Lady Gaga makes enough to keep herself in meat dresses for rest of her life. What about the rest of us? Musicians have to negotiate a price for every gig and hope it’s enough to pay the loan on that new guitar. Sometimes we’re asked to play for free because it’s good exposure. Buy me a parka and we’ll talk about frostbite.
Some people go to college to learn their profession; I dragged myself to a squealing microphone, boldly strummed a G chord and hoped no one left before the song was over. After enough open mikes and showcases I could blaze through “Angels from Montgomery” and not have John Prine fans leave in a huff.
I formed a little duo with a flute player and we made plans to play at weddings and parties. We bought a fake book, had a few rehearsals, borrowed my dad’s ancient sound system and placed an ad in the paper. (This was BCL – before Craigs List – when we chiseled words on a stone tablet and sent it off via stegosaurus mail.) We were ready to go … except for the money part.
Where does the daughter of a musician go for advice? To Daddy, of course. He placed a steady hand on my shoulder and intoned, “Charge a minimum of $150, whether you’re doing two songs or twenty.” Really? That was half my rent. (Remember, this was BCL. Way BCL.) I shook my head. He smiled and added, “People will think you stink if you don’t charge enough.”
When the first bride and groom asked our fee I stammered, “$150.” I almost added “although we’re flexible” but as I opened my mouth they smiled and went on discussing what songs they wanted. It was the same with other couples. My partner and I learned that if we respected ourselves enough to charge a fair fee then they would have respect for us.
In the late 80’s I started touring. Public concerts were a different animal than private parties so I often worked for a percentage of the door. There were a couple of nights when I played for the bartender and two of her friends but mostly it worked out, thanks to an extensive women’s music network.
These days I play in a variety of venues and while I prefer to get a guarantee (an amount I receive no matter how many people are there) I still sometimes work for the door. If I lose money one night, I hope to make it up in subsequent concerts.
I play for free when it fits my schedule and it’s an organization I really want to support. If I sent them a monetary donation out of my meager musician’s earnings it wouldn’t be enough to buy a box of paper clips. But I can do a concert for them and raise several hundred dollars.
Do accountants and teachers get asked to work for free as often as musicians? I’ll bet they don’t get emails like I do. “Sure, we’re paying everyone else including the sound guy who wants a $500 minimum (‘cause after all, he has to haul in all that heavy equipment) but you love what you do, right?” (No slam intended. Sound techs work hard too.)
Sometimes I do get paid but I’m amazed at the disparity. I was the featured performer at one gig but the bass player got more money. At another engagement, the venue owner charged me $3.50 for a sandwich even though my total take at the door was $12.
While music is my main gig I’m a writer too. I started getting paid for it about ten years ago when the editor at Acoustic Guitar asked me to pen a few articles and a book chapter about songwriting. Over the years I’ve also had the pleasure of writing for Curve, Indie-Music.com, Minor7th.com, SingOut! and others.
For a few months I blogged for a major website. I appreciated that they paid me, but it was barely enough to buy a donut and a double double at Timmy’s. (Translation for non-Canadians – that’s Tim Horton’s, a Dunkin’ Donut-like place, with coffee that’s heavenly with double cream and double sugar. There’s a good reason we have free health care.) I rushed through each blog so I wouldn’t spend more than an hour – that way I’d get more than minimum wage. My work suffered so I don’t write for them anymore. It’s not that the others pay me a lot; I’ve just whittled it down to the ones I really want to support. As long as teaching and performing are my bread and butter I can choose to do that. (It also means I spend much more than an hour and can put out quality work.) If Random House wanted to offer me a big contract, that’d be okay too.
I write this blog for free. My hope is that it’ll inspire folks to hire me for a show or to teach their ten year old to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If the blog entertains you, that’s cool too. Please check out www.jamieanderson.com if you want to know more. Lessons are cheaper than $150 and I promise not to play “Wedding Song” unless you really want to hear it. And if you work for Random House, contact me.