Making a Life in the Arts: Make the Commitment, Do the Work; Expect Payment.

A life in the arts provides its inherent challenges, not the least of which is making a living within your art. Some folks go to school, graduate, then go on to graduate school, finally landing a job teaching in their field at the college level. While this might seem like an undesirable compromise to some altruists out there, the reality is these folks are lucky. They have found a way to make a decent living in their field, have the opportunity to continue pursuing their art, and are the ones who actually stand a chance of building a retirement fund in the process, all the while having access to other benefits like health care.   Some take the route of teaching in their field in elementary, middle and high schools. For those who land full time work there, it can be a reasonable living; however, in today’s public schools the arts are one of the first fields to be cut when funding crises occur. There are other ways to make your way in your field, but they are not for the uncommitted. If you can’t commit to doing everything it takes to make a living in your particular field, then you really need to face the fact that the only way you’re going to make it is with a day job.

The lady who owns the dance studio my daughter goes to studied dance through the college level, danced professionally for years, and is a certified dance teacher, licensed to teach in public schools as well as privately. She is currently in her middle years and still dances as the opportunity presents itself, but most of her professional life at this point is directly linked to her school here in Oak Park, IL. She has two studios, one in Oak Park and the other in Forest Park, which is a neighboring suburb. She has a cadre of instructors who are all excellent, and she still is very active teaching. I am amazed at the amount of work she puts into the studios, with dance concerts several times a year involving full productions on excellent stages in the area. She’s a dynamo who is also currently starting a dance company as well, featuring students and local professionals, and giving the ability to experience a full on professional production for the members. She spends enormous amounts of time teaching dance and choreography, producing the shows, choreographing dances and all the while maintains a positive attitude regardless of how stressed she might be. If you’re curious about her, her name is Diane VanDerhei, and her studio is Intuit Dance Studio in Oak Park, IL.

Diane is an example of the level of commitment necessary to be successful in the often cut-throat world of the arts. Most musicians that I know who aren’t teaching in colleges full time, either don’t make a living as a musician, relying on day jobs to pay the bills, or cobble together an income from a variety of sources, usually a combination of gigging, teaching private lessons, and working in a music store, or some combination thereof. I have a friend, Erik Truelove, in Tucson, AZ who is one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with and a wonderful gentleman to boot. Erik has always been something of an entrepreneur and has worked as a contractor doing construction as well as having his own businesses over the years. Erik started a music school in Tucson called Drum and Drummer. Originally it was started to teach percussion, both group sessions and private one on one lessons. He also sells percussion instruments through his school. He has been successful, marketing his skills very well and has been expanding the school to include guitar, piano and bass lessons as well. This is in addition to working as a drummer on a fairly regular basis. He has a cadre of instructors as well as other staff who man the desk and take care of various aspects of business. This being said, the reason the place is running so well is that Erik committed to the project and didn’t go in part way. He had a plan, worked the plan and is getting solid results.

Often people go into the arts and have a somewhat flaky assumption that inspiration is something that cannot be rushed, you just have to wait for the moment and it’ll come. Most of those folks are still waiting. In order to be successful in the arts, whether it is dance, art, writing, music, or whatever, work must be done and it must be done on a regular basis. The people who are out there on the local level and making a living at it are all committed to doing the work it takes in order to reap the rewards. It’s also important to have a concrete understanding of what you need in order to make a decent living. What is a decent living must be ascertained otherwise it is simply a vague concept. Determining what you need to make also has a hand in determining what you need to do in order to hit that target. If you’re not willing to do that, then it’s definitely time to look for a different stream of income.

Too many people approach a life in the arts with the romantic notion that artists are dreamers who keep their own schedules and can’t be troubled with worrying about money. And far too many adopt an attitude that they’re selling out if they start thinking about the money aspect, looking upon those who expect to make money with sneers of disdain. The fact is people need to eat. They need a safe place to sleep and they need to be able to take care of themselves. Expecting to be paid for your art is simply the difference between a professional and an amateur. And if you have any hopes at all of making a life for yourself in the arts, you really need to focus on both your art, and how you can make a living with it. That is actually one of the key factors in succeeding. The other two are total commitment and tons of hard dedicated work.

