I have been reading and watching some interesting material lately, which has really got me thinking about what a musician is worth in today’s global climate…
I have written before that I’m all for the digital age. I’ve argued that we should basically ‘move with the times’, and see the positives and possibilities that the current music business world offers us as indie musicians. I stand by that statement – rather than fighting what’s going on, we must accept it and find new ways to work within it. It must be said, though, that music has been devalued since free downloads have become so easily accessible on the internet. There seems to be this widespread attitude now: “Why should I pay for it, when I can just get it for free somewhere?”. You really have to stand out and offer something special for people to spend money on your music. I do commend iTunes, though, because after so many free music download programs (like Napster, Kazaa and Limewire) have gone down the tubes, iTunes is so quick and easy to use – and you HAVE to pay for the music. I think if it wasn’t for iTunes, even less people would be buying music, so yay for them. Even if they do take a pretty hefty cut of your sales compared to some other online music retailers.
I will go into more detail about album/song sales in my next post. In this post I wanted to concentrate on the live side of music $$$, though.
It’s always been a known fact that you don’t rake in the big bucks playing live until you’re, well, a popular act. You’re expected to slug it out with lower paying gigs until you hit the big time. And in today’s age of low record sales, it’s gigs that are making even the most famous musical acts the most money. However, sometimes venues really exploit this, and you get insanely low paying gigs. My band recently played our first gig, and guess how much we got paid? $50. Not each, for the whole band. With 4 people in our band, that works out to a whopping $12.50 each. I could go to my retail day job and make more than that in an hour. My band pays $60 ($15 each) every time we rehearse at a practice room, and at the moment we’re rehearsing twice a week. So, yeah. That pay was pittance. Yes, we opened for the night, which featured 4 bands playing. So I guess we were bottom of the rung. Still, there was a sizable crowd that night, and I really feel that $50 was a ridiculous level of pay. I have never made that little at a gig before.
I don’t mean to sound like a snob; it’s nice to get paid at all for playing. But when you compare that pay to any other job in the world, it’s really a terrible level of pay, and musicians are constantly outlaying money to do what they do. A good guitar is worth at least $1000. Add on an amp and head – at the very least $2000 for something decent. Drummers can pay up to $1000 for one drum. It costs at least $1000 for a good recording, unless you have found some amazing deal, and like I said, it costs money to rent a practice room. Something as simple as a new set of guitar strings costs between $20-$30. Leads cost about the same, not to mention effects pedals, which can set you back from $50-$300 for a single pedal. See what I mean?
I read this super cool article recently, which dissected an open letter to LA club owners, written by jazz musician Dave Goldberg. Here’s an excerpt:
Just the other day I was told by someone who owned a wine bar that they really liked our music and would love for us to play at their place. She then told me the gig paid $75 for a trio. Now $75 used to be bad money per person, let alone $75 for the whole band. It had to be a joke, right? No, she was serious. But it didn’t end there. She then informed us we had to bring 25 people minimum. Didn’t even offer us extra money if we brought 25 people. I would have laughed other than it’s not the first time I’ve gotten this proposal from club owners. But are there musicians really doing this? Yes. They are so desperate to play, they will do anything.
But lets think about this for a second and turn this around a little bit.What if I told the wine bar owner that I have a great band and we are going to play at my house. I need someone to provide and pour wine while we play. I can’t pay much, just $75 and you must bring at least 25 people who are willing to pay a $10 cover charge at the door. Now, wouldn’t they look at you like you are crazy?
“Why would I do that,” they would ask? Well, because it’s great exposure for you and your wine bar. The people there would see how well you pour wine and see how good your wine is. Then they would come out to your wine bar sometime. ”But I brought all the people myself, I already know them,” they would say. Well maybe you could make up some professional looking flyers, pass them out, and get people you don’t know to come on out. ”But you are only paying me $75, how can I afford to make up flyers?”
You see how absurd this sounds? But musicians do this all the time. If they didn’t, then the club owners wouldn’t even think of asking us to do it. So this sounds like a great deal for the club owners, doesn’t it? They get a band and customers for that night, and have to pay very little, if anything. But what they don’t realize is that this is NOT in their best interest. Running a restaurant, a club, a bar, is really hard. There is a lot at stake for the owner. You are trying to get loyal customers that will return because you are offering them something special. If you want great food, you hire a great chef. If you want great décor,you hire a great interior decorator. You expect these professionals to do their best at what you are hiring them to do. It needs to be the same with the band. hire a great band and should expect great music. That should be the end of your expectations for the musicians. The music is another product for the venue to offer, no different from food or beverages.
When a venue opens it’s doors, it has to market itself. The club owner can’t expect people to just walk in the door. This has to be handled in a professional way. Do you really want to leave something so important up to a musician?
This is where the club owner needs to take over. It is their success or their failure on the line, not the musician. The musician can just move on to another venue. I’ve played places where, for whatever reason, only a few people have walked in the door on a Saturday night. The club owner got mad at me, asking where are the people? I turned it around on him asking the same thing. Where are all the people? It’s Saturday night and your venue is empty. Doesn’t that concern you? What are you going to do about it? Usually their answer is to find another band with a larger following. This means the professional bands get run out of the joint in favor of whoever can bring in the most people.
But here’s where the club owner doesn’t get it. The crowd is following the band, not the venue. The next night you will have to start all over again. And the people that were starting to follow your venue are now turned off because you just made them listen to a bad band. The goal should be to build a fan base of the venue. To get people that will trust that you will have good music in there every night. Instead, you’ve soiled your reputation for a quick fix.
