In the music industry, it would appear that there are the 1%-ers and then the vast, lower-middle class. The 1% is heard on the radio, is steered by very experienced managers and promoters and occasionally sell out stadiums and/or their singles go platinum.
The lower-middle class barely eke out a few hundred bucks per performance – maybe $100/man, if lucky these days. This seems to hold true across genres: from many jazz professionals to classic rock cover bands and indie touring bands alike. Often, the Sunday church gig or funeral will pay more.
If you’ve spent enough time in a “working cover band,” you’ll realize that these musicians are ultimately paid to move PA gear. And if they start calculating the hourly wage, most would make twice the income working for a real moving company. But it’s not about the money, right? Wrong.
It’s about valuing yourself, whether measured in dollars, pesos or French fries. If you don’t value yourself, you can bet that pretty much everyone else won’t either. And this may be the reason that the average wage for a “working musician” has probably declined and certainly hasn’t risen in the past two decades. Now really, how is that possible unless the average musician is mired in self-deprecation?
Supply and Demand
One reason might be a simple law of economics – in the context of original music for the greater Denver Metro area, there are roughly 100-500 times as many bands as there are established music venues. Odds of 500:1. Is it starting to sound like the race track? But that’s what it’s like for any company in the business world too.
Your band is going to be a bottom-feeder if you cannot demonstrate expertise at your craft, significant entertainment value, and/or some other unique selling proposition.
Now before you start getting all strung out or depressed, consider another way that you might be able to secure more value for your art, and for your band mates…
From the beginning of civilization, there has always existed a certain class of citizenry known as Patrons of the Arts. These were often the fat cats that appreciated good tunes, sexy drawings, or a quality, clinical study. The patron was the change-maker and had the ability to turn a $9/hour musician into a middle class wage earner, and maybe even into a wealthy celebrity.
The patrons of the arts are still among us today. But you’ll need to do some homework if you expect this kind of support. One form of patronage comes from crowd funding (Kickstarter, etc.) – you’ll need to be creative for this to really pay off. Another form is making the patron feel like a celebrity.
One local songstress recently created House Party Packages, where the host(ess) pays a more generous fee to have the house filled with live entertainment. Any number of details might go into one of these packages – free autographed CDs for the guests, maybe a few t-shirts, maybe an enhanced wine and cheese spread? A couple $1500 packages per month and you are well on your way to the middle class.
Is there a mission?
Many previous articles here have referred to having a purpose or supplying unique content. Have you thought lately about why your band is together or why you write certain types of songs? Is there a common thread or a reason for being?
Finding a patron might become even easier if your music/lyrics lend themselves to a cause or a specific mission. Counting down to a major event (like a national election) might lead to a series of shows funded by collective patrons. Can you imagine the Dirty Trumpettes, or a Hillary “Burning Woman” (effigy) party? Sounds like fun…
Rising to the musical middle class is certainly a challenge in this new digital age. But again, the patrons of the arts have always been among us and they are merely waiting for the most creative artists to present some novel proposals. And isn’t that brainstorming effort more exciting than just moving PA gear?
Have you thought about your status as a musician lately? Are you a hobbyist, a pro, or perhaps something in between? How you see yourself will have some dramatic implications for yourself and the music scene at large, so ask yourself a few quick questions…
- Have you been paid to play live or for a song you wrote and/or recorded?
- Have you been paid consistently to play live (or record, or write songs)?
- Have you made profit as a musician the past three of five years?
- Is music your primary form of employment?
Were you able to answer “yes” to all of these questions? If so, congratulations(!) – you are a professional musician. If not, you are probably a hobbyist. And that’s…OK. The vast majority of musicians are hobbyists, just as the vast majority of golfers are hobbyists.
The grey area is when you can pursue a hobby and still receive some income for this thing you love to do. But make no mistake – you are still a hobbyist. There are also hobbyist Astronomers, Fishermen, Gardeners, and Storm Chasers. But it’s probably a good thing we don’t have Brain Surgeon hobbyists.
So now let’s go back to those four questions. A lot of musicians can say that they have been paid to play, whether live or for a recording on CD Baby. Being paid “consistently” is a subjective concept, but if you are calling yourself a “Professional” musician, it might behoove you to earn to some form of payment on a weekly basis. Acid test: can you pay your mortgage with gig money?
The third question is even trickier and more significant. Have you made a profit the last three of five years as a musician? There are a lot of hard and soft costs (business deductions) associated with staying current as a musician.
