Local Spins’ annual Labor Day column highlighting challenges that continue to face working musicians in 2023 focuses on three artists from widely varied backgrounds.
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It’s a Local Spins tradition on Labor Day: assessing the “State of the Union” for Michigan’s music community as singers, instrumentalists and songwriters struggle to carve out careers with their art amid daunting financial challenges, public misperceptions and growing competition in the entertainment field.
For 2023, Local Spins asked three West Michigan musicians from widely disparate backgrounds and experiences — from jazz and prog-rock to hip hop to Celtic folk music — to describe their biggest challenges, the public’s most glaring misconceptions about what they do and possible solutions moving forward.
In their own words, here are their assessments. Scroll down to read more musician comments from past Labor Day columns, and help celebrate the holiday at the West Michigan Labor Fest taking place 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today (Sept. 4) at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids with live music, children’s activities, food vendors, beer tent, local arts and crafters, and labor exhibits. Details online at westmichiganlaborfest.com.
MICK LANE (Singer-guitarist with Conklin Ceili Band, longtime labor union supporter)
1. Biggest Challenges: “The biggest problem, and has been for too long, is the perception of music as something other than a trade. This is so among the public, the venue owners, and even among far too often among many musicians. Among all three groups there seems to be little recognition of the years spent learning the twin skills of musician competence and showmanship, the travel, the equipment costs and upkeep. In the case of venues, they take advantage of the desire to perform by using the ‘play for the door’ or the ‘it’s good exposure’ gambits. One owner tried this with me, saying ‘I’m running a business,’ implying that musicians aren’t. He didn’t expect me to haul out of my messenger bag a spreadsheet that demonstrated my business costs. It shows every mile I travel for gigs & rehearsal, as well as my mileage when I travel to pick supplies or have repairs done. It shows the cost of instrument repair and upkeep, new equipment, etc. It also listed every hour I spent in travel for these things, in rehearsal, with owners negotiating, as well as performing. It also figured miles driven which I extrapolated the hard cost of gas and maintenance. These are the things that venue owners don’t figure. Nor do they generally want to understand this, as many of them not only want to pay very little, some even charge the band fees for using the house speakers, etc.”
2. Public’s Biggest Misconceptions: “‘Don’t you play because you love the music?’ Or, ‘Why should someone pay you to just have fun?’ If one simply understands the data I listed above, they would understand that is a simplistic view. When discussing this with fans, I explain to them that in order to play the music I love playing for them, there is 1-3 hours of round trip travel, 2-3 hours of setup/load out, 45 minutes to an hour of soundcheck, and 2-3 hours of performance. Most gigs involve 60 to 100-plus miles roundtrip. I then ask them to just calculate the cost of gas, plus the 7-10 hours of time involved. Again, throw in the rehearsal time/travel costs, and it is easy to see that the public misconception is based on not understanding the total scope of what it takes to be a professional and play the music and entertain them. I tell them that they aren’t paying for the performance, they are paying for all the time spent in things I have described. As to the ‘it’s good exposure’ line, I tell them that you can die from exposure.
3. Suggestions for Improvements: The onus is on us collectively as musicians and tradesmen to teach the public and enlist them in the struggle for fair compensation. At this time in our history, we are seeing signs of a resurgence in interest and support for collective bargaining and action. In some ways, our strong desire to perform music and deliver our social commentary through it, or for some to simply perform for people, is our own enemy. I often speak with musicians who ask me how we get paid so well. I turn that around and ask them why they don’t. Educating them that this is a trade like any other that involves significant investment of time and treasure. The same lesson I shared with the venue owner, I share with them. As to the venues as well as the public, the American Federation of Musicians has an initiative called Fair Trade Music. Its purpose is twofold. First, to take our story to the public and encourage them to look for venues that display the Fair Trade Music logo on their establishments. Inform them of our story and our quest to continue to bring the live music and entertainment to them that they love. Concurrently, we are seeking out those venues that want to keep the best live music available in their establishments. The old system is firmly entrenched, but I am encouraged at the number of good, fair owners that respect the musicians, want to do the right thing, and understand the value we bring. For our part, musicians collectively, as well as the AFM, need to actively support and promote those businesses who take part. In order to shift the paradigm, we must make strong, smart moves, understand the needs of the owners, and involve the public in our quest. Labor Day is more than a day for picnics, camping and fun times. It is the day where we examine the struggle for economic justice, safe and fair working conditions, and the important principle of having a voice in the workplace. It is time for musicians, like so many of our brethren and sistren, to understand the need for collective action. It is a time for working musicians to embrace the title of Skilled Tradesperson, and act in a collective way to improve the conditions. It is time to for us to advocate in the schools and with the general public on behalf of the importance of music education. Every great social movement in the history of this country had its music as a fundamental part of urging people to action. It is time we bring that home.
