Thursday, February 23, 2012

The worth of a musician in 2012?

I've had some very interesting discussions with professional musicians in recent weeks, and I feel the time has come to do something about resetting the values of music in this town (Birmingham).  Perhaps other areas of the country are suffering as much, but I only know from personal experience in this town.

First order of business, define a professional musician:  To me, a pro is one who plays music for money to pay the rent and buy food.  Whether they've been doing it for a year or 50, and whether they are good or not, it doesn't matter.  If the money they earn funds their basic living expenses, they're a pro in my book.  If they live well, they're probably very talented.  If they've been doing this for 20 years and still live in their parent's basement eating ramen noodles off a hot plate, then perhaps a face to face with Simon Cowell will give them the swift kick in the arse they need to hang it up and pursue a life otherwise.

I was reminded by a 45yr veteran of the Bham scene that in 1978, cover charge was $5.  In 2012, it seems nothing has changed.  In fact, some bars don't charge cover at all.  That's not necessarily an issue if the bar has only a solo acoustic artist to pay ($150-$250), as that's a fairly cheap nut to cover.  But what if the band has 4 or more members?  What is the venue saying about the quality or worth of the act?  "They're not worth paying to see, but come on in and spend money at the bar."  What's the chance that act was paid more than $400 for their show?  Not likely.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, I discovered a value measuring calculator which helps determine value on a "now vs then" comparison.  It only covers 1774 to 2010 (census data) but that's ok, the point is still relevant.  Taking the $5 cover from 1978 as an example, in today's dollars, that would be roughly $16.  Now, let's go backwards, but let me set the stage.  There seems to be an "understanding" that a musician, any musician, in this town is worth $100/person.  That's typical for band arrangements.  Solo acts don't really fit into this category, because I've seen people earn $50-$300 for a solo act.  Then there's the scale crushers who work for beer.  But let's not concern ourselves with them.  Ok, so back to $100/person.  In 1978 terms, that musician would have only been worth about $30.  That is a rough round-up using all the indicators, ranging from unskilled wage to commodity.  Musicians see ourselves as skilled wage earners, artists, and/or craftsmen.  Vendors see us as a commodity.  However, according to my sources, musicians in 1978 were earning $75-$100/person, but if they worked hard and built a following, they could easily get $300-$400/person.  Let's take that into 2012 terms, shall we?  In today's money, that $100/person should be $315/person.  On the upper end of the 1978 range, a $400/person would be $1300/person.  I'm going to sidebar this for a minute while you are letting that sink in.  Think $1300/person is unrealistic today?  Consider the source for my info has a band that fetches in the $4500/gig range for 4 people today.  It took over a dozen and a half years to get that band to that point, but that guy who was earning $75-$400 in 1978 is earning almost $1200/person for his band today.  So now, is that so unrealistic?  Ain't it spooky how we have an actual case study right here in Birmingham who has managed to bear out the realities of a musicians value over time?  I'm not making this stuff up...just using that calculator, his figures from 1978, and the figures of what his band does today.

Speaking of commodities, let's talk about that.  Beer is the primary commodity of a bar, right?  1978 cover was $5.  How much was a beer?  Typically $1-$2 depending on the town you were in.  That hasn't changed much, although in 2012, the beer choices are exponentially greater, with high gravity being an option even for the likes of Budweiser.  So a craftsman beer is going to run you $4-12 at a minimum.  I've seen them as high as $20 in Decatur GA.  But back to the basics, if a Coors was $1 in 1978, it's 3x that in 2012.  Think about that for a minute.  Beer is 3x, but cover is 1x.  Then of course you have all the "social" drinks like "_____ bombs" and Tuaca shots, martinis made from darn near everything but the juice from the bar rag.  And all of those come at a hefty price.

