can bring about a change by turning down such gigs, the non-musicians who patronize such places can also have a tremendous impact by patronizing live music venues that pay their musicians a reasonable wage.

Two days ago, a guitar student, who is a senior a prestigious business school, said he never gave any thought to what live musicians make at a commercial venue. When he paused to think about it, he said, "I would think that each musician in a decent band receives at least $25 per hour with higher pay rates for better bands."

He was astounded when I told him that some venues pay nothing, while others might pay $25 for the entire band for a three or four-hour gig. "No wonder musicians have difficulty getting paid when so many are willing to give their music away to those places for free. Which club owner is going to pay a fair price for live music when they can get it for free or for so little?"

UNDERCUTTING OTHER MUSICIANS

As musicians, we are our own worst enemies. No better an example of this may be found than in the musicians who undercut other musicians who are paid well by commercial venues.

Here is a common scenario: Band X plays a venue for $400 to perform from 6:00-9:00pm. Band Y learns of this while trying to get a gig at the venue and offers to play the same gig for $200. One month later, Band Z enters the venue and says that they will play for only $50. A few months later, every band is playing the venue for free, and what was once a reasonably well-paying venue is no more.

While it is not always the case, most often the quality of the music goes down as a lesser band undermines a more talented one. Many times these venues either end up going bankrupt or dispensing with live music altogether. As much as it may be satisfying to say that these places ultimately get what they pay for, it does nothing to address the root of the issue.

Not only do such practices destroy well-paying venues, it also fouls up every musician who wants a venue to pay a reasonable amount for their live music. Undercutting musicians sends a message to venue owners that live music is something for which they do not have to pay much if anything at all.

CONCLUSION

Until more musicians accept responsibility for their actions, the live music climate will continue along the same deplorable route it has been traveling. Do not play free gigs for commercial venues, and stop the practice of undercutting fellow musicians at venues that do pay reasonably.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below.


 
Dr. Seth Greenberg