JIMAINE WILSON, aka SIXMAN (Fast-emerging Grand Rapids hip-hop artist now based in Atlanta)
1. Biggest Challenges: “The biggest challenge we face in 2023 is the over-saturation of musicians. It’s so many of us sometimes we can get overlooked by entities that have numerical value over actual talent, popularity over authenticity. Hip hop in 2023 sometimes can be questionable. The subject matter has went a bit left currently on a mainstream level. But on the other side of hip hop, there is beauty to be discovered in new found BoomBap hip hop.”
2. Public’s Biggest Misconceptions: “Biggest misconception is that we are paid greatly. And sometimes it’s not that way. Is our pay sufficient? Well, that depends on one’s current value in said market. We must work hard to obtain our proper value. Once a artist has proven itself in the marketplace, I think us musicians should get paid according to our value in the marketplace. If an artist is trying to build up his/her name you might have to play 1,000 free shows to build up your value. Artist being paid sufficient in my opinion would be, ‘No.’ I do think there should be 401k plans for musicians, health benefits and saving plans just like you might get with your job. If an artist is working, what’s the difference in when we go to punch in and get benefits.”
3. Suggestions for Improvements: “Steps to improve the situation for working musicians is by the music scene thriving, with communities tapped into the musicians’ musical journey from the bottom up. Your biggest platforms and venues showing recognition to artists that are thriving. Our biggest radio stations should be standing behind some musicians from their region. We should support what’s right and not just because I may know you, or only deal with certain types or small groups of people only, but be open to what’s really happening in the scene to increase a musician’s value to be paid properly.”
RANDY MARSH (Veteran jazz drummer)
1. Biggest Challenges: “Finding venues willing to pay a fair wage for live music, and too often these days venues want to work out a deal like offering the door instead of a guaranteed fee which most of the time is a losing deal for the band. Also, it is an ongoing challenge getting the venues to understand the basic essentials needed for the musicians like a large enough space to set up and play in with access to electric outlets, and if it is a restaurant venue they need to work out some kind of arrangement so the musicians can have time to eat and with some kind of comping or discount on the food. And the venue should take some responsibility for the promotion and marketing and not put the total burden on the musicians to do all of it. Performers and bands typically promote their gigs on social media sites but need the help of the venue to get the word out to the public. And consistency is important.”
2. Public’s Biggest Misconceptions: “That we all have jobs and just play music as a hobby. Many don’t realize that this is our career and our life, and is like a religion for those of us in the more artistic forms of music. And too many these days are under the misconception that we are just supposed to be in the background like music wallpaper while they carry on their loud meaningless conversations, and oblivious to those trying to listen to and enjoy the music.”
3. Suggestions for Improvements: “Putting a nice area together that has some presentation and not just stuffing musicians in a crowded corner somewhere and often poorly lit. And if it is supposed to be a listening venue, it is important to stress that people should be respectful of the music and the people that are there to listen and keep their chatter down to a minimum while the music is being performed. I also think if it is an outdoor gig during the summer months, there needs to be adequate shade from the sun and a solid platform to set up on large enough to accommodate the entire band.”
In 2022, a survey of the state’s music community by the Michigan Music Alliance revealed three major obstacles facing musicians relate to their financial security:
1) finding balance between the artistic side and business, 2) income, and 3) finding gigs.
One frustrated musician put it this way:
“Unionize the scene, create paid opportunities for Michigan musicians,” the survey respondent suggested. “I think the No. 1 thing holding all of us back is lack of fair pay for the work we do. Increase ticket prices for local shows.”
Among other things, those responding to the spring survey targeting the most pressing concerns of musicians cited issues such as “lack of venues with a focus on live music” and “finding gigs with solid pay and promotion.”
Of course, in the wake of a devastating pandemic that shuttered many venues – some of them permanently – the scene has changed and become more complicated.
While some new venues and music festivals have popped up across the state, others still haven’t returned to regular concerts and live performances, citing staff shortages and other issues.
