The struggles of local musicians haven’t changed much in four decades, with average gig pay even dipping. But the president of Grand Rapids’ Corporate Live says in this Local Spins guest column that there are ways to succeed with digital communication tools.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This guest column is one of a series of essays giving a voice to West Michigan musicians as well as key players in the music industry, tackling critical subjects related to the music scene. In today’s column, Paul Winkler, the president of the Corporate Live events production provider (formerly Corporate Sound), assesses the longstanding struggles of earning a living as musician while taking advantage of new digital tools for communicating with audiences.
When local musicians get together for a friendly jam session, the conversation at some point always turns to whether it’s harder to make a living in a band now compared to the days when rock ‘n’ roll was a teenager and disco was king.
As someone who spent my childhood accompanying my dad as he played gigs at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and then providing sound and lighting systems at live performances for nearly 40 years, I have a few observations on whether the good old days were really that good and if musicians today can make a living at what they love to do.
And I hope you won’t be disappointed with my conclusion: Good local bands probably were paid better in years past for live performances, but bands today will find a way if they really want to succeed in music — especially by using some of today’s digital tools.
Ironically, digital technology has sucked a lot of life out of the old way musicians used to earn their bread in Grand Rapids at venues like the Tiki Lounge, where my father, Charlie “Bobby Charles” Winkler, played, or the Bavarian Inn on Bridge Street, where I was sound engineer for the band OZZ with lead guitarist Scott VanderArk.
Technology lets everyone at a wedding, high school dance or local bar with a dance floor — the bread and butter of local bands in the old days – hear the music they want for less than $1,000 a night. A couple of people with a large van now can transport a massive library of top hits in any musical genre, plus a synchronized light show, to a venue. That was the stuff of science fiction years ago in Grand Rapids, when the likes of Kenny Gordon, Mona Sallie & the Sounds of the Motor City, the Westbrook Sisters and Eileen Sarafis took to the stage to belt out the latest hits.
At the same time, digital technology has made it cheaper and easier for just about anyone to record, produce and distribute music.
It was a big deal to find someone who owned a four-track recorder and a microphone to record a song in the pre-computer days — and then good luck at getting anything produced and distributed. Now, with GarageBand or other digital audio workstations, a musician can go from recording a session to delivering a file to avid listeners in days without selling the car to raise cash for studio time.
But because technology has made producing and distributing music so affordable and accessible, many people don’t expect to pay much for it anymore, choosing to get their music mostly from streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. Experts say sales of recorded music have continued to stagnate, and no one expects recorded music to return to the $12 billion a year level of a decade ago, and that includes downloads and CDs.
GIVING AWAY MUSIC AND LOSING MONEY ON TOUR?
So local bands trying to break into a crowded market accept the fact they will have to give their music away on Facebook, YouTube and other social sites to build a following. Even with a solid following, it’s tough for a band to make any money touring.
A band called Pomplamoose published its financials on a successful tour of 23 U.S. cities around the United States, even playing The Fillmore in San Francisco. Bottom line: $135,983 total income and $147,802 in expenses produced a $11,819 loss. No fancy hotels, no bowls of candy without brown M&Ms, just good music on a tight budget.
Years ago, we would set up sound equipment at Pointe West in Holland on a Tuesday, and the band would play throughout the week for a Sunday teardown. Today, there are just too many choices of other convenient ways to listen to music for that sort of monopoly.
I love good live music, and so do a lot of other paying patrons. We build our business at Corporate Live on providing the production backbone for acts playing at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park amphitheater, which consistently has sold out shows.
It’s the local acts that are getting squeezed on one side by national acts playing at bigger venues such as Van Andel Arena and The Intersection and on the other side by DJs taking the small jobs.
But this is what local bands have working in their favor: fabulous new ways of communication. Facebook, YouTube, email and tons of other channels make it easy to connect with their fans, and let them actually sample the wares. Years ago, we would take out ads in the newspaper or on radio, put up posters and hope for the best.
My guess is there are more bands now than there were when my dad played the Tiki Lounge. Hundreds of local musicians take to stages every weekend for local concerts, and many hold down day jobs to pay the bills, as musicians have done for decades. A few will become known throughout the Midwest; many will not.
Now, as it was 40 years ago, local bands love what they do and earn enough to make it worthwhile. Isn’t that the definition of success?
ABOUT PAUL WINKLER: After several years running an audio company and cable manufacturing outfit in the Cleveland area, Paul decided to return to his hometown roots of Grand Rapids to begin his own audio production company in a small warehouse on Monroe Street in 1996. Paul and his business partners saw their company Corporate Sound grow into the premier audio provider in West Michigan, expand into a full live events production provider, and now rebrand as Corporate Live after 20 years of success to reflect its full inventory and capabilities in the audio-visual industry.
Copyright 2016, Spins on Music LLC