I had some long time friends and former bandmates by on their way through town to deliver a jug of holiday cheer to us. These guys are full time road rats…..they’re on tour with a very well known and long established rock band, and do about 200 nights a year on the road, the vast majority of which are one night stands. It’s a tough way to make a living: I know, I used to do exactly what they are doing now.
Well, we opened the jug, and after a while we were deep into a discussion of the nature of the music performance business. Once we got about halfway through the jug, a lightning bolt came down from the heavens and struck us with a mighty insight: on the local level (touring bands, by necessity and definition, excepted), almost EVERYBODY employed in music performance (not everybody, but almost…) in the local scene just about anywhere in the USA does so on a part time basis, with playing gigs NOT being their primary means of support. Practically everybody we know who “plays for a living” locally really doesn’t do so…..they almost all have day jobs of one sort or another. If you ponder this fact for a minute, I believe you will come up with some of the very same conclusions we reached about this most unusual state of affairs.
First, this part time situation is fairly unique to the music performance business. My lawyer, accountant, and physician all practice their professions full time, at least 40 hours each and every week. So does our plumber, our electrician, our neighbor who owns a real estate brokerage, and our friends who are civil engineers. All of these professions have substantial requirements for those wishing to enter them which serve as a barrier to part time practitioners and maintain, in theory at least, a minimum standard of qualification.
Not so the music business: it’s open to any and all comers, and the only rule seems to be that “there aren’t any rules”……this often leads to problems for individuals wishing to pursue music performance as a career.
Since music performance is not their primary source of income, these part time practitioners of the craft can often afford to charge significantly less than full time performers, since their families are unlikely to miss any meals if they only play for $20 a man per night, plus an occasional complimentary adult beverage served with the compliments of the house. To add further complications, a great many of these part time players are in actuality merely hobbyists….they could spend their disposable income left over from their day jobs on bass boats or golf clubs, but instead choose mixing consoles and pink noise generators. I used to appear regularly with a band of very well heeled hobbyists in the Midwest who would not only fly me up from New Orleans for their bar gigs, but would pay me my usual fee for a weekend road gig, feed and house me, and fly me home. This particular group, honestly some very nice people and pretty fair musicians who just happened to own large factories and law firms, owned about as much equipment as, say, the Rolling Stones. Before my first gig with them, they took me to an audiologist and had me custom fitted for in ear monitors. Based on the look of the venues where we played (all nice joints) and the size of the crowds they drew (a steady following of friends and family), I doubt if they were taking in enough money to even pay for my plane tickets, much less my fees and other expenses. Yet we did this on a regular basis for a couple of years. Unfortunately, they were probably taking gigs that might should have gone to full time players in several Midwestern cities.
This might be an extreme example, but I think it adequately illustrates the problem facing a full time performer: amateurs, part timers, and hobbyists take many of the available gigs, and as a result hold the base price for live entertainment down, making it extremely difficult to make a living strictly as a player.
What’s the answer? I don’t know…..as full disclosure, there have been many times in my career as a performer when I’ve held down a day job, said day job sometimes being music related, sometimes not. Is there anything wrong with part time players entering the marketplace? Probably not, so long as they don’t whore the generally accepted minimum price down. So what’s a full time player to do, assuming you don’t want to adopt the gypsy lifestyle of a road musician?
I know when I played full time, we used to take a lot of pride in not getting out of bed “until the Sun got warm”, and generally indulged ourselves in the rock and roll life style and all that goes along with it……I’ll be honest with you: it was a lot of fun, and I have some dandy stories to tell in the nursing home……Then I looked around, and saw that some of the other guys in the highly competitive New Orleans music market were doing something I wasn’t: they treated music performance like a business.
Once I began getting up in the morning and practicing (as opposed to watching TV all day) and marketing my skills, the quality of gigs I was getting improved considerably. The cost advantage that the hobbyists, part timers, posers, and wannabes had really didn’t matter any longer. If you hone your skills to a very high level and act like a genuine professional, what your competition does or charges just won’t matter. If you’ve really and truly got the chops, and understand how the business works, you nwill not want for work. If you sit around and bellyache about how bad things are and how little the club pays, remember that if you’ve got the chops, you can draw the crowd. When you draw the crowd and whiskey starts to be sold, you can charge what you are really worth. Now go practice……….