Because of employee turnover and changes in band scheduling procedures (some venues no longer have on-staff booking personnel and have turned over those duties to employees working in the kitchen, bar or elsewhere), some musicians complain they no longer know who to contact at certain venues or don’t get the same response from places they used to play.
Inflation pressures add to the financial pinch, both for performing musicians and for fans who face higher ticket prices for many shows. On the flip side, there’s continued resistance by many to pay even nominal cover charges for local music.
Let’s put this in dramatic terms which explain why many working musicians who aren’t established national touring artists feel frustrated and continue to struggle:
To keep up with inflation, a musician paid just $100 for a full evening’s performance at a bar or club in 1980 should be paid $371 for that same gig in 2023. That’s a rarity for many.
Closing that gap poses a challenge because it involves lots of moving pieces, though some venues, promoters, musicians and organizations keep chipping away to address the issue in the post-pandemic era.
As part of that, the Michigan Music Alliance hosts B-Side Sessions workshops aimed at giving the state’s musicians the tools they need to create successful businesses out of their careers.
Mary Rademacher Reed (Grand Rapids Singer) – What would make my life better? Better pay. Less hours. Just like anyone else. Other musicians not undercutting or owners hiring them, just because they are cheaper. Years of experience doesn’t seem to count. There seems like there should be a minimum pay for musicians (in bars, I’m talking) like $125 a person minimum for say, three hours. There’s a big misperception that it’s all just “fun.” Story of our lives, right? Decades of lessons, practice, training, buying equipment, traveling, hauling equipment, learning how to be prepared, knowing how to read a crowd, negotiate the business aspect, hustle, wardrobe expenses, try to convince a client or club that we’re worth more. I’m still getting paid the same for a bar gig as I did 40 years ago – 40 YEARS AGO! What other career or business faces that? Corporate and private events, of course, are much different. But you still have to have the connection and know how and what to offer, which questions to ask. It’s a constant job of selling yourself; your self-worth. … People always figure they can get the music for cheap and there are always musicians who will. Who negotiates with the caterer? The lawyer? The venue price? They show them the rates and what you get for that.
Dan Kesterke (Flowers on the Grave, Jackson County Rock Band) – The biggest obstacle, currently, is balancing the high demand of financial resources with time to write, record and plan shows. Living wage? Definitely not at the level we are performing. There are bands who are super big in Michigan that are sometimes $100,000 a year in the red, and they are constantly touring. Pay has not necessarily increased due to inflation because local venues are strapped for workers and time slots available to perform. Many venues, tours and festivals have switched to a pay-to-play system, or have an extremely strict head-counting system to determine a fight over a $200 split for 3-4 bands over the course of an evening. A perfect scenario would be $100 per person in the band, $100 for travel expenses, and $100 to put towards the business. With 3-4 bands on a bill, that can get costly very quickly. I think club/bar/venue owners put a lot of pressure on the bands to bring fans, instead of curating a culture of great live music where their regulars are the bulk of the guaranteed audience. As the local industry crawls out of COVID, we are all squeezing pennies with the hope of a band bringing in a killer audience and sometimes that still isn’t the case depending on what is happening locally that night. Guaranteeing a show payout, no matter the head count, is risky for the venue, but it will guarantee quality musicians who want to play the venue, and their patrons deserve a great show, too. We do have a couple great venues that are trying to be a place for musicians to feel good and put on great shows, but it takes time to build a consistent clientele. There are a large cadre of acoustic venues to give background music for the drinkers for a four-hour time slot, and that’s cool. There are only a couple designed for a rock show. We do appreciate everyone we have worked with and who are supporting a live music scene. We want to give back as well and are working to bring in local media, radio and online advertising so each show is an event, not just a gig. Building relationships, we have found, is really the key to everything, and I think having gatekeepers who nurture and help groups through the process helps a lot, too. We believe in success for everyone, not zero sum.