How does this relate to musicians?  Well, there's a lot hiding under the surface.  We complain for lack of proper compensation, yet we all know someone willing to play for gas money.  I consider anything less than $100/person gas money.  Those who say "gee, you're willing to PAY me to play here?" should be shot on sight, right between the pickups.  Believe it or not, there's an awful lot of animosity among musicians in every town with angst for these folks.  As another pro musician pointed out to me the other day, those people are in this for a hobby.  In 5yrs, they'll drop their Squire guitar combos and pick up a golf bag or a fishing rod.  But in the meantime, they managed to screw up the true value of a musician along the way, and like a tornado, they leave a scar that won't heal anytime soon, nor will they have anything to do with the healing process.  I can relate to this from my professional photographer background.  Along comes a soccer mom who thinks she can buy a camera from an electronics warehouse, set the dial to auto, open up her Fauxtographer Facebook Fauxto page, and start taking pics for $50/session.  Puke f'ing puke.  A pro wedding photographer fetches $5000-$10000 per wedding.  Aunt Sally is going to shoot it for $400.  Deal!  Bit*h.  Thanks for ruining the marketplace.  When her fauxtography business doesn't work out, she goes back to painting rocks for craft shows, leaving us pros in the ruins.  How do you pick up a turd from the clean end?

Now let's work on solutions.  How do we increase the bottom line in our back pocket?  I have a couple ideas in mind (and open to more), and it may be a combination of both to achieve success:

  1. Convince the bars to increase cover to $10 across the board.  Doesn't matter who the band is on any given night, doesn't matter where the venue is in the metro area.  If they charge a cover, bump it to $10 and keep it there.  Of course people are going to whine.  And they may stop going out for a couple weekends until it sinks in that this is the new reality.  Did you stop driving your car because gas is now approaching $3.80/gal, but you were paying less than $3/gal two years ago?  If the venues stick to their guns, people are going to pay, because they have no other choice, except to stay home, and we know that's not going to happen.  The bar will be forced to bring value to their patrons, which means choosing bands who know how to entertain and keep a crowd (more for another blog).  The garage band industry-wrecking hobbyists are eliminated from the circuit almost immediately.

    Sidebar: have you been watching Full Throttle Saloon?  Michael, the owner of a
    gigantic biker bar in Sturgis SD started charging cover to enter the bar, something
    he has never done before 2011.  This upsets a lot of fans, but not the majority.
    This puts Jesse James Dupree (Jackyl)  into an outright furious rage.  But when
    the dust settles, over a 7 day period, the new cover charge is what ultimately
    saved the bar from being a failure.  It means the 7 day crowd eventually
    "got over it" and accepted this as the new norm.  7 days.  I propose a $10
    cover would revolutionize this town in 2 months.  They did it in seven.  Sometimes
    I think this town is no bigger than the 80 acre compound occupied by FTS.  2 months
    may be generous!

  2. Convince the musicians to hold to $200/person minimum.  Crazy, right?  Not really.  If you're a good musician, the 4-6hrs you devote to that one gig shouldn't pay you a penny less.  What is your time worth?  This gets a little skewed if you're an originals musician.  You're hoping someone will come see you play, and at best, you're probably going to get your revenue from CD and/or shirt sales.  Otherwise, the bar is likely not paying you.  It's all in the name of exposure.  But a cover band is providing "entertainment" more than they are providing music (I've got an entire blog I can devote to this topic).  If the musicians band together and hold out for proper pay or they don't play, the bars will quickly run out of quality musicians, and they'll have to acknowledge the true value of a musician.  So a cover band worth its salt should be asking for $200/person minimum.  Or perhaps they should ask for nothing at all except what walks through the door.  Whoa!!!  Wait!!! Did he just say ask for nothing at all?  That's a topic for another blog entry...stay tuned, that one is going to be interesting....
Bottom line, if we want to make more money, the bars need to do their part to afford paying us, and of course we have to do our part to earn it.  I don't own a venue, and I've never managed one.  But I do own a business, I do know my way around the negotiation table, and one thing is for certain:  if you don't ask for it, you won't get it.  If you are a venue owner, or know one who would be interested in this topic, I'd love to hear their response.  I'd also love to hear your response, so hit reply and let 'er rip tater chip!

Read Part two of this story


  1. The level of scorn afforded to working musicians is appalling. Most bars and music venues fail within a year of operation, but we've been out here practicing our craft for MANY years and WE'RE the ones who get treated like some high-school garage band? We have got to start demanding more pay for our services. Birmingham musicians it's time for a union. Yeah I said it: UNION!

