There is a disturbing trend that I’ve seen growing over the past several years. There seems to be an ever-growing perspective that people shouldn’t have to pay for music and that performers should just be happy to have the opportunity to share their talents and be heard. The concept of having a job in the creative field seems to be lost on many folks, to the point where I’ve even played with people who appear to share the train of thought. Being an active musician takes skill, practice, effort, dedication, sacrifice, huge amounts of time, and often quite a bit of education and equipment expense. Yes it’s our passion, but for most of us it is also a job. We are professionals and expect to be dealt with as such. Just because our work involves creativity, imagination, and performance, doesn’t mean that it is a job that doesn’t require payment. Carpenters don’t build decks for clients to get exposure, and no one expects them to. Clients pay the carpenters to do something they either cannot themselves do or do not have the time to do themselves. This is also the case when it comes to musicians.
It used to be that The American Federation of Musicians, the musicians’ union, had clout and in order for musicians to play anywhere they needed to be members. This required all venues who hired musicians to pay union scale wages at a minimum in order to have live music at the establishment. If they didn’t then they were blackballed and couldn’t hire bands. Likewise, if you played venues without a union card or for under scale, the union would fine you, or ensure that nobody would hire you. The AFM used to have quite a bit of clout regardless of venue type or size. This is no longer the case. Currently a union card is only required at specific types of venues, primarily theaters and places like Vegas. This essentially means that there is no one advocating for the performers other than the individuals, which sets the stage for a less than healthy employment situation.
Most types of employment have increased wage rates over the past thirty years or so. This has not been the case for musicians. With the fall of the AMF from a powerful bargaining agent no one has stepped in to fill the gap and represent the musicians. This has opened the field to all sorts of essentially abusive worker employer relationships. Musicians who are performing in bars or similar types of performance situations and are receiving money for doing so are often making less per performer than they were thirty years ago. This is in actual dollar amounts with no consideration for what the dollar bought thirty years ago vs. the present purchase power of the almighty dollar. There are many venues that run multiple bands a night who must split the door, often with a split going to the doorman, and a flat negotiated fee going to the soundman. Then there are the many venues that offer exposure as the motivating factor for the bands to play. In these cases, the band members often even have to pay for whatever drinks they have during the gig. The end result is that the venue reaps all of the concrete benefits, and the musicians end up with other exposure opportunities down the road (hopefully not from being unable to pay their rent).
This becomes even more troubling because there are now several generations of musicians who have come to expect this type of existence, and accept it as a trade for being able to perform. This inherently feeds the mill and creates a continuing downward spiral. It used to be that you didn’t have to make it big in order to actually make a livable wage as a musician. Granted, there also wasn’t as much readily accessible recorded music out there, and times do change, but the professional local musician should not be an endangered concept/species. What we do has value and should be treated as such. People pay for things that they place value upon and are important to the quality of their lives. It is an exchange that is entirely honorable and musicians, artists, dancers and writers should be paid just as any other person who is being contracted to provide a skilled service. This should not be a foreign concept for anyone out there.