Pondering That Age Old Question: Why Are Musicians Paid Peanuts?
I get at least one link a day from another musician, music lover, performing rights organisation, etc. that is broadly concerned with a generalised lack of ‘respect’, ‘wages’, etc. for ‘professional’ musicians. In short ‘why are musicians paid peanuts? It’s so unfair!’ There will be the usual bad guys (corrupt record companies, loathsome bar owners, evil corporations, ignorant consumers, etc.) Rarely is the finger of responsibility pointed towards musicians themselves. Well I’m here to point that filthy, nasty finger. 😀
I especially love the posts where a musician gives one ’10 Tips for convincing club owners to pay you what you deserve!’ I’ve actually laughed out loud reading these (they sound like a headline from Cosmo.) They are generally about as useful as ‘Tips for convincing Walmart to pay you more!’ Puh-lease. Record companies and club owners pay what the market says they should pay. You really think well-expressed arguments work? Look, the only reason I pay a plumber $200 to deal with my sewer is because… wait for it… all the plumbers got together and decided that’s what it should cost. There may be small variations, but every plumber charges what they charge to do competent work. They don’t show up with a snake and then take time to ‘convince’ you of their merits. Same with doctors, lawyers, carpenters, etc. You’re paid what people think you’re worth. Unfair? Do what the plumbers did. Do what every profession with a brain does. Organise.
I Ain’t No Bow Tie Wearin’ Union Guy
It dawned on me that the fortunes of musicians are no different from working stiffs throughout America. There was a brief moment when there was a unionised system and the wages most musicians made roughly paralleled those of union workers in general. Unfortunately a few years before I came into my adulthood, my peers had already started disassembling any concept of being properly paid for being a creative musician.
When I first encountered musician’s unions in the late ’70’s they were already kind of a joke outside of New York and LA. Technically they existed but frankly, for most guys they were something to be worked around. Pretty much everyone my age colluded in every way possible and at every opportunity to avoid working union jobs. In most cities, the musicians union was an object of mild amusement, if not downright ridicule. In fact, outside of New York or Las Vegas, I can count on my fingers the number of venues I’ve played that required any union affiliation and often those were not the ‘musicians’ union. Most situations I’ve encountered that technically should require a union card always somehow finds a magical ‘waiver’. Unions were for bow-tie wearing squares; certainly not for anyone au courante in the fields of rock, funk, various flavours of ‘Americana’ or anything else that anyone besides yer Great Aunt might want to pay money to see. Happy Kyne? He was in the union. That was the joke.
Actually, the joke was that ‘The Mirthmakers’ were actually union musicians who played behind all the bands that were too cool to be union. Happy Kyne (aka Frank Devol) made a very nice living, writing music for lots of TV shows and movies. His alter-ego is so ‘meta’, even by today’s standards, I’m not sure what to make of it. Was he the ultimate hipster? Or a co-conspirator laughing all the way to the bank?
A couple of times a month I get a call from some friend of a friend (who we’ll refer to as Caller X) with an emergency gig. He’ll offer me say, $75 to pay a one hour gig and send a link to some MP3s he wants me to learn. I listen, I’m not doing anything else, it sounds like fun, so I call him back for the OK. Only then does he mention the one or perhaps two rehearsals he’d like to do to get ready. And though they are all originals, he doesn’t have charts but “…it’s really important that we hit these note for note.” And the conversation is over.
Here’s the thing: I don’t care if Caller X wants to work for $75 a job. I don’t mind playing one job for pathetic money to have some fun and support a guy who is writing his own stuff. What I object to is that is a common expectation; that naturally you could ask someone to take the time to do two rehearsals and drive all over town three times and reverse-engineer the parts and then actually learn to play the parts properly. For $75. No grown up would do that for a ‘real job’ of course.
Now remember that Caller X didn’t call me as a member of a ‘composers guild’ or for a student recital or for a charity event or for any other deal which is implicitly about ‘doing something for nothing’. He called me to come in and do a professional job. He just had no expectation to pay for it. And Caller X is the norm.
See it’s not ‘record companies’ or ‘bar owners’ that are the problem here. Caller X doesn’t expect to be paid, so why should anyone else? And Caller X is basically everyone since about 1975.
Regatta De Blanc
Put another way, what Caller X does I’ve dubbed as Paid Regatta Racing. Sailboat racing is a highly technical sport that requires a lot of money to do and requires a lot of qualified partners to do. There are prizes, but they are usually nominal. But it’s so hard to organise that when you need someone to go out with you, they should be thrilled just to be invited and have a chance to feel the wind in their hand and the sea at their back! Aaaarrrrh, matey! In fact? They should pay you for the opportunity, it’s so much fun!
It’s A Job
But it’s not like that. It’s a job. You’re paying someone to do a professional job. That’s how anyone should view it. Just like the club owner does. To put it more crudely (sorry), I’m no slut. I’m the paid version. You’re paying me to be good. Not to be… well, you get the idea.
Now, I have no problem with dilettantes. Inspired amateurs from Emperors on down have been crucial to the history of music; just as there are inspired amateur woodworkers who are amazing and are as good or better than any professional birdhouse builder you could name. But at the end of the day, I think it’s safe to say that the average professional woodworker does better work, ie. gets more consistent results than the average guy with a home shop. It’s no accident that when Daft Punk really want to turn heads they hire Nile Rodgers to play guitar as opposed to neighbour Fred. All of music is like that. In terms of actual sound, you really do get what you pay for.
I Can’t Take The Bow Tie
Today so many people yammer on about ‘the value of music’. But that ball started rolling downhill fifty years ago when musicians started devaluing themselves. Maybe it started the moment enough kids decided that playing for free beer was a fine idea or maybe it started when the idea of James Dean and ‘the troubadour’ took hold. (Although it’s good to remember that Bob Dylan got paid. He just pretended to be ‘wanderin’. For the young people out there, I know it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when it looked uncool to be in it for the money. Crazy, huh?’)
Regardless, external forces like evil recording companies and loathsome club owners have always been with us. Like other workers, we gained some traction on wages after the war, but then at some point, we ourselves decided to bypass all that in order to ‘free’ ourselves from the bow tie. And employers were only too willing to take advantage of that paradigm shift.
What Are You Worth?
So it comes down to this: If you don’t value your time enough to demand a decent wage, how can you say that the end product is worth much? The devaluation of music didn’t start with ‘the internet’. It started with my generation and it’s only gotten worse since. By the time I was making fun of Happy Kyne, the boat had already sailed, not just on my profession, but on the value of music itself. I was as complicit in this as anyone and so is pretty much everyone who plays for pay. We all got us where we are today.