I don’t need a meat dress but a nice meal would be great

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.

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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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7 Responses to I don’t need a meat dress but a nice meal would be great

  1. mefoley says:

    Great post! I wish I’d had someone to ask what to charge — when I did weddings I got $20-$40 (and it wasn’t that it was so much longer ago — I think we’re the same age, right?).

    I remember when a new women’s bookstore opened near me, with performance space. I checked it out, told them about you, and asked if they’d be interested, and they said they’d spent all their money on the renovation of the building, so you’d have to sing for free and pass the hat. You said “Bet they payed the plasterers”, and I’m sure you were right.

    I write, too, and edit other writers’ manuscripts, so I belong to a professional organization for editors and proofreaders which exists in large part to ensure that freelance editors/proofreaders are treated and paid professionally. So why don’t they pay writers? After writing three pieces for their 6-times-a-year magazine for members, when they asked me to do another one, I asked for money. I am a member, so I can see doing a few for nothing, but if this is going to be an ongoing thing, well, I gotta eat. The magazine’s editor was apologetic: she had no budget and all she could offer me was, as you said, exposure: a byline, a chance to ‘air my views’, and an about-the-author blurb. The organization was, they told me, not rich enough to pay writers for content. Ahem. They do pay the people who edit and proofread the magazine!

    So I proposed to the executive committee that as they’re taking in professional-level dues from people (there are different levels of membership but the lowest is about $150), they can’t really plead poverty, and that I’d like them to consider whether it’s ethical for a group that tries to make sure editors and proofreaders get a professional rate to expect writers to work for nothing. I suggested that if they couldn’t afford to pay writers for 6 issues a year, they might go to 4 issues, or even 3.

    Nope, they pled poverty. Ethics, schmethics.

  2. Meredith says:

    Thanks for playing for my women’s group – what – 10 or 11 years ago? for the door and dinner after I took the chance and asked when you put out to your mailing list that you wanted a gig in the area. Since we were all in our early 20s and working entry-level non-profit jobs and internships, the cafe dinner might have been worth more than the door. But it was how we became friends, so I’m hoping it was worth it on your end.

    It was great to see you last week. I think I repeated the Canada song verbatim to my brother when he took me home Sunday, and then I had to explain poutine. He already knew about hockey.

    • jamiebobamie says:

      When you asked me to do the gig you were honest with what your group could offer. It was up to me to decide. As I remember, I was between gigs and not too far away so I decided to go for it. I sold a few CDs and had a great time. Even if I hadn’t sold any CDs the gig totally would’ve been worth it if it brought me to you.

  3. jamiebobamie says:

    Since I wrote that post I did a fundraiser in North Carolina for a really great organization and helped them raise almost $1000. That’s a lot more than if I’d reached into my wallet and donated money. As a bonus, I got a wonderful audience who really listened to my work plus I sold a few CDs. It was a win-win for everyone. I hope to do it again next year.

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