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)