What Happened to My Paycheck?

It’s interesting to live during a time when so many people avoid paying for anything that has to do with the arts. Not only is this occurring with the individual consumers but even at the company/industry level. For instance, one of the current major recorded music sales services has launched a new service and doesn’t want to pay the musicians for using their music to make their business run during the “trial period”, and a major online book sales company is attempting to avoid paying writers for content that is sold on their site, such as paying the writers per pages read of the books sold electronically vs. for the entire book, which the company is collecting the money for anyway: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/amazon/11692026/Amazons-to-pay-Kindle-authors-only-for-pages-read.html. People still want us to provide their entertainment, but ignore the fact that we need to make a living.

Musicians used to have the American Federation of Musicians union to assist in protecting our interests and our wallets. When I was a kid they were still actively doing so even in the small towns across the country, but now they are entirely limited to the upper tiers of the performance world in terms of being a viable influence on any outcomes. The bulk of active performers on the local circuits are not, nor have been, members for decades.

The other day I saw a posting on Facebook that was a sharing of an article by David Safran (http://music.newcity.com/2015/06/17/less-successful-numbers-the-unfortunate-economics-of-local-music/) discussing the current situation in Chicago regarding performing in clubs and getting paid wages. More specifically it was discussing the huge disparity between what out of town bands get paid, in guarantees and otherwise, and local artists. In most cases the rates were so low for local acts that they often walk away in the red for playing the gigs in the first place. The author made the suggestion that perhaps the answer was a local musicians’ boycott where no one took gigs inside Chicago for 6 months in protest of the situation. Unfortunately this wouldn’t work because for one thing it would require an element of solidarity amongst the performers that just has not been present in years, in fact since the AMF was at its height of influence.

It used to be that in order to perform pretty much anywhere, a musician had to be a card carrying member of the AMF otherwise the performer would be blacklisted from being able to perform anywhere. Clubs that didn’t fall into line by hiring union musicians and paying union wages were blacklisted and union members were forbidden by the union to take gigs there. The union, of course, took it’s cut, but in hindsight, that cut did quite a lot to ensure that people could pursue being a musician as a job at many levels, not just the big leagues. The passing of the American Federation of Musicians’ influence on the club scene is largely due to the truly amazing number of musicians who were more than willing to subsidize the extinction of the local professional musician. Over the past several decades too many musicians have established and encouraged a societal expectation that entertainment should be free and the concept that it is a privilege to perform for free, by taking gig after gig after gig that paid nothing, not even free drinks at the bar.

At this point, most of the gigs I play are in the suburbs, the outskirts of Chicago, where there are more clubs that are willing to part with some cash for entertainment. However, this is not a Mecca for musicians either. The pay rates are currently lower, or similar to (not even considering cost of living increases or the buying power of the dollar) what they were almost thirty years ago per band member. It is actually pretty difficult to break into the $100 per player per gig rate. The gigs I usually play involve me driving at least 45-60 minutes to the gig, arriving an hour early (minimum required by the venue, often earlier) for load in, three hours of performing with about an hour off total between sets, followed by about an hour spent with tear down and waiting for payment, and then another hour’s drive home. All told, it’s an eight-hour stretch of work for about a 60-70 dollar average payment per performer. Breaking down the math, that averages to about $8.75 an hour at the higher end and that’s not taking into account fuel and equipment expenses, anything eaten during that time frame, and paying Uncle Sam’s share of your wages if you’re doing what you’re supposed to and reporting your income, which will end up falling into the self-employment bracket. This, by any stretch of the imagination, is not a livable wage.

Many of us rail about the unfairness of club owners and even fans who are unwilling to pay us for what we do, and most of us who do are the older musicians who see the reality of an economic system that doesn’t place value on what we have to offer. It is an upsetting reality that too many folks simply want to sweep under the rug while popping open another beer and calling out for “Stairway to Freebird.” However, the other uncomfortable reality is that we are just as responsible for the current dire straits the local professional musicians face in terms of the feasibility of making a living as musicians. Every time a musician takes a free gig, it’s another proverbial nail in the coffin of the profession as a whole, and that’s the unfortunate fact of the matter. When we do this, we are devaluing our profession to something that no longer matters and creating a downward spiral that we are doing nothing to prevent ourselves from crashing in.

So what do we do at this point, shrug our shoulders and continue to contribute to the problem? There is no easy answer to the problem at this point and it is a very established status quo to contend with. Many of us have resorted to acceptance as a way of life and try not to think about it too much. Some simply quit, spending the rest of our lives quietly resenting anything and everything about the entertainment industry. Others quietly hope for and seek change, a return to being valuable and valued contributors to the welfare of our society. The first step is always the hardest, and often those that follow aren’t easy either. Let’s start moving forward as a group and seek to preserve our livelihoods. This is our future and our way of life.