Work and Music: Perceptions and Realities

Our street out front has been out of commission for the past four months. The village has been on an infrastructure improvement mission and two blocks of our street were slated for both sewer and water main replacements as well as rebuilding the entire street in the process. It has been a long four months and the past couple in particular have been a challenge. The house has been shaking and the windows rattling from all of the heavy equipment creating seismic activity that has made me rethink possibly moving to California: minor tremors? No big deal. I’m used to having a fairly quiet space, aside from my dog alarm notifying me of the postal carrier’s arrival, and that’s despite living in a highly urban environment. Today they’ve started paving which tells me we are in the end stretch of the project. There’s obviously still work to be done and more layers of asphalt to be laid, but I can see the end of the noisome project, which is a definite improvement.

In some ways being a musician is very much similar to the process that we’ve undergone with the rebuilding of our roadway out front, but in other ways it’s very different. In a few weeks there will only be a smooth road for people to drive on. People who don’t live on my street who chance upon it and drive down it will use the finished product and appreciate it as a nice road surface, if they even think about it. However, so much work went into the preparation for that final presentation, and unless you were there while they tore up the old surface, hauled it away, dug and replaced one main after another, refilled the holes than dug them up again to attach the mains to the feeders to the houses, then filled them in again, crushed the old curbs, dug those out, set the molds and redid the curbs and curb sidewalks, then laid the roadbed before grading and then finally starting to lay the asphalt, you wouldn’t think about everything that went into that nice smooth ride that you’re currently experiencing.

When people go out to hear a band at their local watering hole, at a festival, or formal concert, what they are experiencing is the final road surface, that clean fresh ride and the sound of tires on new pavement. They don’t see the years spent learning to play the instruments, the countless hours of rehearsal, equipment purchases, perhaps costume designing and all of the various other factors that go into producing that show they just saw. They see the culmination of the project to that point. When they judge what they’ve seen, they’re actually judging all the work that went into producing what might add up to three hours of performance, and that’s what the people that made it happen take home with them, along with whatever their monetary take was for the night.

Where it is most different, however, is that the folks who have done the water and sewer main work, then finished the project, were being paid while they created the road. For those four months the workers were receiving wages that paid to send their kids to school, kept a roof over their heads, provided benefits and sick time wages, as well as paid for their vehicles and whatever else they needed. They were making a livable wage while they worked. This is not the case for those musicians. On the local level musicians are actually getting paid less per gig than they were thirty years ago, particularly when you look at what the dollar can buy now versus thirty years ago. In suburban Chicagoland the usual take for a performance varies between sixty to one hundred dollars per musician per performance. Usually these performances run from 9pm-1am and entail about another three hours of set up, tear down and travel time. This ends up resulting in an hourly wage of about $8.60 to $14. There is no pay for the hours spent rehearsing, equipment purchase compensation, or other business compensation, nor is there such a thing as paid vacation or sick time. If the local musician gigged 28 nights a month for an average of $100 per night for a year, the gross would come to $33,600. Since he or she would be considered self employed the withholdings are greater than those for someone who grossed the same amount but was employed by a company, so the net take would be less for the musician.

In this area, the end result would be difficult for one person to live on, let alone a family. It would also entail working 336 days out of 365, if one played one gig on each of those 28 days per month for $100 per gig. Of course this also ignores all of the work that would go into booking those gigs, which, once again, is unpaid labor. If the musician is lucky and has a good booking agency, then a minimum of 10% of the gross payment for each gig goes to the booking agent, so if the venue pays $100 per musician for the night, each musician receives $80 before expenses and tax deductions. It’s very difficult to even get to the point where one is being booked that many times a month on the local level anyway, particularly when many venues either don’t pay anything or only promise the door, which can be a disaster for various reasons.

When people aren’t conscious of the amount of work that went into creating that road and everything underneath it, they have a tendency to take it for granted. They question the funding for infrastructure projects, but complain when the roads fall apart, sewers can’t handle the overflow from spring rains, and the water mains break after 100 years of service. However, this is the only way those improvements are going to happen. No builder is going to offer to work pro bono for “exposure,” but when it comes to musical entertainment it’s an entirely different story. A band I’m in recently had auditions for a new drummer, and one of the drummers asked about money, in a very apologetic manner. He’s trying to make a living as a musician, and due to the current climate surrounding the arts money is an incredibly touchy subject. Amateurs are all too willing to play for free, which creates an environment where venues start to expect this from all levels of musicians. Often bar owners complain about paying bands, and when the amateur bands respond by playing for free, this creates a sucking chest wound in the vitality of the professional musician pool.

When I look out at the road in front of my house, I’m going to remember for years just how much work and effort went into building that road and everything that was built underneath it. I’m going to remember the long weeks of heavy machinery and construction workers laboring through the rain, heat, snow and cold to produce an end result that is far better than what was there before. Just as I remember the years and decades of work that went into my musical practice and performance. While there are definite differences between the two, the similarities still exist, hard work, dedication and perseverance. I just hope everyone else sees this as well.

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