    1. Where's the "like" button Steve? Bravo.

    2. A union sounds like a great idea! I'm with Greg, where's the "like" button?

  2. I already refuse to drink at a bar if they charge a cover. The only time I'll pay one is if I'm going there specifically to see the act, which is rare. Otherwise I will turn around and find another bar without live music. Nine times out of ten, the music act is so bad and the acoustics so poorly controlled that I'd rather they pipe in crackling top 40 than be forced to endure the so-called performance. If I'm at a bar it's to drink and socialize, not scream over a cover band on substandard equipment.

    Maybe, your problem isn't with the value of a professional musician, but rather, with still using the same business model for fifty years. Sadly, a musician can't just play music, any more than a professional author can just write, or a professional artist can just draw. Today we are all commodities, and learning how to market and brand ourselves is more productive than complaining that an outdated method of reimbursement is outdated. Tautology anyone?

    1. Well, even now, the best exposure a band can get is going out and playing for fans. Music is one of those things that is often best when performed for an audience, so that the band can feed off the energy of the audience. And until cities start building places that are solely just venues for music, the best place for local bands is going to be bars.

      Also, some professional authors can just write. That's what agents are for... Just saying. ^_^

  3. If you refuse to pay a cover, then you're not really the target audience for performing musicians, are you? We're not talking about whether or not TO charge a cover, just what the amount of the cover should be in relation to how much the bar is bringing in.

    In those nine times out of ten when the music act is so bad, maybe it's because the venue isn't willing to pay good money for good music. Remember, you get what you pay for. Have the bars changed their business model? No, they still pour drinks and charge outrageous prices. Musicians have adapted, but you also have to factor in that marketing and branding involve overhead costs. It's hard to justify spending money to improve your act only to break even because the pay rate for a gig is so low.

    1. Not to seem curt, but ditto to Scott. I couldn't reply any better to Katherine. I'm not complaining, I'm lighting a fire to change the ways! There's enough complainers in this world. What we need are more do-ers.

  4. There are a couple of flaws in your comparisons. Equipment cost a lot more in the 70's, and the primary factor that drives price competition. The buck we are competing for is the entertainment dollar, and in the 70's there were fewer things competing with bands for that buck.

    Now we have the internet, console games, VHS and streaming movies, the list goes on. So I think it is unrealistic to compare the pay of then vs now.

    On the other hand, I am all for a higher standard for musicians AND Clubs. I've played numerous bars in this area that have crap for bathrooms or parking lot lighting... bars that can't even brew a pot of coffee! So I often have to ask myself... do I want to drag my fans to this "venue"?

  5. If you have a product the people want to hear then you'll make the money you're worth. 95% of my shows were solo or duo acoustic shows and I started venturing more into just doing original music. I used to try and negotiate 0 guarantee and me get $100 of the door. I would make anywhere from $1300 to $200 depending on what part of the state and the venue. That's not counting money from Swag. Eventually the venues want to renegotiate for the door and that's when I ask for a good guarantee and tell them they have to promote the show. I spent more energy and time promoting the shows than what I did playing them. I started out playing for basically pennies but luckily the guy I think you referenced at the beginning of the article showed me the ropes and I was making decent money within a year and continued to for around 7 years. I agree that venues should just ban together and charge the same cover no matter what. There would definitely be a lot of shitty bands out of business b/c they don't warrant a high cover charge.

    If you play music people want to hear and play it well you'll make the money.

  6. IT was supposed to read 100% of the door

  7. I don't agree with stomping out all the little bands starting out, mainly because, where do u think most bands u hear on the radio started out at. However, I do agree if they're not good enough tell them to keep up the practice and come back. But for bands that are worth the effort give them a shot and let them be heard. After all not everyone's taste in music is the same anyway.

