This year’s Labor Day column on the plight of musicians comes amid what may be the worse year ever for live music due to COVID-19. See how bands are struggling to survive.
Editor’s Note: Every year, Local Spins publishes a commentary on Labor Day, shedding light on the financial struggles many musicians have long endured. This year, due to COVID-19’s near complete shutdown of touring and concerts, the situation has become downright dire — a crisis that threatens the livelihood of nearly everyone associated with the music business. We tell some of their stories here. – John Sinkevics
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It’s not as if gigging musicians — and the venues they play — needed any more hurdles to overcome.
“The Year of COVID” has upended the livelihood of many bands and solo artists already struggling to survive financially amid an uneven playing field that Local Spins has exposed in this Labor Day essay every year.
Even more crippling, the pandemic threatens to undermine the very foundation of the music industry as a whole:
Some concert venues shuttered by the coronavirus will never reopen, touring already postponed until 2021 may never return to the same pre-COVID capacity, music festivals that survive likely will face drastic changes in procedures, and associated professions — from sound and lighting techs to stage crews to artist agents to media outlets — face an uncertain future at best.
“We’re crushed about the music that won’t get made, the venues that can’t survive, the bands that were just getting started. The agents and the backline crew. It’s devastating,” Traverse City’s normally hard-touring band, The Accidentals, told Local Spins amid a year that’s seen the group cancel about 100 concerts.
“Nothing is normal. There are definitely moments that feel overwhelming. The political division, election year, and COVID together are mind-numbing. We’ve laughed and cried and cycled though the emotions; we’ve had to find new ways to approach mental health.”
Much of that mental stress is provoked by uncertainty about when venues might reopen and what the long-term financial repercussions will be.
Even some restaurants and bars that previously hosted live performances can no longer afford to pay for entertainment due to capacity restrictions, or have cut musicians’ pay that already was meager. Opportunities to play live music in West Michigan will certainly be curtailed for quite some time.
As a result, many full-time players have leaned more heavily on performing at private parties to make up the difference, worked to boost sales of merchandise and collected donations from fans via online tip jars during live-stream sessions. They’ve also applied for grants and unemployment assistance, though none of that has replaced all of the income lost due to canceled performances.
And 2020’s unprecedented upheaval came amid longstanding concerns that musicians have expressed about earning a living as performers, songwriters and recording artists.
Even before COVID, there were plenty of West Michigan bands who were earning less for performances today than rock groups of a similar ilk who played bars and parties in the ’70s and ’80s.
Consider this: To keep pace with inflation, a musician paid $100 for a gig in 1980 should be paid $314 in 2020. Sadly, that’s a rarity. Many work at least five hours on a typical performance night — not counting 40 to 60 hours a month of practice and songwriting time — to receive $100 or $150 in pay.
This doesn’t even count the rigors of touring and hauling equipment to shows. Ultraviolet Hippopotamus percussionist Casey Butts once estimated that after working 12 hours a day on the road, band members would end up “making about $10 to $15 a day after paying for hotels, gas and expenses. It’s tough, especially when you have families and house payments. People think it’s the 24-hour party. But that’s not what it’s like at all.”
Whether bands will ever even tour — or get booked for the same sorts of shows — quite the same way again remains a mystery as the world negotiates the minefield of travel during a pandemic.
Is there an upside to all of this, a light at the end of a long tunnel?
Despite a recent survey that indicated more than 60 percent of musicians in the United Kingdom have considered quitting, the artists contacted by Local Spins remain hopeful.
Clearly, the love and passion for music keeps them going, even though most deserve better treatment and better wages for the compelling art they produce.
“I have kept my chin up, my head above water and managed to get by fairly decently,” said Grand Rapids keyboard player and singer Dennie Middleton, a veteran full-time musician who estimates he’s lost $10,000 in business thus far in 2020. “There is no way I will give up my night job because of COVID, not gonna let this shut down 37 years of ‘doing what I do’.”
As The Accidentals put it: “We keep telling ourselves, this will end. We will rebuild. Maybe we will build it better.”
Check out more reactions to the COVID crisis below, along with comments from previous years’ columns about the dilemma facing musicians on Labor Day and every day.
