What We are Worth

There's a reason why I wasn't smiling...
There’s a reason why I wasn’t smiling…

I am writing this because of the horrible experience we had yesterday at the Paper Mill Food Truck Monday. It started out with a broken keyboard pedal which I discovered while setting up. I mention that because

-> broken pedal = me getting irritated = me becoming more frank.

So then, after the event coordinator came over to us, this happened:

E.C.: DO you guys need anything?

Alma: Yes, do you have water?

E.C.: No, we don’t have that for you. If you wanted water, you should have negotiated for that.

Alma: We’ve been doing Paper Mill Food Truck for 3 years and have always been given water. We understand that you’re new to this job (she just recently took over), but you should have tried to find out what the band has been provided with each time we’re here.

E.C.: All I know is that you’re the only band that charges. The others don’t.

Ah. So there it is.

Yes, it’s true. We did charge to play for this month. And because of that, we now have to negotiate for water, too. The fee we asked for was much lower than what we really are worth: way smaller than what venues pay us, and not even as much as what the other Food Truck events do, and those events don’t pay as much as people think they do. But, like I told the abrasive event coordinator, we’ve been doing the Paper Mill Food Truck Monday for 3 years. Back then, all we were given was gas money, food, and water. We didn’t ask for more because we didn’t know any better. Just like any new band still trying to figure things out, we were mostly just happy to play for a crowd. But this year, we’ve decided to start asking for an artist’s fee. In many instances, this fee is not even close to what we feel we are worth. But we compromise and make exceptions. One exception is if we’ve had a good long relationship with a certain venue or event organizer. Call us naive when it comes to business, but we appreciate loyalty. If a venue or organizer was good enough to have taken a chance on us, especially when we were starting out, we like keeping that relationship despite a lower fee.

However, I just realized the folly of that mindset. What we have been seeing as a relationship maintained out of loyalty could very well be one-sided. For all we know, the other camp could be thinking how lucky they are that such idiots continue to accept a lower fee and this could be the only reason why they want to maintain the relationship we’ve valued. Loyalty be damned. This is business. They need to make money.

When will we get it into our heads that we, too, need to make money? Unlike some of our musician-friends, both Bronne and I have day-jobs that we both love as much as performing live so music is not really our livelihood. Do our jobs pay well? We are both teachers so no, they don’t. But being mortgage-payers of a house built in the 60’s, having additional income is a welcome thing. But here’s another reason why we need to start taking the business side of music more seriously: what you make as a musician often reflect your value.

Before you throw your arms up in disagreement, let me just say that it was the people around us that made us reach this conclusion. We’ve had venues and event organizers quote higher than what we were ready to receive. We’ve had friends who thought we’ve been getting paid much higher than what we actually were getting. And most significant of all, we’ve had musician-friends tell us we’re dolts to accept a lower fee or to play for gas money. They seemed disappointed in us. All of these light bulbs lining up the huge arrow sign above our heads blinking: YOU DON’T VALUE YOURSELF. You don’t ask for what you’re worth.

We believe that many people in this world don’t get paid what they’re worth at work, why should we be any different? After pondering on this bit, I realize this, that we, musicians, often set our price. We set our value. If it hadn’t been for this one venue that suddenly quoted higher than what we were prepared to ask for, Bronne and I would still be playing for what we’ve been getting paid since we started. It was like a ray of sunshine, that was, and made us look at ourselves much clearly. Since then, we’ve been slowly putting our foot down and asking for more. Slowly, I say, since we’re not delusional or greedy. We just want to be compensated for all the things we do when we perform and even way before we get on stage. And if you’re a non-musician and don’t know, these are them:

1. Years and money spent on honing our craft. This includes lessons, teachers, music school, and all their paraphernalia. Without these, you wouldn’t have He Sang She Sang and the music we make now.

2. Money spent on instruments and sound equipment. Repairs, too. Wear and tear from hauling and playing these things come no matter how well you take care of them. And then there are unfortunate accidents like when a moron goes and steps on your keyboard at Darwin’s. Wonderful..

3. Clothes and the other things we have on our bodies when we perform. We’re no Lady Gaga but we like looking a certain way when we’re on stage. Call us vain but I’ve trained and worked in theater and know the importance of the visual on stage. This includes “costume” and make-up. And shoes.

