This annual column once again spotlights the financial plight of working musicians, some toiling as much as 12 hours a day for $10 or $15. It’s a continuing concern.
Editor’s Note: A version of this column first ran on Labor Day four years ago, and Local Spins continues to spotlight the same issues on this holiday annually because it clearly strikes a chord — and a nerve — with musicians: It’s one of the website’s most shared and viewed posts every year, sparking comments from across the globe. For the Grand Rapids area, which has become a hotbed for live music and the arts, the issues merit serious attention because talented performers certainly deserve to be compensated fairly if we want this musical momentum to continue. But there are plenty of varying opinions on this subject, so check out some of the comments from previous years below and offer up your own views. – J.S.
On Labor Day 2017, consider this startling fact:
I know plenty of hard-gigging West Michigan bands that are paid less for performances today than rock groups of a similar ilk who played bars and parties in the ’70s and ’80s.
I’m not even talking about part-time musicians who are mostly in it as a hobby, but rather, immensely talented players who strive to do this for a living – playing five or six 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 this doesn’t even count all the hours of practice and rehearsals, or the time spent in the highly creative – and taxing – process of writing original songs.
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.”
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 $300 for a performance in 1980 should be earning more than $850 for that same gig today – which I’m guessing is a rare occurrence.
I understand that it’s a 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 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.)
And things aren’t necessarily better elsewhere. Talented Michigan bluesman Rusty Wright and his wife, Laurie, moved to Florida, where he conceded recently on Facebook that the band has found “a weird and unfortunate mindset.”
“The general economy here is quite good compared to Michigan, but these venues want to pay $50-$75 a man for live musicians. That’s for everybody. Whether an experienced pro or a kid just starting out,” he wrote, noting he never played for that little back in Michigan. “Why is it that a guy with 40 years experience who has toured the world, made Billboard and been listed alongside guys like Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa and others is worth no more than the 21-year-old who has played a bunch of parties and a bar or two?
“In essence I’m going to deliver Prime Rib satisfaction yet they feel it appropriate to pay for hamburger.”
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, even if it’s counter-productive to efforts to “raise that bar.”
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, pre-recorded music, Pokemon Go and a zillion other entertainment options, we’ve somehow devalued live local music in the new millennium.
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 every year on Labor Day, I encourage you all to hug some musicians you know and tell them you appreciate what they do. Better yet, gladly pay those cover charges throughout the year, buy their CDs and T-shirts … and toss a few extra bucks into the tip jar.
UPDATE: The 2017 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 Evidence, 13th Hour, Mane Street, Krystal Kleer, Rochelle & The Spoilers, plus children’s activities and more. Get more information online at westmichiganlaborfest.com.
— John Sinkevics
READER COMMENTS FROM PREVIOUS YEARS
Donny Rocker: More musicians should recognize poor fiscal arrangements and walk away MUCH sooner than the band mentioned in this article did.
Musicians/bands are not commodities: that is, they actually ARE NOT interchangeable. Venues tend to pretend that they are commodities, but their customers—aka the musicians’ audiences—know the difference.
Acknowledging that musicians can find plenty of opportunities to play for free, in the spirit of Labor Day musicians everywhere should recognize financially inequitable scenarios and stop participating in them. Perhaps tip jars in their rehearsal spaces would earn more funds than accepting the questionable bookkeeping techniques of cheapskate venues?
Paul Magnan: I have been fortunate to have made a meager living being a musician. During a 10+ year span, it is all I did. However, no matter how much I made, anywhere from $250 a week to $2,500 a week, it took a lot of effort, working connections and developing relationships to keep it going.
I decided after those 10+ years I wanted a home and family, and became a part time weekend warrior, and began a career in management..Today I am in a position where I perform for my own satisfaction and contribute to the control of what venues we accept. We negotiate our performance fee, and we have a minimum, or we won’t play. It’s worked out for our band, we do have a fan following that supports us and we really appreciate them. And, it becomes a mutually beneficial arrangement between us and the venue.
I’ve been performing since I was eight years old, these past 50 plus years have been most rewarding.
I support my musician friends as much as I can.
Get out there, listen to the music and support our community.
Tim Afton: I have been playing the West Michigan club scene actively since 1975. The cost of everything in those clubs has doubled or tripled in some cases over that time frame but band compensation in many cases has not changed. It’s art and when people want to share there, art the compensation becomes secondary. That’s a very exploited and unfortunate circumstance working musicians find themselves in. True working musicians that have been here all along battle with this simple truth every day. When some retirees deside to ” put the proverbial band back together ” and go out and muck up the compensation equation for the rest of us who are not collecting pensions and are struggling to make a living here that doesn’t help. A rising tide raises all boats. Treat your art as a business. Create the best product you can and sell it for a fair wage. Stop giving the milk away if your trying to sell the cow. My two cents.
Barry Bazza Crawford: Live and recorded music has been devalued right out of sight for local bands in every city. The mindset that’s been with us for generations is that an out-of-
town band must be better than what we have. Switching towns is called “touring.”
Steve Middendorp: Support local music (by) going to shows, buying CDs, etc. Grand Rapids has an amazing local music scene, and Michigan as a whole.
Casey DeMink: Great article, really great to see someone point out the issues us working musicians come across.
Copyright 2017, Spins on Music LLC