Oh, and as music fans, consider supporting your local venues now and when they reopen, gladly pay those cover charges and ticket prices for those rare live shows, buy artist CDs and merchandise, and whenever possible, toss a few extra bucks into the tip jar.
MUSICIANS’ TALES AND TRAVAILS
OLIVIA VARGAS (of the band August) – “Unfortunately, the pandemic has taken a toll on my personal finances and on my band’s. I have survived as a professional musician for the past couple of years and it’s always been a great source of pride. I have always found work through gigs, playing at churches, giving lessons, and so on. COVID has really made the opportunities to find work dwindle. I am lucky to say I have found gigs here and there for my band and I still have a couple private students and my church jobs, but everything has lessened. Summer used to be the money season; this year it’s definitely different. Luckily, my band has been taking things into our own hands by releasing music digitally and playing live-stream concerts. This has actually kept us afloat in a big way. I’d say we have had maybe 30 percent to 40 percent decrease just because we have played less as a whole, but we have still come out of the summer pretty well. We are extremely grateful to our supporters who have made that possible. Of course, the times have made me question my choice of career in my low moments, but I am reminded each and every day that this is not something to just give up easily especially after all the work my band members and I have put in. I am so proud of my band for quickly turning around and adapting to the times. I am thankful for Michael Pierce and Bailey Budnik who educated themselves on how to live-stream concerts from our basement, record new records in our living rooms, and send mixes back and forth through email. We save money by learning how to do everything on our own and we are able to keep things going from the safety of our homes. We took a look at our future and decided to take a different approach from what we had originally planned. We have to focus on capitalizing on our online presence (streaming, social media, live-stream concerts, etc.) You have to adapt, whether we are in a pandemic or not. I believe that is how you come out on top in this industry. Stay passionate in the things you love and stay motivated to always find a way to peruse those dreams. The future looks bleak for our venues and we know that if we ever get to go back, there will be a major back-up in band lineups. The venues are going to need money, and quick. Most likely, we expect they will book bands who will draw bigger crowds through tickets. Local talent might not be the way to get a guaranteed crowd, especially if you are new to the scene. It’s too much of a risk for venues so it may be much harder to get into venues if you are a smaller band. We have decided to not put all of our hope in playing shows when/if they return. The answer for us is through consistent online releases, greater reach in our social media, and creating our own gigs through live-stream shows. Once again, we must adapt.”
NICHOLAS JAMES THOMASMA – “I will be down in 1099 gig pay, but I’m up in merch sales, for sure. I also applied for and received funding from several arts organizations. The unemployment made up a lot of the loss, but I still expect to be down by about 25 percent to 33 percent overall — not compared to last year, but compared to this year’s projections. I think about getting a job all the time. There’s no shame in that. But I didn’t come this far to give up now. I’m currently in the process of turning my sole proprietor business into an LLC. I miss music venues. I hope they make it though this. For now I’m doing private parties almost exclusively. I’m just not ready to play indoor shows yet.”
DENNIE MIDDLETON – “I have kept my chin up, my head above water and managed to get by fairly decently. With the pubs, clubs and restaurants closed for the most part, I have saved money by not being able to go sit down and spend money — a good thing, I guess. I did qualify for the 1099 ‘gig workers coverage’ which did help, but I estimated about $10,000 has been lost. The dropped gigs continue to light up my phone each week (including) about $1,200 lost since last spring just from (one) place alone. This is so typical, I’m not even pissed off anymore. It’s in the wind. I will stick to it and ride it out; I am very fortunate to still have a solid group of private parties and clubs still asking me/us to play music, but it is a bit scary watching the bookings come in but then watching them get axed regularly. I also have lost income because I refused countless bookings inside. This was my decision (outside shows only) out of the gate back in March. For all these years I have played West Michigan, I have watched the payments roller-coaster go high and low. Bimini Brothers was paid $600-$800 a night back in the late ’80’s through the ’90s. Of course, we played five-hour shows and never took breaks. But for years lately, I know it’s pulling teeth to get a three- or four-piece band $400 to $500 for a night’s work. COVID is obviously affecting club owners and the reason we musicians have taken that hit.”