4. If there’s no PA system, we bring and use our own. Many venues and event organizers take this for granted. Some events rent these equipment for a fee. Musicians often have to bring their own as part of the performance package.

5. Since we are our own roadies, we have to carry our stuff into venues of all shapes and heights. Ever wonder what it feels like to carry the heavy Hobbes (my Roland RD 700) up a long rickety metal stairwell outside of Smith’s Olde Bar into a somewhat cramped backstage? “My back hurts…”, Bronne will answer if you ask him. Aside from stairs, my favorite is when you have a music venue with small doors and narrow hallways. I get all sorts of bruises and scrapes by the end of the night so lovely to look at!

6. Then we get to play. It doesn’t matter if we play for an hour or 4. We give our all each time. Of course, the longer we play, the more tired we get by the end of it. People have often made comments or jokes about me and how I sing + play the keys (bass parts, too) + stomp with my tambourine-imprisoned foot and on the pedal for my cajon + sometimes interjecting with the glockenspiel + listen to Bronne for harmonies = all at the same time. Well, I’ll tell you: it’s not easy. My body, especially my brain, works terribly hard to give you that He Sang She Sang magic.

7. Then, while performing, you have to manage or bear things well because anything goes. The lights could be too dim or too bright and hot, or the stage uneven or sloping. Some drunk people could approach you, ask you questions and demand answers while you’re singing. The power could go out… then back on… then out again. The manager could ask you to tone the sound down while you’re in the middle of a song. The manager could refuse to turn off the sound of the TV because of a game. A cute kid will tip your tip basket over, scattering all the bills and coins and the odd bottle cap. Some stranger will come up and ask to play during your break or to sing along, sometimes putting their faces near your mic even before you can say “no”. Exciting!

8. And then there’s finishing up and striking set. My favorite part. I love having to break down and carry all of those heavy metal things into our car especially after a 3- or 4-hour gig. From rock star to roadie. Very humbling, that.

But this list only talks about what we do before, during, and after. While it does give a clearer picture of almost everything involved when we play out, these do not represent our music.

Music is the other dimension, one upon which you can’t put a clear price tag. Its value differs between the musicians that make them, the listeners that experience them, and the venue or event organizer that pays money to have them performed live. Give it a quick think and you can say that the first two value music more while the third simply tries to rent or buy it. But ponder on it. Ponder on it some more and be honest. Why do most venues and event organizers put such a small value on our music? Could it be because we allow them?

In our almost 5 years of playing together, we’ve said yes to so many small-paying, gas money, and free gigs. Often we’re asked back. They say it’s because the people loved our music and that we’re really good. But because of money, we have only now started to ask ourselves, are those really the reasons? Or is it because, for far too long now, we’ve priced ourselves too cheaply?

She Sang

(photo by Susan McCauley)

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14 thoughts on “What We are Worth

  1. Well written. Good points to ponder. But how does one get a venue to up the pay? I usually get ” we pay everyone the same. Sometimes I choose not to play there for that price anymore. Then I’m out a gig. But was the gig worth it? It never pays as much as it should. Hopefully we get those really good gigs that make up for the others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, Brian! Bronne and I were discussing what you wrote and we’ve been at that crossroad so many times. We will use your comment to write another entry as I’m sure this is a thing that concerns many other musicians. Thanks! And yes, we hope for you more gigs that make up for all the ones that didn’t pay you well!

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  2. We experience this in the publishing business as well. Too many people give their books away for nothing or next to nothing. What happens? Authors who charge what they are worth find it much tougher to get the sales they should be getting. However, this does not mean one should de-value their art because of what others do. Cream rises to the top. Never give away your art and never lose faith in what your art is worth . You are a great duo. Don’t charge too little. Make money.