Here are some hard costs:
Gear that needs to be replaced (strings, reeds, etc.)
Gear that is lost, damaged or stolen
Gas and car mileage
Lessons, to stay up on your craft
And some softer costs:
Being present at a venue for four hours…to play your 45 minute set
New shock absorbers…when the subs, mains and other cabinets ruin your suspension
Hiring a lawyer…when your spouse decides you’re not around enough to handle her/his needs
Hiring a therapist…if substance abuse becomes an unintended consequence of your craft
As you get older, might as well throw in Physical Therapy too…
Profit & Loss
All of those hard and soft costs, if deducted properly, could reduce your profit significantly. If you think honestly, the many costs associated with being a musician might realistically leave you in the red year after year, after year. And if so, the Federal Government has something to say about this as well.
According to the IRS, your business (band/musician) can be reclassified if it is not an activity engaged in for profit. To quote them exactly: “Generally, an activity qualifies as a business if it is carried on with the reasonable expectation of earning a profit.” But if you cannot demonstrate a profit for the last 3 of 5 years, the IRS can re-classify your business as a hobby.
Here are some other questions the IRS asks, if you intend on taking business deductions:
- Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?
- Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?
- If there are losses, are they due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control or did they occur in the start-up phase of the business?
- Has the taxpayer changed methods of operation to improve profitability?
- Does the taxpayer or his/her advisors have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?
- Has the taxpayer made a profit in similar activities in the past?
- Does the activity make a profit in some years?
- Can the taxpayer expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?
And now the last question: is music your primary form of employment? The government can’t penalize you for being a poor business owner. And if you only made $2 profit last year, that’s still a profit, right? And…a large number of musicians make less than the Poverty Level (currently $11,880.00 for an individual in the US). That’s just a reality. But can you live off of your musical endeavors? We’ll talk about ways to do that next…
Scrabble is probably the world’s single greatest word game. But it also contains some very powerful Life Lessons. See how many of these can be applied to your band – but bonus: learning these lessons can up your Scrabble game as well…
Creativity has a structure of limits
In Scrabble, each player starts with 7 letters. These letter may be arranged to form “legitimate” words but must be played horizontally or vertically. As you play letter tiles, you replace them, to always have 7 tiles. And you take turns playing. Those are the basic rules.
Many songwriters start with the notion of “Western Music Theory,” with a finite number of notes (7 actually, but 12 when you add in the half-steps). Often, the “legitimate words” here are the keys. Most songs never change key, but this is certainly possible to do within a great song.
You put words together with letters, and often arrive at longer or more complex words when you think in terms of portions of words to create prefixes (like “pro” or “rep”), suffixes (like “ing” or “iate”), and plurals. So too, with musical phrases. In computer jargon, these are like macros (an organization of steps).
But the general point is, you start with a finite framework to create an infinite number of possibilities. Or as William Blake once said “True Infinity is infinity within the finite.”
Typically, your band also has a finite number of players, with finite skills, finite budgets for band gear, finite time to practice and gig out, etc. The exciting thing is to see how you arrange all of those finite elements to create songs and a sound that the planet has never, ever heard before.
If you play one word at a time, stand-alone in Scrabble you will probably lose (unless your opponent also plays this way). But if you learn to connect the word you play with as many other words on the board as possible, your score will double or triple very quickly. This multiplier effect works in band life too.
If you are networking, you will find other bands and musicians to “play off of” and expand your traction. For instance, if you play a show together, each of you will be exposed to a broader market of music lovers. If you combine musical influences you may also create a richer, more novel sound.
A well-placed letter
Occasionally in Scrabble, a one letter play can be very powerful. Like when the fates align and a “Z” could be played on a Triple Letter square creating words horizontally and vertically, or a Triple Letter square is tied with a Double Word score play. Please don’t stop reading if I have lost you here…
In life, those opportunities do come along and hopefully you will be prepared. Sometimes a small window opens up and all you need to do is move on it. Don’t hesitate here as the opportunity probably won’t be around by your next turn.
Holding out for the big payout
Alongside of those power plays, is the concept of developing your hand until you can lay all of your tiles at once for maximum points. This would be akin to focusing deeply on your music before bothering to play out in public. You woodshed on the instruments, work hard on the harmonies, record nonstop and study those recordings to perfect your sound…and then explode onto the scene. One myth tells that Lynyrd Skynyrd spent a year practicing relentlessly in a barn until they had written their best material and could play it inside-out.