THE ACCIDENTALS – “For us, the touring year had just begun. Seven big shows in on the way to SXSW (in Austin) we had to beeline back to Michigan. We lost the remainder of the West Coast tour, a single release tour with several orchestras, 13 festivals and the entire summer, including some of our biggest shows to date like Austin City Limits and Leaf Festival (over 100 shows total). So, the loss of touring was the loss of 80 percent of our income. More than the touring loss, we now have custom merch that was designed for each tour sitting in hundreds of boxes becoming irrelevant. On the other hand, we were able to take 20-30 of those shows online, monetize streaming workshops and host ‘Time Out’ shows virtually. We applied for advances and SBA loans, and help from other relief programs like Musicares, and reduced some of the loss. Our global base has grown thanks to the accessibility the Internet affords and our weekly live-streams. We had this gift of time to really dig into recording our new album in a way we never could have. We have so much more community than before thanks to our booking agency weekly roster meetings and the opportunities that have come from being available and accessible. We are working on sponsorships and revenue streams for the winter months. We’re picking up session work as we’re finishing recording the ‘Vessel’ album, and our Patreon really will be our lifeline for the next couple months. Hoping to be able to release some music soon and tour again in 2021. We’ve changed everything. We recorded the rest of the ‘Vessel’ album without a producer, engineer or studio (a first). We taught workshops to students and schools through a pinhole. We wrote manuals for OBS, Streamyard and Patreon and that opened up doors to collaborate with people on the tech side of live-streaming. We moved most of our content to Patreon and started a TikTok account. We have been recording strings for other people and writing on zoom calls with legendary writers. There is nothing normal about staring at yourself while trying to have a conversation. We went into this as a band family. We have overcome more than most in the last eight years. We have learned to trust our core family. They won’t let us fail. We know we can lean into that and into each other. We’re OK. … We know it’s going to be a slow recovery and we are in it for the collective good.”
MUSICIAN COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS YEARS
DENNY RICHARDS: We should all get together and have a party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of $100-a-man gigs. Who wants to have their band play the party? We can’t pay you, but it’ll be GREAT exposure! 😉
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 a $100 in 1980, too — 38 years later, still $100. Thank karaoke.
JUNIOR VALENTINE: How do you spell anachronism? Make a living…make your art on the side. Make art…make your living on the side. I had 2 jobs for 7 years. Then…3 jobs for the following 15 years. “Save your money up for when you get old. Got to keep playin’ that Rock ‘n’ Roll.” (Edgar Winter)
KYLE BROWN: 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.
BILL VITS: Orchestral and Union Broadway players expect about $40 to $50/hour. $120 on up for a 3 hour rehearsal or concert. Principals get more and doublers add 25 percent.
AMBER BUIST: OK, let’s ask the question why this pays more and why there are standards for pay. My guess is because they are considered professional musicians. They show up prepared, they are on time, and dressed appropriately. 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. They aren’t wearing Bahama shorts on stage with no shoes on, and they aren’t taking their time getting to said stage. They are working at a standard set by that industry. 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- and there is a hybrid and balance of sorts for those who choose this as a career. It’s achievable but takes constant regrouping.
VINCENT HAYES: I don’t work for less than $150 (for a show), with a couple exceptions only because of quantity of work and tips are good. Musicians have been averaging $25/hr for DECADES! I remember seeing a picture of Stevie Ray’s old gig calendar from the early ’80s just before he hit big. They were sleeping in the van then and getting $300-400 for a trio. I’ve had bars offer me that for a four-piece band. I don’t even carry my gear in for that. IMO, there are too many amateur regional acts willing to settle for ’80s wages, most with steady day jobs. This sets the bar low for the few pros left out here, and everyone else for that matter. Then the clubs expect the artist to do nearly all the PR and bring in a “following” and they look at their sales at the end of the night which the artist’s performance is weighed against.
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.
FREDRICK ROSENBERG: I’ve been playing in bands opening for national touring bands for 20 years. If we play a sold out show for 1,000 people we will make about $1,000. The national will walk away with about $12,000.
JIM ALFREDSON: The per-hour stat is meaningless because we don’t work a standard 8-to-5, 40-hour week. I would say that yearly annual income is a much better indicator and my guess is that it is substantially lower than a $19-per-hour statistic would imply.