  8. As A venue owner for 4yrs in a Tourist town Hears my 2cents. ASCAP BMI SEASAC all charge us to have live music or even play CDs. Rent,Utilities,Insurance,inventory Advertisement employee cost TAXES all cost $600 aday just to open the door. We hold 240 people. We have $35000 PA $8500 Recording Equipment $20000 Backline $5400 in lighting $5000 Snakes,cables and misc.All payed for. Our Sound Engineer is a Sound Design Grad. Top of his class. We have hosted Jimmy Herring Col.Bruce Ivan Nevelle Stanton Moore GE Smith Jack Cassady Lotus Tea Leaf Green Keller Williams Hurt James McMurtry and many up and coming artist. Our bathrooms are clean and our beer is cheap. We are $550,000 into this and are losing $1000 week. Not on the above metioned artist but on local acts who play the nights we don't have a touring band. We have to sell $1000 of beer or drinks to cover opening add $100 Sound Engineer $80 Door Guy $320 for a Band and we have to sell $1,800 in sales that's 90 people at $20 average tab. The Local Bands here play every where so if we charge a cover people will wait a night and go hear them at the local Restaurant or sports bar for free. We are a VENUE tring to stay open. If musicians sell tickets we can sell alchole. It's a partnership. Musicians are contracted at my Venue to bring people and to entertain them while they drink the more money spent the more we can pay. We don't want to go out of business and we don't think the Musicians want us to either. Reasonable Guarantees with particapation and cooperation if the night flops is the only way we all win.

  9. I'm not a musician, but I am a frequent customer at various bars around town.

    I like what Katherine said, because one of my HUGE pet peeves is this: When I want to listen to the band (which is why I go to the bar), it REALLY pisses me off when people who do not want to listen to the band yell and scream at each other so loudly that I have trouble hearing. Very annoying! I would love it if people who want to just drink and talk go to bars that don't have bands, or just buy a bottle of something and stay at home.

    There are several bars that do have a cover (mostly $5), and some of these are so crowded every night it's hard to find a seat. In my humble opinion, it appears that people who want to see a band don't mind paying for it. When some customers spend more than that per drink, it's kinda like just one more drink. (A concert costs 20 times that or more, and without the upclosepersonal experience.)

    In the 1970s, when there was a $5 cover charge, it usually also included a drink or two.

    With that said, I would gladly pay $10 for the experience of seeing one of the many excellent local bands/groups/musicians Birmingham has produced. I usually put a 10 or 20 dollar bill in the tip jar if the band is decent. I wish everyone would do that! I agree that the "garage bands" would quickly be out of business, leaving more work for the true musicians, who also are dreadfully UNDERPAID.

    Having lived in Birmingham for many years, I do think there's a problem with getting any two entities to agree on anything. Getting all the bars that have music to agree to charge a $10 cover, or a cover at all, will be a huge problem. So will getting all decent musicians to agree to charge more.

    But oooohhhh how I wish it could happen!

  10. Montgomery has many of the same problems. I know a number of the bars down here rarely, if ever, have a cover charge. There is one bar, though, that will charge $5 cover if you come insanely early, then $10 close to when the band goes on and that same amount for the rest of the night. Not sure if that's any help or not. But, I think if all the venues were to agree to a price and stick to it, it would help.

  11. My best experiences with pay are when the venue does a min verses vs a door charge. So they might say you guys will get $400.00 min and if the door does more, you get that. So if your a good band with a good following everyone wins! You can do really good with this arrangement, we have made 3x's the min with this arrangement on a regular basis and with only a $5 cover charge! This leaves the bar to make all the money it normally does of drinks without dealing with the band expense. Working for the door the band is getting their true earned value and paying themselves. So if you suck your not going to make any money and when the bar does not make money, you won't be back. That takes care of the non-professionals and awards the people who work hard,market well and play well. Bottom line is to fund the entertainment there has to be a cover charge and $5 is nothing these days!

    1. This article is quite informative, and I appreciate it for that. However, I must take issue with the premise that artists who make art for the love of it, and not for money, can or should be faulted for doing that. Assume just for a second that one of these artists is actually good... he or she should be excoriated for giving it away? Shame. Somewhere in upstate New York, I imagine Pete Seeger is frantically looking for a grave to roll over in. I am a singer songwriter, but I have a straight job to provide for my family. I tell my children I go out to play my music for people, because songs need to be heard in order to live. I believe that to be true, and I hope they will never forget it.

