It comes straight from the musicians themselves: A sobering Labor Day assessment of where things stand for performers and songwriters after a cataclysmic, pandemic-impaired year. A must-read from Local Spins.
Every year, Local Spins publishes a Labor Day column focusing attention on the plight of working musicians who are revered by fans but frequently overlooked as career professionals struggling to make ends meet – and under-appreciated as laborers whose art enriches our lives, expands our minds and improves our mental health.
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This year, amid a cataclysmic pandemic that continues to challenge the music industry in particular, we asked a broad, well-respected panel of West Michigan musicians whether their financial and emotion health is better or worse than it was pre-pandemic as well as the obstacles they face, the biggest misperception that the public has about their work and what would make their life better.
In their own words then, here is their often sobering assessment of “Music’s State of the Union” on Labor Day 2021.
DIEGO MORALES (Dalmatian Stone, Stone Soul Rhythm Band, owner of American Player Records)
Financial and emotional condition? Worse. Apart from the financial hit that all musicians took, having contracted COVID last fall has left me with issues that don’t seem to have a remedy. The doctors I have seen have unfortunately expressed they have no answers and the effects may be long term or permanent; these include brain fog, anxiety, sense of smell and taste and fatigue. Perhaps a regular routine of performing might placate some of this, but because we aren’t able to play as much, there’s no way to know.
Most difficult obstacle? The inability to earn, as a performer, writer and producer. I can still work two out of three of those things. The pandemic hasn’t stopped me from writing or producing. In fact, I started my own label and have written and produced and published for a few artists already. 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.
The biggest misperception? That it’s not a “real” job. For a lot of musicians it is a hobby and you can tell who is a hobbyist and who is a pro or an artist. I use both terms here because there’s a difference. One can be a professional musician and work extremely hard (Side man) but not necessarily be an artist who writes and creates for themselves or others. People will ask your profession and then follow up with- “Is that all you do?” ‘Do you have a day job” because they fail to recognize there are a lot of rungs on the ladder…you can and should be able to make a living with music without having reached McCartney or Stones status.
What would make life better? Accountability and respect. 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. I’ve seen bands playing in the area that wouldn’t be allowed a Tuesday afternoon in a major music market. It’s why so many pros who have found success will immediately ask: ‘Why are you still living there?’ Why does that question have to exist? Why can’t West Michigan be a real music market? Why do people have to leave here to find success? My two cents.
HANNAH LAINE (Earth Radio)
Financial and emotional condition? My financial and emotional condition I would say is overall worse than in 2019. With instability in finance from losing work came more worries and anxieties to pay bills and grow the business side of my art. One positive at least, was that I had the chance to slow down and reevaluate how I want to spend my energy, realizing that I can say no to gigs or collaborations that I don’t feel support me financially or emotionally.
Most difficult obstacle? To find the balance between creating authentic art and supporting myself financially. Cover gigs unfortunately pay a lot more than gigs where I can play original music. Every time I take a cover gig, I lose an opportunity to showcase my art, but I gain a little more financial security. So the hardest thing for me is to balance the two because I need both financial security and art opportunities to survive as an artist.
The biggest misperception? That art is just a fun hobby for us that we get to do on the weekends, or that artists are lazy and don’t work hard or contribute to society, and in both of those mentalities our art is undervalued. Artists dedicate their lives to their art, spending many hours a day practicing, writing, creating, recording, honing their skills, then more hours booking, promoting their work, planning events and shows, coordinating with collaborators, traveling to gigs, and performing. And the average artist has a part-time or even full-time job on top of all of that work, to pay the bills. Artists dedicate our entire beings into our work, which has the potential to be disregarded as art or devalued by the listener/observer. And yet, art is what has inspired social movements across the globe for ages. It unifies people, spreads love and healing, invokes contemplation and introspection, ignites people to act towards social change, empowers individuals and oppressed groups. It is such an important expression and tool for the evolution of humanity, and yet it is undervalued and lacks support by our society and our government system.
What would make life better? I would love to see more businesses showcasing local art and paying artists a living wage. I would love to see more collaborations with the city and its artists, and I would like to see local businesses showcasing West Michigan’s diverse talent. I see a lot of the same types of music at local bars…a lot of folk music and cover tunes, which is great, but only represents a small portion of West Michigan’s artist population. I think a lot of businesses around here book this type of music because they think it’s what their patrons want to hear, but I think the reality is that people don’t actually know what they want to hear but they are familiar with this kind of music now, so that is what they expect to hear. I think more businesses and venues need to push that boundary and showcase a wider variety of music. When was the last time you went to a restaurant or bar in Grand Rapids and heard a hip hop artist? I would really love to see more diversity in the types of music being booked at local bars, restaurants, and venues.