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Summer Gigging: What Should I Book?

Summer is closing in. I know that it’s not technically spring yet, but the summer local festival dates are coming in for my band, a booking process that started last fall. The area around Chicago has many summer outdoor gigging opportunities sponsored by the various suburban park systems and civic organizations. Some are summer concert series and others are special events, like festivals. Festivals are fun to play and typically the bigger they are, the more fun it is. One member of a band I’m currently working with prefers to play only these types of venues during the summer, which is understandable. Often these types of situations involve a built in audience, most of whom come specifically to listen to the music. For the festivals there is usually an actual sound company contracted to provide the PA system and run the boards, guaranteeing a better experience for the musicians (most of the time). Stage space is often more than ample and the crowds are appreciative. There are many benefit to doing these gigs during the summers; however, there are certain drawbacks to the outdoor venues, particularly when they are the only type of gig that is booked for the summer.

Outdoor gigs, such as those noted above, do offer quite a bit in terms of return for the band’s efforts. For one thing many of them pay pretty well, particularly the festivals. At the festivals, as well as some of the park gigs, the sound system is provided by folks who run and set up p.a. systems professionaly. This has multiple benefits for the band, not the least of which is the band doesn’t bear the responsibility of contracting and paying someone to come in and do so. Many bands can and do provide their own p.a. systems but usually don’t hire someone to run the board, because it’s an expense they don’t want to incur and they figure they can get things set they way they want them most of the time. This generally works well enough that it’s not an issue for small venues, but does overtask the band when working elsewhere. That being said, professionally provided sound systems usually provide a luxury experience for the performers. Sound is balanced on-stage through the provided monitors. What you need more or less of is delivered by simply asking the soundman and out front the mains are entirely in the hands of the same.

This type of situation also provides quite a bit of exposure for the performers, often to different types of crowds than are often run into in the club circuit. Most of these events are geared toward families, both young and old, while others cater to specific groups of folks. Any way you look at it, further exposure means a potentially larger fan-base, which could result in larger draws at clubs during the fall and winter, as well as potentially being re-booked for the following summer events. Plus, unlike many other venues, these events tend to be less predatory upon the acts they book. By that I mean they don’t just offer exposure as compensation for performing but also pay the performers.

There is a downside to outdoor performances, which is in itself no surprise. This type of gig is mostly weather dependent. While some do involve large tents that do more than provide shade, most of the time the stage areas are exposed to the elements and if it rains, you’re done. Cancellations can really suck the income out of a band if the summer turns out to be a particularly wet one, and while some places will attempt to reschedule, they are in the minority. Generally there will also be a clause in the contract covering payment in the event of a weather related cancellation, which usually indicates that the band does not get paid in this situation. There are also situations where inclement weather is threatening but it hasn’t started to rain as of yet. Since it is not raining you will be expected to set up and prepare to play until it does, or in the situation where there is a covered stage you will need to set up and wait for a break in the weather to start. If you don’t bring a tarp for your equipment and it rains, chances are your equipment, particularly anything electronic, is going to suffer damage, which you will solely be responsible for repairing or replacing.

Logically enough, if it’s a wet summer and your band has relied solely on outdoor venues for gigs, you are going to have a major income deficit, which will be a big deal if you’re relying on the income to make ends meet. If that is the case, then it would be wise to pursue as many indoor venues as possible in addition to the outdoor ones. While some might think that in areas with substantial opportunities to see live performances outdoors it will result in lower draws at indoor venues, this is not necessarily the case. Clubs will still draw crowds, particularly if your band is popular. Some of this has to do with target audiences. Most of the local outdoor events are indeed geared toward being family friendly and the crowds are generally filled with families and folks who really aren’t interested in hanging out in bars and nightclubs. There are some outdoor venues that cater to the twenty to thirty something folks, singles and couples, who are out having a good time, but these people are still more likely to be hitting the nightclubs and bars. The festivals that are populated by this demographic tend to be more focused on multiple band events, primarily with quite popular local and national touring acts brought together for large events. So, what are you looking forward to this summer?

