By Brien Matson, board member, Local 677 (Honolulu, HI)
Editor’s Note: This article won an International Labor Communications Association 2006 award in the category of Best Feature Story (Local Unions). It is reprinted from the March 2005 edition of Keola O Na Mele, the official journal of Local 677.
“If I could play an instrument … I’d love to play for a couple of hours for $50. Heck, I’d even do it for free, I’d just be so happy to be playing music. You’re so lucky!”
Sound familiar? It’s the voice of the uninitiated non-musician, the fan, the admirer, the “Regular Josephine,” the “Regular Joe.” They’re right. We are lucky that we play music, but it’s bad luck that most people look at our profession in that way.
We are professionals. We chose music as a career, we work hard at it, and we want to make a decent living at it.
Here’s another familiar sound: “It’s just not in the budget. Look, you love to play, why don’t you just do it for that amount? It’s better than nothing…” Or these: “Take it or leave it;” “It’s great exposure.”
Sound painfully familiar? It’s the voice of the purchaser. The club owner, the restaurateur, the agent, the promoter. The sad thing is that the purchaser is in the music business to make money, but somehow, they don’t want to pay the people who make the music that makes the money.
This article is addressed to the “Regular Joes,” the “Regular Josephines,” and the purchasers. It’s also to us, the professionals. We need to think about this, and remind ourselves of how specialized what we do is, and set the bar a little higher in order to survive and–dare I say this?–prosper. Let’s go with the $50 gig. Most of us won’t take them, and people are surprised when we don’t. But let’s use that figure and do a little math to illustrate why we’re not happy to play a couple of hours for 50 bucks.
“Two hour gig, $50 each, cash. What’s wrong with that? That’s $25 an hour.” Hmmm-m-m-m. Let’s say the gig is from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., and let’s not take into consideration practicing or warming up.
Start with the drive to the gig. What? Everyone has to drive to work! True, so we won’t count the drive. Keep in mind that most people drive the distance, and then walk in to work five minutes early, grab a cup of coffee, and start working. We have to pack up the car with equipment (half an hour) and drive to the site. Unload the car, load the equipment onto the stage (half hour), go park the car (15 minutes), come back and set up (1 hour).
Let’s say that you timed it so you had 15 minutes before the gig starts. That’s two and a half hours. Add the gig, and you’ve got four and a half hours.
Now pack up. If you’re lucky, and nobody wants to talk to you after the gig, you can tear down in one hour, go get your car, load your equipment (another half hour), and drive home.
Nobody counts the drive home, but when you get home, you unpack your car, and load your stuff into the house, another half-hour, easy.
That’s six hours work, for $50 cash. More like $8.33 an hour, not $25 an hour.
Let’s look at making a living with that same amount. To make $1500 a month, you would have to do one $50 gig a day, every day of the month. If you did that every day, every month of the year, no vacation, no holidays, you would make about $18,000 per year, and that’s before taxes.
Paying federal and state income tax, general excise tax, and full social security tax (no employer contributions), knocks it down to about $11,880. By the way, you’re not eligible for unemployment or workers’ comp, but that’s okay, it’s not really work, right?
Let’s double that to $36,000 gross, which is $23,760 after taxes. For that, you would need to do two of those gigs a day. Two gigs taking up 6 hours each is 12 hours a day, every day of the year.
It’s a simplistic formula, but it makes a point. The point is, that’s why we’re not “happy to play for a couple of hours for $50,” even though we are lucky to be able to play music.
The next time someone says something like the opening line of this article to you, turn it around. Say: “If I could be a dentist, I’d love to do it for $8.33 an hour. I’d just be so happy to be able to practice dentistry. You’re so lucky!” I’m sure the reply would be: “What do you mean, lucky? I studied for years, and I still study. I worked long, hard hours to perfect my craft, and still do. My equipment cost me an arm and a leg, and it’s very specialized work. I’m a professional!”
Just smile and say, “Me, too.”