WUZEE (Hip hop artist)
Financial and emotional condition? Honestly, my financial situation is better. Unemployment was a good look I got out of the service industry which was also a good look. Emotionally, I feel better. COVID gave me an opportunity to sit and look at the person I have become and allowed me to reflect a bit on how and why I wanted to change some things up.
Most difficult obstacle? I don’t see any obstacles. Constantly elevating and creating new opportunities is all I can do.
The biggest misperception? People think that they know who you are based on seeing you on the Internet and at shows.
What would make life better? 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.
HUGO CLAUDIN (Drummer with Les Creatif, owner of the Mexicains Sans Frontieres venue)Financial and emotional condition? I am not better today than I was before COVID. As the curator for one of the most awarded alternative art spaces in town I can not do events, host or even rehearse after I lived here almost 20 years.
Most difficult obstacle? Finding time to rehearse, gathering people is a challenge, and not knowing what is next makes it difficult to make plans.
The biggest misperception? We need to make appearances to survive; we cannot just sell merch and CDs.
What would make life better? If that COVID arts money got to my hands.
PATTY PERSHAYLA (Patty PerShayla & The Mayhaps)
Financial and emotional condition? Emotionally, I’m struggling more than I was in 2019 because everything I schedule is prone to cancellation or political discourse (with indoor venues enforcing mask mandates or encouraging vaccination) but I do feel these conversations are important. Financially, I’m in a weird spot right now. I slowly worked up to a place where I no longer need unemployment assistance, but as shows move indoors I have to decide whether to host concerts and receive income or take a break and try to make money on digital content, which is much less sustainable.
Most difficult obstacle? I really did enjoy making music from home last year, writing and learning new songs. I wanted to play more shows with the full band this year, which is less lucrative, so I had to add them to my regularly scheduled solo performances. When I added my newfound role as a side man to these obligations I found that I have little time in my home studio. This problem may be unique to me, though, and I intend to slow down once I get back from tour in November.
The biggest misperception? I don’t think people realize how much time and effort go into making videos. For example, I’ve had a few people suggest I build a presence on TikTok to go viral, which is a valid approach for some folks, but they don’t see how much time goes into practice, lighting, sound, wardrobe, etc., or the many variables that go into digital success. I do love making videos and posting online when it feels authentic and I don’t mind making some things without getting paid, but I really hope that views translate to financial support for more independent artists going forward.
What would make life better? Respect the wishes of the artists and venues when it comes to masks, distancing, and getting vaccinated/tested! Large gatherings will be the first thing to go if we see a serious spike in cases and I’m not convinced that we will get the same financial support from the government if we get shut down again. We don’t want to get sick and bring it on the road, and we don’t want you to get sick either.
LADY ACE BOOGIE (Hip hop artist, Lady Ace Boogie Presents)
Financial and emotional condition? Worse financially for sure. Although things are starting to look up. A few months before COVID hit, I was finally in a position to do music full-time and stepped away from my day job. When COVID hit, my income dropped significantly. So I’m back working my day job full-time and music part-time.
Most difficult obstacle? Doing everything by myself. Not having a team.
The biggest misperception? I can’t speak for everyone, but one of the big misconceptions about me is that I have a team. I do not.
What would make life better? More music managers, and booking agencies, and independent labels to help further artists careers.
NICHOLAS JAMES THOMASMA (Nicholas Thomasma & The Bandwagon)
Financial and emotional condition? I’m in a better financial position than I was in 2019 but it doesn’t really have anything to do with COVID. Emotionally, I’m doing about the same as always. I’m pretty happy-go-luck, but I also battle with the occasional bout of depression and self doubt as all artists do.
Most difficult obstacle? I often tell people that the best thing about being your own boss is that you don’t have anybody telling you what to do. The worst part about being your own boss is that you don’t have anybody telling you what to do. It would be nice to have someone to help keep me accountable as I often feel overwhelmed, overworked and out of time.
The biggest misperception? People think it’s easy to do what we do. It’s not. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
What would make life better? I travel all over the state and the pay rates in Grand Rapids are lower than most of the markets I play. If you’re going to have live music, do us all a favor and build a stage, turn off the TVs and pay the entertainment a modern rate. Bands have been making $100 per member since before I was born. It’s time local musicians got a raise!
STEVE TALAGA (Pianist)
Financial and emotional condition? I’m both better off and worse off emotionally. In May of 2020, I retired from teaching (not writing/performing) and my wife retired, too. So, having more time to spend together has definitely made my emotional condition much better. Also, we’ve had the opportunity to spend more time with our two grown children. Silver linings to the pandemic for sure! That said, I can’t shake this underlying sadness over what COVID has done to the music industry. So many months missing playing for, and connecting with, live audiences. It’s been quite depressing. Music is all about communication, and, as much as I cherish playing at home for my own enjoyment, ultimately, nothing compares with the connection I get from playing for people. Honestly, at first it was nice to have a complete break from the pressures of practicing every day, trying to stay in top form, so much new music all the time — a break I haven’t experienced in decades. But, after a month or so, there was just this dark cloud that seemed would never pass. It still hasn’t entirely, of course. After the initial break from the pressures, when I got back to practicing every day, I found a freedom to explore what I wanted to instead of always working on what various gig obligations dictated I needed to practice. This led to a lot of fresh ideas and fruitful trips down rabbit holes I never would have discovered otherwise. Again, unexpected silver linings. Financially, no question: much less income over the last 18 months, though things are starting to pick up again. Fortunately, my wife and I had been planning for retirement anyway, so we’re OK. But, the financial cushion I was hoping to get from gigs in 2020, the first year of our retirement, dried up completely.
