Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Paying the Piper

Over at the Mandolin Cafe there was an ongoing discussion about playing for tips, which led into a discussion about playing music for free, for exposure, for food and all the various permutations of how musicians get convinced to work for nothing.
One of the things that came up, and that I've encountered myself on occasion, is that while the venue owner encourages musicians to collect tips for playing in his establishment, it's very rare that any indication is given to the audience that their entertainment is not being paid, and therefore the audience feels no obligation to tip. Heck, the audience almost never feels OBLIGATED to tip, tips aren't an obligation, they're a courtesy/show of appreciation. The result is that "tips" gigs are not only very hit-or-miss as money makers, but are more often miss than hit.

These are tough times for everyone, myself included, and as the temp and freelance jobs that have been sustaining me since I was laid off nearly two years ago have gotten harder and harder to come by, I've been coming to rely more on music as a marketable skill to bring in much needed income. It used to be "music is cool, but make sure you've got a day job" but these days it's become "there aren't any day jobs, you might as well play music." As it is, I'm glad to have something I can turn to, even if it doesn't produce a ton of money.

But, if I'm going to be able to make any sort of living, and if those who are in a similar situation as me are going to make any sort of living, we're going to need to agree on something.

We have to stop playing for free.

I'm not talking about back porch picking sessions, or jams at your friend's party, or stuff like that. That's fine. That's not a gig, you can come and go as you please, you don't need to set up a sound system and take requests from drunk lawyers who want to hear "Hotel California" 48 times in a row (and if you do, you need to find a better party).

I'm talking going into venues like restaurants, conventions, bars and festivals where somebody is making money, and where live music is part of the reason that that person is making money.

I understand that bars and restaurants are struggling like the rest of us, and I won't even mention coffee shops (because for the most part, unless the word "bucks" is part of the name, they're all out of business around here), but they still have to pay their staff to provide service and atmosphere, and if musicians are part of the staff for the night, they should be getting paid too. If someone is making money off of you, you should be getting a cut. Period.

Let's address some of the common arguments used to rationalize working for nothing:

"You'll get exposure."

That's what Youtube is for. Heck, you can get an international audience without leaving your house if you're any good and use the right keywords (you are putting in keywords, right?). There are a lot of ways to get your name and sound out there if you're creative and willing to work at it that don't involve giving away everything you have to offer for free.
"Exposure" is something people die from, not something you want to give away your weekend to get.
If you are really worried about getting your name out or building a following, one of the best ways can be to hook up with an already-established local band as an opening act. If it's not possible to get a full (paid!) opening slot, try to work out a deal where you can play a short, two or three song set during one of their breaks, using their sound equipment. This obviously works best if the music you're playing appeals to the same crowd as the other band, but when it works, it works well, and has a long tradition in the music biz.

"Music is fun, you'd play it anyway."

This is a deadly one, because it appeals to the weekend warriors who have day jobs and don't rely on their music paycheck to eat. And it's true, playing music is deeply satisfying in a way few other things in this world can be, and you'll have a lot better time playing music than, say, shoveling coal.

Music is fun, as long as you can play what you want, when you want, where you want, with the equipment you feel like setting up, and leave when you feel like you're done.
A friend of mine had a line, which I've used myself since, to the effect that, "I love music and have fun playing it, you don't have to pay me to play music," (wait for it), "what you're paying me for is to turn down all the other stuff I could be doing on a Friday night, lug all my gear here, get here an hour before you want me to start to set up my sound equipment, stay until our agreed end time, put up with the guy who yells "Free Bird" every time I pause for breath, and the girl who wants me to be her personal karaoke machine, spend more time tearing down all this gear at the end of the night, and pack up and drive home after the audience has left and gone to bed."

Music is fun in the same way that fishing is fun. If you're doing it to pass a Saturday afternoon with no demands on your time, it's great. If you have to go out on a tuna boat to support your family, it may still be satisfying on some level, but it's damn hard work.

"You should share your talent with the world."

"Talent" is a funny thing. I've been told I have a talent for music by some people (and that I have none by a couple others) but whether or not it's true, there was never a point in my life where I picked up an instrument and was instantly ready to play in front of a crowd. Nothing ever came naturally to me, I had to practice, and practice a lot, to get as mediocre as I am. If I have any particular talent, it's loving music enough to stick with it for the last two decades through the blisters, sore fingers, sour notes, dropped beats and endless learning that are required to become even a marginally competent performer.

A lot of people say things like "wow, I could never do that." Actually, most of them could, they'd just need to put in the hard work and study. The same way I could become a lawyers if I put in the time and money to go to law school. I didn't, so I pay a lawyer when I need one. And law school is more expensive then teaching yourself to play music, so I don't bill $300 for a consultation (although maybe I should charge the "Free Bird" guy $50 bucks every time he yells it), but it's still an acquired skill set, that took time and effort and, I think, warrants at least a small bit of cash.