You can work at perfection, but hopefully not too long. In Scrabble, you can be sabotaged, constantly getting a series of vowels, or none at all, or “Q”, “X” and “Z” all at once. And every replacement of tiles gets you more and more boondoggled while your opponent is steadily scoring points. At some point you may have to cut bait…
Diversity in the gene pool
But to help get that big payout, what you ultimately need is a diversity of resources. In Scrabble, this means never getting stuck with too many vowels or consonants. It’s hard to make a word with A, E, I, O, U. And three “U”s or four “N’s can be straight-up debilitating. So your plays should always be mindful of this balance.
And you guessed it, having a diverse set of songs, a diverse group of musicians, a diverse number of venue options to choose from, of partner bands to play with, etc. is going to make you a more appealing band.
Wild cards, or blank tiles
Every once in a while (2 blanks in a game of Scrabble), life is going to hand you an opportunity you never expected. That one big break that can turn you into an instant hit. Of course, most successful songwriters will tell you how many decades it took them to become an “overnight sensation.” But if that one break comes along, remember that the best form of luck is preparation awaiting opportunity.
So, follow some of the tips above and you’ll start to really enjoy the game of Scrabble. And think about what motivated you to pick up an instrument or sing or write a song in the first place. It probably wasn’t the idea of cashing checks with lots of zeroes. You didn’t mindfully step into the “Music Business.” Like most of us, you probably started with a hobby, making some noise and realizing other people appreciated it. Many people tend to get fried when their hobby becomes a business, so never forget that your music is ultimately a game. But we’ll talk about hobby bands next…
Sometimes it’s pretty obvious when to put the band to sleep: John from the John Doe Band decides he would rather sell real estate. Artie, who’s mom bought the PA system, is moving to Las Vegas. The brass section was involved in a bizarre smelting accident. Or another drummer spontaneously combusted and the trauma is still just too fresh…
Those are all very familiar, right? But suppose for a moment that your band is operating like a business. This company probably has multiple partners, and every one of them brings different skill sets to the mix. Do you just throw it all away because one of your partners needs to enter rehab?
Many times it is assumed that the founding members of the band are the torch-bearers. They probably named the gig, figured out an initial set list, talked on and off about marketing strategies – stuff like that. They may have invested deep.
They might ask for some reimbursements if the brand is strong enough. If they have a clue, they will already be keeping some of those residuals for any tunes they wrote. But if the rest of the band carries that torch, the founders might see some pay off down the road too. They might even rejoin the band; we’ve seen that sometimes hell does freeze over.
Mediation is the key
It’s been said, “the best way to win in court is stay out of court.” So much truer for the majority of musicians that live below the poverty line. So use your communication skills and put away that axe. Talk about the best departure steps and let everyone live to see another day.
There will also be less discussion if you took the time, way back when, to create a written exit strategy for members of the band. This plan could be as simple as “we all go our own way.” It might involve some payouts or an agreement that, no matter what happens, the singer always gets to decide what happens next. :)
Music & Karma
Ultimately, all songs come from the Void – that empty, creative space songwriters dive into. And the Void is where we’ll all return in the end. If you have an abundance mentality, that space is always accessible and productive. If you dwell on a scarcity model, the Universe is going to be pretty stingy right back at ya.
Songs are kinda like real estate – when you own a chunk of land, do you own it clear down to the core of the Earth?
So…if you wrote a song with someone else, share the credits and any rare income that follows. Be generous and open to all win-win scenarios. Don’t let another tune be buried in an early grave…
Does your band have an agreement? You know, something written down that simulates a business plan or a constitution, or maybe even resembles your last will and testament? A written agreement may seem pretty formal, but if thought through, documents can save a band a lot of heartache down the road.
Now don’t fret. Most bands rarely even think about this topic. You’re busy slapping the band together, scrutinizing all of the players to size up the weak links…and really, you’re probably still searching for a bass player, right? Who’s got time to whip up a rock contract? But even if you don’t ever get around to pressing pen to paper, think about these items and be prepared to convey the bylaws:
Who gets songwriting credits?
We might as well start with a biggie. From a legal perspective, this is one of the most important aspects of your original music. The most basic definition of a song is “words and melody.” But many a band has been ripped apart, simply lacking an upfront understanding of this topic. Have you pow-wowed with band mates, or do you follow the advice of JJ Cale?: “What’s understood does not need to be spoken.”