Most difficult obstacle? Finding gigs. Things have been coming back online somewhat, but we’re still not back to where we were before COVID. I lost a few steady (monthly) gigs that have not come back. That hurts a lot. As yet, there is no indication they will ever come back, though I remain hopeful. Another difficulty is actually a certain “gig atrophy” that I’ve felt. I’ve discussed this with other working musicians who’ve said they feel the same thing. After so many months of not playing in public with other musicians, there is a degree of strangeness and insecurity that creeps in to the experience. Even with practicing every day at home, the “gig chops” have taken a hit. Though that, too, is starting to subside as gigs come back to us bit by bit. I’m starting to feel more comfortable in a public forum again. But, this kind of tentativeness has never been a part of performing for me.
Biggest misperception? That it’s not a “real job.” This has nothing to do with the pandemic. Most people (in the USA in particular, I would argue) view music and the other arts as a hobby, an extra, icing on the cake of society, something one should gain exposure to for culture’s sake, but that is not in and of itself very important compared with more “serious” endeavors. My stance is that music and the arts are among the most important undertakings a human can engage in. The arts define us as human beings. They help us digest what happens in our world and give voice to thoughts and feelings not expressible in any other way. The arts put us in direct contact with the ineffable. What cannot be expressed in words can be expressed through art. The human race would be a lot better off if more of us lived as artists, regardless our chosen profession. Need I say more? Art is for everyone. It makes a great hobby and everyone should make art. But, we also need professional artists who have devoted their lives to this noble pursuit. We need to stop looking at artists as though they are somehow less important than corporate CEOs, bankers, lawyers, doctors, whatever. The arts touch on and involve all the most important aspects of our humanity and are CRUCIAL to us as a species. Additionally, children who have a gift for the arts and an interest in pursuing them as a livelihood need to be encouraged by parents and school counselors, instead of being talked out of their dreams in favor of more “practical” options. OK. I’m stepping off my soapbox now.
What would make life better? The very thing that would make life better for all of us: If everyone would stop politicizing our situation, see the truth behind the efficacy of the COVID vaccines, and get vaccinated, we could get back to “normal” life. I really see that as the biggest thing standing in the way of us getting back to experiencing GR as one of the hippest music scenes in the world. We’ve rounded the corner somewhat, but there’s a way to go to get us back to where we were pre-COVID. Getting everyone vaccinated is a big step in that direction.
MARY RADEMACHER REED (Singer)
Financial and emotional condition? Worse. I did take advantage of drawing unemployment – for the first time in my life – but have had many difficulties with that whole issue: Letters saying I need to return ALL of the income since last year, saying that I didn’t show proof or my reason for qualifying wasn’t good enough. What a debacle! Many of my musician friends are going through this. I’ve been told there was a huge glitch in the system: Some 6-700,000 others encountering this, but it doesn’t make it any easier as I’m filling out protest letters, sending proof of income (or lack thereof). Ugh! In the meantime, no unemployment for the past couple of months, at least. Thankfully, my husband makes a very good income, so I am not in dire need. Still, the gigs, for me, are not coming back. And I’ve had three already cancel for the future, due to the threat of the Delta variant. I have a contract job with the public schools coming up as a theater director, but who knows what will happen there?
Emotionally: I’ve had my ups and downs. Trying to figure out what’s important to me.
Most difficult obstacle? No venues to work – inside, mainly. To be honest, I haven’t hustled too much, (most of the places like the hotels where I was semi-regularly aren’t even having music yet) but for jazz and such, it’s very limited right now. I don’t do many outdoor gigs because, as I’ve gotten older, I have a huge issue with performing in the heat. I even had a prospective client say, “Well, all you musicians do up there is sit and play. It’s not like you’re working that hard” as he told me the venue was directly in the sun. (Only time I ever canceled a gig: It was 95 and humid.)
Biggest 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. It’s fun because we know how to do our job, right? It’s the old same-ol, same-ol. 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.
What would make life better? Better pay. Less hours. Just like anyone else. Other musicians not undercutting (I just want to play) 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, right now, I’m talking) like $125 a person minimum for say, three hours.
Copyright 2021, Spins on Music LLC