GOLDIE STILSON: We run our business in a way that allows it to pay for itself (travel, food, lodging, recording, merch inventory, etc.) so I never consider a per-person amount. We do very well and have been doubling our income every year since we started three years ago. I’ve had mixed experiences with pay in other cities, but I am a full-time manager with the time and ability to book shows that pay well. I don’t think most GR bands have that.
JESSICA FOGLE: I think the reason bands are salty sometimes is the same reason venues and bars and restaurants wanting live music are salty sometimes: It’s a really tough situation we’re all in. Most musicians really are making little to no money from this, while devoting their whole lives to it, and there’s an expectation for professionalism when they’re not being paid as professionals. Conversely, I’ve heard that some venues LOSE business from having live music. There’s a thing going on, that is super confusing for all parties, where labels and the big music machine wants high artistry, i.e. not necessarily palatable on first listen – something new, unique, powerful, different – but then in a venue, where people may just be coming to eat / drink / enjoy a night out, people often want things that sound familiar and polished, sometimes mostly cover songs.
MATT GABRIEL: I found I get paid a little more in Michigan compared to out touring on the road. Not sure if it’s because I’m a local or what. That’s why I love the low (but I’ll give you, constantly rising) cost of living in GR compared to other cities around the country I’ve done this job in. Don’t forget my musician friends: You can always negotiate down to a lower price from what you initially asked for, so aim high.
JOHN NOWAK: 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.
DENNIE MIDDLETON: The question presumes a monolithic set of circumstances and there are so many variables. Exposure gig? Undercard for a national? Draw? Does the crowd spend? Is the venue able to afford it? Starting a night or promotion? Charity or benefit? Seasoned artists or green act looking to develop a crowd? So, so many flavors of events it is almost impossible to conclude anything other than that musicians should always be paid what they are worth.
BRIAN VANDER ARK: I’ll weigh in here: 4 million streams of “The Freshmen” in one three-month pay period = $200.
ROBIN CONNELL: Simple HS economics: supply and demand. Or complex modernity with all the details, as comments show. Cruising thru most of the posts, a useful comparison could be made with other self- employed ‘per job’ professions, such as plumber, electrician. Usually there is a minimum for showing up, then per hour. I use that formula when quoting price for a client. I am a member of Local 56. I also believe ‘strength in numbers’ and hope my membership assists the GRSO when negotiating contracts and handling disputes. I figure it’s a decent way to donate $135/year instead of just donating to the symphony directly. I also usually freely share gig/pay info with other musicians in an effort to keep pay from slipping too low.
NICHOLAS JAMES FUGEDI: I play professionally and average $150-$200 a night. I won’t play for any less. A lot of practice and love has gone into my craft and refuse to sell myself short. Musicians need to come to a consensus on this. Musicians who agree to play for less are hurting the industry as a whole. My 2 cents.
DAVE DEHAAN: Music as a product has a value which is determined by a market. Music as a gift is priceless. It is up to the musician to choose which value system matters most.
STEVEN KORSON: 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. (www.usinflationcalculator.com) 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. I might have no customers, but at today’s musician wages, are they really a customer that you want?
JACK CLARK: This is an interesting thread. For a promoter that’s made exactly $0 and money generated from all shows put back into Music community, it’s slightly disappointing knowing that it’s not making a dent in music community. Obviously for the most part, artists feel they’re not being compensated adequately and coming directly from artists, it’s reality. … There are so many factors that go into what artists are paid. Be honest about your worth, flexible but firm in what you deserve. Promote yourself and help the shows succeed. Be conscious and considerate of the shows you are booking in an area around the other shows (don’t saturate) and bring it! In my experience people will pay for live music if you give them something different, something unique and memorable. But this is coming from a guy that pretty much pays for live music as his main source of entertainment. The general public has many options. Put on a show that people want to come see and will be talking about. I hope all the artists on this thread get paid enough to keep the creative juices flowing and their art thrives.
MITCH MILESKI: Way too many acts out there that shouldn’t quit their day jobs.
LEE CHASE: The only part I don’t like about the music business is the business part.
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