If you asked a club owner, ”who is your target demographic?” I doubt they would answer ”the band’s friends and family.” But yet clubs operate likeit is.
… Would you expect the chef’s friends and family to eat at your restaurant every night? How about the dishwasher, the waitresses, the hostess? Or how about the club owner’s friends and family? You see, when you start turning this argument around, it becomes silly.
You can read Dave’s letter in its entirity here.
Dave makes a lot of very interesting points. I have been given the same ‘requests’ by club owners. “Make sure you promote the hell out of this gig, and bring minimum 25 people.” It’s a lot of pressure, especially for a band that’s just starting out on the live scene. We can ask our friends and family to come, but not all of them are going to be able to make it. And you can’t expect the same friends and family to come down for every gig. It starts to feel like you’re badgering them. Dave is talking as a seasoned jazz musician, so as someone in an indie rock band, my situation is a little different (and possibly worse). We’re not a covers band, we’re not providing the soundtrack in a restaurant or lounge bar. We are expected to be the main attraction. And when nobody knows you, how can you be expected to draw a big crowd straight away?
There are even worse things going on in some venues – there are actually some that operate on a ‘pay to play’ basis. It is as it sounds; you basically have to pay to play at the venue, and you make back a percentage of the amount of money made from ticket sales at the door. This puts an immense amount of pressure on a band to bring a crowd, because if they don’t draw enough people, they won’t recoup the cost they spent ‘renting’ the venue. This is great for clubs; they have guaranteed entertainment and aren’t losing a dime. But shitty for bands. I haven’t heard of this happening much in Australia, but it’s becoming increasingly common in America, especially in high volume areas like LA and New York.
I think Dave makes some very confronting points about the nature of being a musician, and the way that gigging can basically turn us into seeing our worth as that of undeserving beggars. He goes on to say that we should fight for our rights and demand more of our venues. I do believe in standing up for your rights, but I feel this may (sadly) be a bit of a naive idea. Unless ALL musicians stand up and refuse to play this way, it’s still going to go on. There will always be someone willing to play for nothing (or practically nothing). So what can we do to make sure we are valued?
Here are some positive steps to take towards increasing your earning rate at gigs…
1. ASK the venue how much you are getting paid before you play the gig. Sounds silly, but a lot of bands don’t even do this. A band’s entertainment services are valuable, and you deserve to know what you will be paid.
2. LIASE with bands in similar genres that have been gigging longer than you, and have a bigger draw. Go to their gigs or send them a message online, politely linking them to some of your songs, and asking if you can play a gig with them sometime. Get in touch with the band’s management if they have one. This is especially important if your band is just starting out; it will help you move on to bigger crowds and playing better venues. It may sound like sucking up, but it’s really not if you actually like the band’s music and treat them with respect. Don’t expect anything; they may say no. But they may say YES, so it pays to ask! And if you’re approaching another indie band, it could actually be a help, because it can be easier for them to book a gig if they have a ready-made lineup to give to a venue.
3. PREPARE your band with a band bank account and ABN (Australian Business Number). Some venues won’t pay you cash in hand, but will want a bank account number and ABN for tax/receipt purposes. This method of payment is also good for your band and its tax returns, if you’re gigging regularly. Being prepared with these things shows the venue that you are professionals and not pains in the ass.
4. PROMOTE your gig with free tools. Flyers are great, but as Dave points out, you will be outlaying costs that you’re unlikely to make back. You could make flyers at home if you have a decent image-processing program and printer. But there are also some great free promotional tools online. Get hooked up with a band Facebook and Twitter, and of course, announce your gig several times leading up to it, with a final announcement on the day. Make a Facebook invite for your gig, and make it sound like something people will want to come to! Most street presses (Rave, TimeOff, Scene) have a free ‘gig announcement’ section, so visit their websites to list your gig. You may also have a local ‘what’s on’ website for your city or town, where you should also be able to announce your gig for free. Lastly, word of mouth works a treat, so tell all your friends.
5. PLAY REGULARLY in your area when you are first starting out. You need to get your band out there, and this will allow you to a) make more money by playing regularly, b) improve your band’s live act, and c) get more people to see you play. You can’t expect to play 3 gigs and make it big. The Beatles played something insane like 1000 gigs before they got ‘out there’. That’s why they were so awesome by the time they ‘came out of nowhere’! 1000 is a bit nuts, but the more you play, the better you’ll get. Once you get a following and a buzz, that’s when you can pull back from gigging and make each of your gigs a real ‘event’.
6. GET A BOOKING AGENT. You usually need to have a bit of a draw for this first, but not always. Some booking agencies might sign you up just because they like your music. Be warned, they will take a percentage of what you make. But it can be worth it, because they may have other (bigger) artists on their roster who they can send you on tours or bigger gigs with. Try to look for respected booking agents who have some artists similar to your genre on their roster. Scope out which agencies put on good gigs, many gig posters will have a “presented by…” byline when they are put on by a certain agency.
7. GET A MANAGER once you’re drawing a crowd yourself. Unless you’re committed to remaining entirely independent, a manager is a good idea. They can take care of all that nasty gig-getting business, while you do what you love – work on your music and PLAY!
My next post will talk more about this subject, but concentrating on music sales. I hope this has been thought-provoking. For any musician readers, I urge you to value yourselves and remember that your entertainment is worth paying for. And to everyone else…go to live gigs, dammit! Your local musicians need you!
Thanks, as always, for reading 🙂