    2. Pete Seeger is still alive.

    3. Which is why he would have to be "looking for a grave"

  12. I obviously wasn't clear enough about the fact this is written about the musicians who play for money, and as such, it relates more to the cover acts than not. I never discourage good music. I'm saying that if you're a musician playing for money, and you're worth your salt, demand more to increase and maintain the value of the industry. Scenario: If john and jane doe wish to go play on a stage at a bar which charges cover, and they're willing to do so for no money whatsoever (not even the door), be absolutely sure to tell the venue owner that they're not the norm. If the duo is great, and the crowd loves them, well that's fantastic. The owner is going to ask for the duo to do this on a regular basis. Remember the rules they established--no money! John and Jane set the standard for themselves. Now they can't ask for money without compromising something---their character (for now asking for pay), the length of time they play, the frequency in which they play; regardless something has to give. If the point is just to share music with the masses, that's fantastic and noble, but fantastic and noble runs its course. John and Jane set a standard of no pay for that venue owner. Now anytime someone who wants money walks in to play, they have to butt heads with John and Jane's standard. The artist is either forced to adhere to the standard, or say "Thanks, but no thanks. You should call John and Jane back. Sounds like they did a great job for you." Point is, the standard and bar needs to be raised for those who DO play for money. I'm not concerned with someone who is effectively busking. If a band is truly new and wanting to get their name out, play for exposure, etc, with the long term goal of getting paid well, then they should put their money where their mouth is. Play for 100% of the door. Don't dare ask for a guarantee. If we have 15 bands rotating all the time throughout this industry seeking $200 guarantees "in the name of seeking exposure" they're creating a standard that others shouldn't have to argue with. In a year, half of those bands are gone, replaced by a new half, and the other half is climbing the ladder to greater gigs (read: more dough). Oh, I'm getting ahead of myself for the next blog. To anonymous who posted about 0 guarantee/100% of the door, please contact me. I have a couple questions for you.

    1. Well, I'm a pro, but I don't play to support myself. I've toured in Japan, went to conservatory in NYC (bassoon & sax), and still play with high level folks in the NJ/NYC area. But the bar scene has declined due to DUI checks, streaming internet, DJs, etc. We could make a living in the 70's. Now all the guys I know who toured or played out have a trade. There are lots of great musicians here but few well paying gigs. Very few clubs are top venues, and there are SO many excellent musicians around here that it's the the equivalent of internecine warfare to get a good gig. Musicians also have to promote themselves, cuz the club owners won't. It's all about how many heads you can bring in, which makes it a younger person's game, since folks my age don't want to come out as much.

      I'm not complaining. I still play in 3 bands. (One jazz, one rock, one R&B.) I also have my regular job as an engineer. That let's me cherry-pick the bands I want to be in. (I may be a sax player, but I like being part of a band and not being a side-man.) I think part of what's missing is that all artists starve. Doesn't matter if you're an actor, painter, dancer or musician. If you're doing it for money that's great. But people are no less obliged to be into music as they are into other arts. I think the bottom line is times are different for many different reasons and we have to find creative ways with traditional and other outlets (ie, social media) to survive and thrive.

  13. Excellent piece there. I think bands/solo acts are way under paid (of course I’m going to say that since I am one right). One problem is that there are many bands/acoustic solo acts that will play a gig for next to nothing and it hurts other artists that are trying to make a living doing this like myself. I went into a place the other day and talked to the owner about booking shows and he asked if I could do it for $50. I asked him $50 per man? He said no, $50 for the whole band. He was completely serious. I just laughed. I told him I would not do it for $50 by myself. There is no way I can get my band in here for less than $100 per man. The biggest problem I have had was making enough money to pay a full band and still make some myself. I like to use good, pro musicians and they are not cheap, but the music will be high quality. If you hire cheap bands/musicians and you will get band sounding amateur music. One problem is the economy. Folks are just not going out and spending money right now. Another major problem is people’s musical standards. They would rather hear a bunch of band musicians play Skynyrd and top 40 Country than good musicians that play original, improvisational, extemporization, or meaningful music. I can make more money doing solo acoustic shows than full band shows. I didn’t do that bad money wise in 2011, but it still not enough for the time & expenses that I put into it.

  14. Being a musician can be a frustrating endeavor, particularly if you want to make a living doing it. In a moment of particular frustration a couple of years ago I wrote this article:

    We have to be careful to remember that EVERY worthwhile creative profession has hobbyists who can be called "disruptive". What every profession doesn't have is a demand that creates profit. Music is an interesting animal, particularly when you start talking about cover bands. It's very possible that we are witnessing the end of the desire for cover bands altogether. Getting the original song played over a sound system is just far too easy now to bother with expensive sound equipment and diva-filled bands.

