"Hi, Hollis This is Carol from WKEZ. We're having an event down at the station this weekend and we'd love to have you play. It doesn't pay, but you'll get a free beer and exposure."
I cringed. I do not know of a single musician who has not been part of this proposition. Carol, like a lot of well-meaning folks who might say or think they "love" music and "totally support" musicians somehow think that it's acceptable to pay in the invisible currency of exposure. What other profession is solicited in this way? While this is a confounding, insulting, illogical behavior for the many talented, professional musicians trying to earn a living from their craft, this can be explained with an economic analysis of the value of live music:
There are many substitute goods for live music - A substitute good is something which can be obtained that delivers a relatively equal value as that of the primary good. From the audience's perspective, it isn't difficult to imagine the substitute goods available that could replace paying a musician or band:
- Playing MP3's or CD's from a computer or stereo
- Playing a satellite radio station
- Playing a terrestrial radio station
This can be a tough lesson, but the reality is staring us in the face: there is a very small audience that seeks out live music from unestablished artists. Because of this small audience and the number and quality of the substitute goods pushing down artist wages, musicians and singer/songwriters have to rethink what it means to be a performing and working musician. This can include making a real push to sell branded merchandise at shows, teaching private lessons, and changing the format of your act to be more commercially viable (i.e. playing covers).
When these other money-making options are considered, the exposure of playing a free show may seem more attractive. There is also the other option that you don't play non-paying gigs.
Take a stand. Just say "no," as Nancy Reagan might say. No one is forcing you to take these gigs. "Become the change you want to see in the world" as it were. This may lead to many nights of sitting in your rehearsal room or going to a bar and listening to other bands perform live, but what else can be done?
Actually, a lot can be done. The more introspective and thoughtful among us might take a moment to step back and consider why we aren't being offered good, paying gigs. If you find yourself in this position where you are really looking at your music and your act, here are some of the following questions you might ask yourself:
1. Is my band any good? - I have this at number one for a reason: because it seems to be the very LAST thing folks consider when trying to figure out why they aren't getting paid gigs and aren't selling any records. Have you done a live recording and listened to yourself? If the answer to that is: "Oh no, it's weird to hear myself on a recording" then you have a problem. How do others hear your music? Is it nice and fun to listen to? Is it beautiful? Is it technically skillful? Is there anything good about it? Do you play songs people actually enjoy? My guess for most folks is that there is a LOT of work to be done in this area. It's hard to get honest feedback from our friends and loved ones because they will want to say only good things about us. Take a moment to figure out what bands in your area who get paid, consistent gigs are doing right and try to coach up your band and your music to get closer to that.
2. Am I promoting my shows well enough? - Probably not. And the promotion you are doing is annoying or forgettable. Ask yourself: why would a venue owner want to pay you money when you are doing nothing to promote the bottom line? Make each show an event. If you are playing a bill with other bands, try to cross-promote and organize a concerted effort to get your folks out to see the other acts. If you are playing a headlining show, make each one special. Give it a theme. Play games. Wear a costume. Do SOMETHING to make your show worth going to.
3. Am I playing the right places? - This is an interesting question and it is one I have started to ask myself more and more. The traditional route for most gig-seekers is a bar--the thought is that local bars in town are in the best possible position to pay well. Folks like to come in and drink and having the value-add of a live performance keeps people in the bar drinking. The reality is that this doesn't pan out unless you are at the top of your game in terms of your act and your following. The reality is: most folks who go out to a bar find live music to be distracting and annoying. Bar owners and booking managers realize this and there is a trend developing for venues to require you bring in a certain number of people. The methods for tracking this vary, but the message is clear: your utility is not your music, it is your recruitment. This can be disheartening and it should be, so perhaps there is another model where a venue and a performer both win regardless of the musician's "draw." Look for performance opportunities at nontraditional venues. This past December, a friend of mine called me and asked if my holiday band The Reindeer Games might be interested in playing a paid show. Well of course! My friend is an owner of an eminently cool bar and music venue here in town. He said, "Well, it's not at the bar." It turns out, it was at a lovely little independent hardware store in my neighborhood who wanted some holiday music to get more folks from the neighborhood to come and hang out at the store. They set out some wine and cookies next to the battery aisle where we played and the most amazing thing happened: the patrons of the store hung out, listened to music, drank, had a great time, and our band got paid very well.
Here in San Antonio, our music community struggles with forming it's own scene identity and finding a market in the wake of the titan up north, Austin. Perhaps those of us who struggle finding good, paying shows (I count myself in this group) need to get creative about where we are taking our music.
Are you a musician struggling to find a good, paying gig? Are you a musician who is KILLING it on the live scene? I'd love to hear from you.