    Blaze

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Blaze! When we were starting out, another more established duo scolded us for accepting less money at a venue. They said that we aren’t aware of it but they get affected by this, too, when venues say, “Well, so-and-so charges only this much. Why should we pay you higher?” But when you’re just starting out, like I said, unless you’re delusional about your talent, you probably don’t know what you’re really worth until you’ve went through the hoops. Again, Bronne and I are taking this seriously and we’re discussing it as if two UN representatives. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, to all of this. Always get paid. Period. No one values what you put into the whole thing except the people putting the things into what you do. If a venue sees a return on what you bring they will gladly pay for it. It’s a tough line to draw within something so based in abstract thought as music, but it must be done. Keep on rocking.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Couldn’t agree more Alma, I don’t understand club owners, EC, managers etc don’t mind paying more for a DJ than for a band or for musicians, makes no sense to me, I for one know what you go through and should be compensated accordingly. Two thumbs up…..Butch

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Butch, I wish we had been around when Charley Magruders was still up and running! You and I have had a discussion about how some venues now simply book musicians with followings, instead of working at making the venue known for great musicians so that it gets known to be a great music place. I’m sure it takes a lot of money and guts to wait it out, but in the end, if a venue gets known for great music, people will go there to hear it, whoever is playing.

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  5. Frankly, Alma, I was stunned by how little you were paid by one town for their event. Considering the town’s affluence, it’s actually insulting that they don’t offer you more. You are a polished, professional, and extremely talented act. You are perfectly right to insist on payment that reflects the years you’ve spent honing your craft and perfecting your craft. And as far as the event controller is concerned, there should be certain amenities available to performers, especially on hot days, and one is water. That’s just common consideration, whether you’re paid or not.

    And to be perfectly honest, Blaze and I enjoy the food truck events, but frankly, we can go just about anywhere on our date night and get good food. It’s the live music we sit out in the heat for, and there are acts we’ve seen that are nowhere near as good as yours.

    Sometimes if you want a class act to draw crowds, you have to pay the piper (or in your case keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist). It’s not being greedy to expect to be fairly paid and get some return on your investment of time, money, and damned hard work. No one balks at the cost of the plates of food they get from the food trucks. Why should anyone balk at chipping in to pay for the hard-working bands out there drawing attention for all the events?

    You and Bronne deserve every penny you make, and much more. He Sang She Sang rules.

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    1. Thanks, Terri! Honestly, we are easily appeased by good treatment. We don’t even expect to be treated like royals. Just with decency and respect. Like that town you mentioned, for example. We’ve had a difficult few times there, honestly. But the sound person who does the booking has been nice to us. We don’t begrudge him his take off of setting up the sound system and stage since he does work really hard. If we learn, for example, that he was actually getting thrice what he pays the acts each week, or if he pays another act higher than us, would we get mad at him? No, because we were the ones that agreed to the fee he set. If anything, we’d be angry at ourselves for not having done our research or agreeing too quickly to get the gig. If we see that an organizer or venue has reasons for not being able to meet our usual fee, say they are new or just had major costly work done, we compromise. But if we notice shenanigans, that they’re just simply taking musicians for fools, then we have learned to say ‘no’ and try to warn our friends about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve owed a few businesses over the years, and I found out that undervaluing your worth will cause you to miss out on jobs because they won’t think you are professional enough, and that other jobs will treat you poorly thinking you are too inexperienced to realize it. Like the water issue here. I would refuse to have anything else to do with that event coordinator and tell the parent company why. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing, Jerry! We agree and we’ve written the parent company not really to complain about the event coordinator but to recount what happened and show them why this treatment is unacceptable, especially after a well-established history between them and our band. 🙂

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  7. You two are Awesome entertainment….I’ve been the set-up and clean-up man for the event since 2011 and always looked forward to yalls return. I dont have anything to do with the water situation. I had no idea. I surely hope all this is resolved in your favor and yall continue to come.

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    1. Hello, Wayne! Yes, you’ve been a great set-up and clean-up man for the event, always very prompt and professional! Of course, we don’t think you had anything to do with the water situation. In fact, we were very touched by your gesture of wanting to share what you brought for yourself with us. But I wanted to make a point that the company that hired us should be the ones to give us that. Had we accepted water from your stash, they won’t realize that they have to look after their musicians, especially for something as basic as water. I didn’t even get into food and they already were up in arms about water. I hope they compensate you well and treat you better because you work so hard. Thank you for having looked after us all those years! 🙂

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