    With digital music and players being as ubiquitous as they have become less and less people want a "copy" of their favorite songs. Even if you're a good band, you're not the marketed and hyped original "artist" that people are rabid about seeing. Music today is far more about the marketing than it is about the content (unfortunately).

    I would love to see more of our cover musicians who are "real" musicians concentrate solely on original music. We're in Birmingham, a place instrumental (pun alert) in the heritage of almost every major genre of music. We can, and should, demand more of ourselves, our venues and our scene as a whole.

  15. People go to bars to LISTEN to COVER bands? REALLY? That's a joke.... right?

  16. Look it comes down to this. I'v ebeen doin it for years. It doesnt matter if ya play originals or covers. None of ya ideas will work. No matter what ya style ya HAVE TO SELL ALCOHOL TO MAKE GOOD MONEY PLAYIN BARS. Thats it. If ya want good pay, put together a show thats entertaining enough to get drinkers to come in and buy booze.

  17. The worth of a musician in 2012?
    The Birmingham Free Press

    Well written article and this brings up many issues I would like to address as briefly as possible. The only difference from what I experience and the author of this article is that I live in British Columbia, Canada. But things work the same way up here, gas is almost $5 / gallon, a beer still cost around $4 / pint and bar owners don't care about anything except selling beer. These are all common facts. Having said that I would like to address these issues by point form as they appeared in the article.

    1. Defining a 'professional musician' is more than just making a living from it. It is also a sense of professionalism in attitude and demenour. As my prof. usued to say, want to get gigs in this town, show up on time, straight and be a nice guy'. These are some other elements of being a professional. In regards to the use of drugs or alcohol, when a paid musician reaches the point on a gig where they can't hold it together to do the job, then they have crossed the line in my book.

    2. Charging a cover at bars. Most bars are pubs, or public houses. A bar normally has to close to the public to put on a special event that includes charging admission. Regular patrons to the bar will most likely not take kindly to being charged admission on certain nights to their local watering hole. Maybe donations to the band and payment for the pub for extra revenue generated might be a better idea.

    3. Value of a sideman / musician in this day of age as compared to 30 years ago. Welcome to the onl;y career after 30 years your salary actually goes down! All joking aside, 'good luck with that'. Our wage has been cut in half this year from $100 to $50 a man 'until things get better' they say. Well in who's eyes and when will that happen. Of course we can trust the bar owners to pay us more when times get better, right?!?!?

    4. Playing music in bars. There seems to be a mis-conception that bar owners care about music or arts.......I will leave it at that!

    5. Banding together to demand a fair wage. This use to be called a union. Where is the Union these days and what are they doing for the working musician? Unless you are a symphony player (and they need it) all your union dues do is buy you a nice newsletter quarterly.

    I live on a small island with 2 primary venues. A certain musician here (not myself) tried to distribute a petition to all of the local musicians in order that we would 'band together' (forgive the pun) and not accept less than $100.00 per man. Well, not many would sign actually, most thought they would completely sign themselves out of a job. The other half are not professional musicians and it really doesn't matter that much to them as they have day jobs.

    It failed. Bottom line, the venues ( both pubs) did not care about the petition. They can now get an off island band, even as far away as from Vancouver, for about the same price as things are so tough in the city now, the bands will travel the distance to play here, for less. Long distance under-cutting.

    So if the bar owners are short changing us, and the musicians are under-cutting, what hope do we have. ANSWER: Don't play bars!
    The bar doesn't care about your music, they don't care about your art, they don't care about your finances, they only care about.........that's right!!!! SELLING BEER!

    Consider other venues, cafe's, community centers, outdoor concerts, special events.

    One final note: remember: ...One can die from exposure....

  18. I've been a paid musician for about 18 years now...I said "paid" and not "pro" because I do have a day job...always have. If you don't like the money you're making you should either: a) get a different gig...go back to school or learn a trade to pick up a job that pays better, b) move to a city like New Orleans or Atlanta where you can make some money as a professional rock musician, or c) quit, because you probably suck.

    If you got into rock (or any genre, for that matter) because you wanted to make money, you're an idiot. Music is about the experience, the art, the chicks, and the booze. The price you pay for being someone who didn't train for a straight job is the uncertainty of music economics, which most of us musicians know is a bitch. If you want to make money as a musician, you better be really good, really clever (at writing pop songs), or both...cause only session players and pop stars make money.