Interestingly, the one "natural" talent I seem to have for performance is the lack of stage fright. Public speaking is one of the most common human fears, but it doesn't bother me that much (which is funny, because I'm actually a rather shy person offstage, although I try to hide that). I'm not sure what that means on the "pay me" scale, but it's probably noteworthy.

"We're your friends/ it's a good cause."

Ok, this is one of the hardest for me to draw the line on, and I honestly think there are times when helping a friend or benefiting a charity warrant donating your time and labor, but there are times when they don't as well.

First off, friends. If your friend is having a party, and they say "hey, why don't you bring an instrument and give us some tunes," well, they're hosting, and maybe it's better to contribute some live music than it is to be the 12th person to bring a bag of potato chips. However, if they ask you to set up sound gear, play certain time, and in any way shape or form turn it into a "gig," then if they're really your friends they'll offer to compensate you a bit. You can give them a reduced rate, but get paid, the same way your neighbor the contractor might paint your house for a discount, but you wouldn't ask him to work for free. Ditto for a friend or family member's wedding. Everything wedding-related is pricey, you might be getting asked to donate what would normally be a $500-1,000 performance. If you choose to offer your performance as a gift to the couple, do it as a conscious decision, knowing the value of what you're giving them, and do it of your own volition, not because they try to guilt you into it.

Charities are another judgment call. Some of the best-organized, and most successful charity gigs I've played payed me to be there. It might not have been as much as I would have made at a "for-profit" gig, but sometimes it was a reasonable sum. Face it, if there's a charity dinner, for example, chances are the bartenders, waiters and caterer are getting paid to be there, you should be too. This isn't being greedy, your presence is an investment on the part of the charity organizers (some of whom may be getting paid to do this themselves) that they expect to bring in money for the cause.

If you should choose to donate your services, and you are not Bono, just make sure of two things. First, that it's a cause you really believe in enough to put your sweat and skill into, and second, that you don't do it often. It's certainly noble to work for free for a good cause, but it's still noble to work for a modest paycheck doing good work, and if it becomes expected that all of us will do it for free all the time, soon none of us will be able to afford to do benefit shows at all.

As I said before, times are tough right now, and for many formerly-part-time musicians, the only opportunities out there are the ones we can create for ourselves. It's good work, it's satisfying work, it's fun work, it's beautiful work, but at the end of the day it's still work. So, with a few already-selected exceptions, this year I'm no longer working for free. I hope to see you all out there, and I hope you enjoy what you're hearing, because I'm working harder than ever at it.

Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

Well said! I get tons of folks coming to me (virtually every week) asking for free/donated wine...for one charity event or another. I can't live on "free." My rent is not free, my utilities are not free, my liability insurance is not free, and oddly enough, my staff doesn't work free either. Free doesn't work for me...and I sure as hell would not work for free, nor ask anyone to do so...period! Anyone who respects you as a person/musician would make sure you are taken care of financially...At the very least...and I mean VERY should be compensated for transportation, fed a burger or two, a few beers and a crisp $50 for the effort. I would expect AT LEAST that if I played for my own Mother!
For a musician...'tis better to be whore than a slut.
Larry J. Reynolds

Matt DeBlass said...

Better a whore than a slut indeed, in all my years of playing in various capacities, I can't think of a single time that a free gig has ever led me to get a paid one, either, which is another argument I've heard a lot. Pretty much all that playing for free ever got me was more invitations to play for free.
And yes music, much like a bottle of your wine, is something that you could live without, but in both cases, who wants to?

Anonymous said...

Once a group of 6 pro musician friends including myself agreed to play a wedding for free as a gift to the couple, who we all liked a lot. Big mistake. People unconsciously or consciously form a perceived value of things depending on what they cost, and we also failed to plan on the "mother of the bride from hell", who we had never met, but who took it upon herself to continually boss us around, inject her uneducated opinions of our music, tell us what to play and how to sit, and treat us worse than common riffraff. Little did she know that we actually played phenomenally well together that day. Although the couple appreciated us, in retrospect we should have offered to play for half price. I will never do that again!

Anonymous said...

you know what's funny?

I've been saying all of that for a very long time.

Do you know what the starving musicians in Providence call me for thinking like that?


It's not selling out, it's making money from something that you're good at.

I really laugh at all the folks who suffer through making minimum wage at McDonald's and the like, all the while considering themselves rock stars at night and bemoaning all of the "SELLOUTS". "I'LL NEVER SACRIFICE MY HIGH MORAL FIBER, I'LL STAY HERE AT DENNY'S TILL THE DAY I DIE AND BE KING OF THE OPEN MIC CIRCUIT!"

You know what those kinds of people are called these days, Matty old boy? HIPSTERS.

-Hugs and Kisses-


The last angry banjo picker.

Matt DeBlass said...

I'm really not sure how expecting to be paid for your trouble is "selling out." Unless, of course, you're trying to rationalize that fact that you're not good enough to get paid for it.
Just going through all the hassle of finding venues and booking your act alone warrants a paycheck, if you ask me.
Re: the wedding, isn't it amazing how demanding some people can be when they're getting something for free? I don't get it.