This annual Local Spins Labor Day column revisits the financial plight of local musicians, who cannot live on passion and applause alone. An essay for the times with comments from these ‘stars of the stage.’
Editor’s Note: Local Spins has published a version of this column on Labor Day the past six years because it strikes a nerve and tells a story that needs to be told. In West Michigan’s thriving music scene, many musicians struggle to survive. We’ve included some of their comments here. – J.S.
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West Michigan's music scene
On Labor Day 2019, things are not always what they seem.
On the surface, West Michigan’s music scene continues to burst at the seams with more venues, more artists and more new music releases than the region has seen in years.
But simmering below those impressive ripples, many musicians scuffle to earn a living in an environment that one veteran player with more than 15 years of performing under his belt describes as “the disregard for live music.”
“I play some great shows and revel in them, but I am also often relegated to a corner, asked to bring my own sound equipment and ignored by staff and patrons all night,” he said.
“I still have to do my job but it can be very disheartening. Meanwhile, people spend hundreds of dollars on concert tickets to show up late and talk through the show. Sometimes, I wonder why I am there at all.’
And, not surprisingly: “It would be nice to get paid a little more.”
Indeed, for many musicians who work about five hours on a typical performance night — not counting 40 to 60 hours a month of practice and songwriting time — and get paid $150 or so, that’s an understatement.
And that’s the upper end of the scale.
I know of hard-gigging West Michigan bands who earn less for performances today than rock groups of a similar ilk who played bars and parties in the ’70s and ’80s.
A fair number of immensely talented players strive to do this for a living – playing four or five nights a week for what often falls well short of minimum wage when one considers the hours devoted to loading in, sound-checking, performing and tearing down again. And there’s the aforementioned, off-the-clock rehearsal and recording time, as well as the highly creative – and taxing – process of writing original songs.
Oh, and how about the rigors of touring?
Ultraviolet Hippopotamus percussionist Casey Butts once put it this way when describing the Grand Rapids band’s cross-country touring experiences.
“On an average day, we wake up at 9 or 10, drive three to five hours to play shows, another three to five hours to set up and sound check, then we play three hours and take an hour to tear down. On average, we’re usually making about $10 to $15 a day after paying for hotels, gas and expenses. Sometimes, we’ll work 12 hours a day and walk out with $10 in our pocket,” he says.
“It’s despicable, but at the same time, we all know that. You do it because it’s what you love to do – travel around the county and play music for people. I’ll take that over working in a kitchen any day of the week. But 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.”
Speaking of restaurant kitchens, that reminds me of the old joke about the difference between a musician and a pizza: A pizza can feed a family of four.
But this is no joke. Several years ago, I wrote about a popular local band that played three energetic gigs in three different locations on a single night, racing between venues, loading and unloading equipment, entertaining diverse audiences. Because they officially only got paid for one of the three performances (selling merchandise and CDs at the other two), their take for the night totaled $212 and five pitchers of beer. Split five ways, that’s $42.40 and a pitcher each, not counting the fact that the drummer had to replace various drum heads for about $82 before the marathon began.
And it was, indeed, a marathon: They loaded in for their first performance at 2 p.m. and arrived home at 2:30 a.m.
An extreme example? Maybe, maybe not.
KEEPING A VIBRANT MUSIC SCENE THRIVING … AND SOLVENT
Of course, musicians themselves likely share part of the blame because they’re so passionate about their art and adore the process of creating music so much they’re sometimes willing – especially when it comes to young, up-and-coming bands eager to strut their stuff – to settle for scant wages just for the opportunity to get some exposure.
But as local singer and musician Mick Lane of the Conklin Ceili Band points out bluntly and somewhat humorously, “You can die from exposure.”
One young, up-and-coming musician conceded that, yes, he used to take lots of unpaid gigs and still does at times. But he argued that some of those, like house shows, are worth it because “you are likely to find people that actually want to listen to your music.”
“The biggest frustration is making it so you can play music for a living, and happily,” he said, adding that it can be difficult to build a fan base that attends shows and buys a band’s merchandise.
Now don’t get me wrong: A fair number of upstanding West Michigan venues and corporate-sponsored events pay a fair wage for top-flight musical entertainment, while others don’t. Some simply haven’t kept pace with inflation over the past three decades. Put it this way, according to a standard inflation calculator, a band paid $500 for a performance in 1980 should be earning more than $1,550 for that same gig today.
Or consider the $100 per player standard one often hears about: To keep pace with inflation, a musician paid $100 in 1980 should receive $311 in 2019.
I understand that it’s an increasingly competitive landscape for bars and live music venues these days and profit margins are slim. Many advertise and help promote band performances, provide food and beer, and otherwise give musicians a commendable platform for their art. (And some musicians probably don’t do a great job of helping their cause when it comes to promoting their own shows.)
Not only that, but a small venue that doesn’t have a cover charge for shows can’t be expected to pay the same rate as a full-fledged nightclub.
And things aren’t necessarily better elsewhere. Many musicians who’ve moved to other states have found it just as difficult — or even more so — to negotiate the musical landscape and earn a fair wage.
It’s certainly true that many talented artists have real difficulty getting by as musicians and can’t even afford health insurance. Many take second or third jobs or depend on spouses to make it work. Despite that, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more generous bunch, with a host of West Michigan bands regularly donating their time for benefits and worthy causes.
And while one working musician told me he longs to raise the bar “to respectful levels so we don’t have to hang our heads in shame,” others are willing to play for free just so they can open for national acts in front of fervent crowds at clubs, festivals and amphitheaters.
DOESN’T COMPELLING MUSICAL ART DESERVE A FAIR WAGE?
It’s a tough situation. Clearly, the love and passion for music keeps these artists going, but most deserve better: They deserve to be acknowledged – and paid a reasonable wage – for the compelling art they produce.
In a landscape filled with karaoke, sports bars, pre-recorded music, video games, free live streams and a zillion other entertainment options, we’ve clearly devalued local music.
Ultimately, audience habits are as much to blame as anything, with fans often willing to pay $80 or $100 or even $200 per ticket for a touring pop act, but balking at a $3 or $5 admission for a night of bracing entertainment by a hard-working local band.
So once again on Labor Day, I urge all of you even more enthusiastically than ever to tell the musicians you know that you appreciate what they do and pledge to really listen to their music when you attend their shows.
Better yet, gladly pay those cover charges, buy their CDs, pay for music downloads and T-shirts … and toss a few extra bucks into the tip jar.
Here are some insightful comments about the situation by musicians and touring artists from past years, some of them responding to a Facebook post that cited a study which suggested that the average pay for musicians in the United States is $19.82 per hour. The reactions are eye-opening.
TODAY: The 2019 West Michigan Labor Fest takes place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today (Monday) at Ah-Nab-Awen Park in downtown Grand Rapids, with musical performances by Rochelle & the Spoilers, Mustang Band, Mick Lane, Krystal Kleer and The Steve Talaga Quartet plus children’s activities, a motorcycle and car show, food vendors, a beer tent and more. Get more information online at westmichiganlaborfest.com.
— John Sinkevics
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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