How are product decisions made?
Your songs, your recordings, your live performance and your marketing efforts (pictures, video, graphics, web presence, etc) are all part of the product. When you are thinking about rearranging the configuration of the band or dress code, or what the stage plot is going to look like – these are all product decisions.
Are you on the road to constant improvement, or perhaps struggling just to get few less blurry pics out on the web? Product decisions can make or break a band. There better be a formal process in place and hopefully decisions are being made like a business.
How are players paid?
Now don’t fall down here…there’s no reason an original band can’t get paid for their efforts. And it doesn’t need to be in the form of food, drinks and token gas money either. Players should get paid if they are doing their job well. And any band should be compensated if they are actually entertaining. Beyond that, there’s a bunch of tax stuff to think about too.
And what about exit strategies?
Another biggie, what happens when a key player leaves the band? Maybe even a founding member? Is it automatically R.I.P. for the project, or do you have some understanding of how things will take shape? Some of the other things to consider: who owns the band name? The web site (and Admin control)? The overstock of CDs and T-shirts and other paraphernalia? What about images and videos? At a bare minimum, you better have some Photoshop skills…
As you may guess, there’s a lot to cover in each of these topics. We’ll touch upon them in more detail in the following segments. Please stay tuned…
Here’s part II of your annual Craig’s List refresher course (auditioning and following up). But first, keep in mind that there are two much more effective ways to find band mates, other than CL:
Network, network, network!
Get out and network with real musicians on the scene. You know how it’s easy to blow someone off when you’re just texting or emailing? Well, that’s even easier when everyone is employing Craig’s List anonymizers. Be prepared for a lot of numbing conversations with trolls, and occasionally no reply at all.
Meeting competent players in person will have much more powerful results. Plus you’ll be able to read body language and get a firsthand view of a candidate’s idiosyncrasies. In person is also a great way to find referrals to good players.
If you are in a position to pay the players, you should be in a position to find the cream of the crop, and call all of the shots going forward. This is how many cover bands do it. Employ the sideman, have them sign an Independent Contractor agreement and write out your list of expectations. Just be careful about the spirit of your agreement, or the government might have a thing or two to say about this relationship.
You may think “I can’t afford to pay these guys!” But if your venture is going to be meaningful, you may eventually find out that you cannot afford not to pay them. And if you’re an entrepreneur, you should be able to find ways to do this, while making money for yourself along the way. But let’s assume you are like many musicians – flat broke, and so back to Craig’s List…
Steps 3 & 4: Auditioning and Followup
So, hopefully you’ve qualified and re-qualified the candidates. The next step is to line up as many of them as feasible for an audition session. You’ll be able to compare and contrast talents easier when they are auditioning back to back. Here’s a quick check list prior to the auditions:
- Share some of your music with them ahead of time and ask each player to knock out similar parts, again so you can easily compare and contrast abilities.
- Schedule some back to back sessions for whatever time you think you’ll need. 45 minutes to an hour usually works.
- Reserve a little time for meet & greet. There’s still time to pick up on destructive idiosyncrasies before they join the band…
- Reserve some time for open jamming if your band is so inclined.
During the audition, you want to make your candidates comfortable and, you know, actually want to be a part of your band. Don’t stick them in a dark, cramped space or on a crotchety, old stool like they are a tax auditor. You might even offer them a refreshment…
Lastly, now is not the time for the rest of the band to get into squabbles. Get everyone on the same page so it feels professional on your end. It wouldn’t hurt to thank them for coming and recap your followup process with them as well.
Followup…or it’s all a waste of time
This is the make or break step. Make sure you have all of the contact info in place and respond to any communications quickly. A few things to keep in mind here:
- They are probably also auditioning for a few other bands if they are auditioning for you. Don’t let too much time go by when you find a good player.
- Be clear about band expectations when you make an offer. If you sense that they are already on a different page, things may not work out down the road. That’s why the qualifying and prequalifying steps are so important, but think about this as your last opportunity to qualify a new band mate.
- If an audition does not go well, allow the player to keep his dignity or make sure you accompany him on the way out (unless you are pretty handy with drywall repair).
One final thought
Be polite and be respectful of a player’s time. Musicians get screwed on a daily basis these days. Venues don’t pay nearly enough for good talent. Booking agents often carelessly double-book acts. And just about everyone thinks you are a hobby project, waiting to give your talent away for free. The least you can do is treat other musicians with respect. Be kind out there…