Jake Allen (Northern Michigan Guitarist and Singer-Songwriter) – Wages for musicians are so dynamic from gig to gig. Some gigs pay great. Others you might do for different reasons, whether it be for exposure, networking, charity or some sort of artistic return. It does seem like most club gigs have not adjusted their artist rates for inflation. My dad was offered the same rate playing bars in the 1980s as they are typically offering now. Part of the issue is that there are so many musicians willing to play for next to nothing that it can hinder the living of people playing music full time. I think there should be minimums of what musicians are allowed to play for at clubs. … Being a professional musician takes a copious amount of self-drive. Keeping that consistent can sometimes be difficult. I think regardless of what musical path you take, it is important to have a lot of irons in the fire. For example, I jump between being a solo artist, producer, engineer, sideman and now musical theater actor. Wearing so many hats can get stressful at times but it can also be very rewarding. As a professional musician you have to learn many more skillsets than just knowing your instrument. … A solid manager or having good self-management skills will always make things easier as a professional musician. It’s often like the Wild West out there for people in this line of work. I think stronger implementation of musicians’ unions would be very positive thing for all of us. Although music is a form of alchemy and therapy, it is also a business. Balancing those aspects properly will make for an easier and more fulfilling ride.
Wuzee (West Michigan Hip-Hop Artist) – It would make my life better if people would continue to buy my music and continue to support the vision. Let artists know you value their art. Constantly elevating and creating new opportunities is all I can do.
Diego Morales (Stone Soul Rhythm Band, Founder of American Player Records) – The support of the crowd is what’s missing. People just don’t buy music anymore, that’s why the major acts still tour extensively. Without live performance, it’s difficult to earn. People are also less inclined to spend 99 cents on a download these days. … When venues hire ‘hobbyists’ it’s hard for pros to make an impact. We are all playing the same venues. That’s not to say they shouldn’t get a chance to play, but why not have those bands play Tuesday through Thursday? Make live music a real thing again, a treasure.
Brian Adams – I used to make $100 solo in 1988. Then doing solo in 2010 was still $100. These were all 4 hours.
John Wenger – It was $100 in 1980, too — 38 years later, still $100. Thank karaoke.
Kyle Brown (Kyle Brown & The Human Condition) – After averaging out rehearsal time, performance time, travel time, and set up/tear down time. I’d say each member averages about $10/hr. That’s why I do solo gigs though, they’re much more lucrative, but generally less fun than full-band shows.
Amber Buist (Out of the Box Management) – The bar for talent is pretty high and the market is demanding. Standards go both ways. You won’t see a beer can in their hand while they are rehearsing or while they are playing. … I think if we are going to request higher pay we have to be taken seriously as hired professionals and the bar for hired professionals has to rise significantly or we stop whining. I think there are bands that are getting paid what they are worth and bands not getting paid what they are worth, and there are a lot of contributing factors. We can’t simplify it down to “musicians are under-appreciated.” The market has to be able to support the purchase. The demand has to be there for the product. I think if we look at it from a business standpoint, the artist and the venue have to be a partnership. In my experience that is rare. I maintain that it’s possible to make a decent living. One has to apply themselves and want to treat the profession like a professional. Continually educating themselves and running their business like a true business, and they must want to build a base of people who enjoy their music. Again, when you monetize your passion – it becomes work. Someone mentioned music for the love of music: There is a hybrid and balance of sorts for those who choose this as a career. It’s achievable but takes constant regrouping.
Gary D. Hanks-Carpenter – Not defending them, but most restaurant/bars aren’t really staffed to support/promote the live music they want. They’re really restaurants focused on food. You might not even get a Facebook mention. I’ve shook my head in disbelief when I call one of the local hangouts and ask “Who’s Playing Tonight” and they can’t answer the question. Alas, you’re at the mercy of promoting on your own and deciding what gigs are or aren’t worth taking.
John Nowak (Drummer for Desmond Jones) – We’ve gotten paid almost $1,000 for playing one three-minute song at an event, and gotten paid $0 for playing for three hours at a bar in Iowa. Every single show varies for us, especially out of state or in markets we haven’t played before. In Michigan, we do well financially at shows because of our pull. But if you’re playing in Teaneck, N.J., for the first time and you get paid based on the number of people at the door who say they’re specifically there to see you, chances are you won’t make much cash.
Brian Vander Ark (Lead Singer and Guitarist for The Verve Pipe) – I’ll weigh in here: 4 million streams of “The Freshmen” in one three-month pay period = $200.
Steven Korson (Bassist) – I used to make $125 for a four-hour night back in 1980. I’d have to make $382 dollars today to equal that pay. (Using an inflation calculator.) That is not even taking in any kind of raise for years of practice and experience. I have gotten to the point that I am willing to play for a couple hours, where I want, when I want, playing the music I want, for no pay. If they pay me I have to do what they say and accept the pittance offered for services rendered. If I get no pay, they can’t say much.
Read previous Labor Day columns here.
Copyright 2023, Spins on Music LLC