Is Exposure Enough?

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.

Making a Living as a Musician

Earning a living as a musician is not an easy thing to do at this point. Most local musicians who hope to earn enough to live on do so by a mix of revenue sources, usually through combining gigging with teaching lessons and often working in a music store. Frequently it’s a mix of the three. Some earn their living primarily from one of the three areas and often they end up with a day job that is entirely unrelated to music in order to have something remotely close to a “normal” existence.

I’ve lived in many different parts of the country and in most places the average gig payment, if there even is one, is the same as what it was thirty of forty years ago. Most bar bands are making about $60-100 per person, if they are even making that. The International Federation of Musicians used to have an impact on this, but at this point they are all but inactive, only raising their collective heads when you’re dealing with high end venues that involve long term shows staffed by musicians such as musical theater productions, orchestral work, and the like. If you can get this type of work, then the pay will often be substantially better. There are so many folks who are willing to play for nothing that many venues don’t even consider paying the musicians. This in itself has had a major impact on the availability of paying gigs.

With gigs, if you’re paid you’re looking at several options. Sometimes the band/performers will be paid a guaranteed wage which is worked out prior to the gig. Sometimes there will be a small guarantee plus money that is collected at the door. Sometimes it is just the door, and if it’s a split bill, then the take from the door is divided between the bands on the bill, sometimes divided by time, sometimes divided by head counts, or some other variation. This type of situation is the lowest risk for the venue because they are only out the expense of having someone at the door, which they often do anyway to check IDs.

What you draw, in terms of a crowd, often determines whether you will be able to play at the venue again. That, and of course, how good your band is, how well they do their job, and how few problems they cause at the venue. Sometimes if the band is good, the venue will overlook a minimal draw and still have the band come back to play again. Sometimes the venue will attempt to dock the pay of the band if they don’t figure they can cover a so-called guarantee from the proceeds of the night.

Teaching lessons is also a source of income and can be a quite lucrative one if you have the skills to be a good music instructor. There are different ways people do this. Some teach out of a music store, out of their home, out of their own rental space, and some actually go to their students’ homes and teach them there. Each location has its own benefits and potential drawbacks. Each also involves the teacher essentially being a self-employed contractor. Don’t expect the music store to take care of your tax withholdings; you’re on your own for that! Anyway you look at it there are going to be expenses incurred that you’ll have to figure into your income, whether it’s payment for the room at the music store, rent for a private space, gas money, or whatever.

Working in a music store is another way that musicians put their skills to work. It can be either a good experience, or a bad one, like any other, and if you are prone to lust over gear it also can lead to potentially working to pay off gear that you have fallen in love with and decided you have to have, again and again. If you have poor impulse control this might be a bad place for you to work due to this. But there are often concrete perks. For instance discounts for the stuff that you regularly need, like guitar or bass strings. If you have good impulse control and don’t think that you need every cool guitar you come across this can be a good place to work. It also is a place where you can make contacts with other musicians, which can lead to further playing opportunities.

Any way you look at it, trying to make a living as a musician, particularly in a localized sense, is a challenge and it doesn’t look like the challenge is going to get any easier in the future. Some musicians do get the opportunity to make their living through schools, for instance elementary, high schools and colleges. Those jobs are available on a limited basis, if you have the right qualifications and educational background, and if you do have these you’ll probably end up having to relocate if you land one. It is also true that many public schools cut music programs first, so if you think there is going to be more security taking that route be aware that there are no guarantees in this world. Yes, it is time to get busy!