Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The worth of a musician in 2012

I've had some very interesting discussions with professional musicians in recent weeks, and I feel the time has come to do something about resetting the values of music in this town (Birmingham).  Perhaps other areas of the country are suffering as much, but I only know from personal experience in this town.

First order of business, define a professional musician:  To me, a pro is one who plays music for money to pay the rent and buy food.  Whether they've been doing it for a year or 50, and whether they are good or not, it doesn't matter.  If the money they earn funds their basic living expenses, they're a pro in my book.  If they live well, they're probably very talented.  If they've been doing this for 20 years and still live in their parent's basement eating ramen noodles off a hot plate, then perhaps a face to face with Simon Cowell will give them the swift kick in the arse they need to hang it up and pursue a life otherwise.

I was reminded by a 45yr veteran of the Bham scene that in 1978, cover charge was $5.  In 2012, it seems nothing has changed.  In fact, some bars don't charge cover at all.  That's not necessarily an issue if the bar has only a solo acoustic artist to pay ($150-$250), as that's a fairly cheap nut to cover.  But what if the band has 4 or more members?  What is the venue saying about the quality or worth of the act?  "They're not worth paying to see, but come on in and spend money at the bar."  What's the chance that act was paid more than $400 for their show?  Not likely.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, I discovered a value measuring calculator which helps determine value on a "now vs then" comparison.  It only covers 1774 to 2010 (census data) but that's ok, the point is still relevant.  Taking the $5 cover from 1978 as an example, in today's dollars, that would be roughly $16.  Now, let's go backwards, but let me set the stage.  There seems to be an "understanding" that a musician, any musician, in this town is worth $100/person.  That's typical for band arrangements.  Solo acts don't really fit into this category, because I've seen people earn $50-$300 for a solo act.  Then there's the scale crushers who work for beer.  But let's not concern ourselves with them.  Ok, so back to $100/person.  In 1978 terms, that musician would have only been worth about $30.  That is a rough round-up using all the indicators, ranging from unskilled wage to commodity.  Musicians see ourselves as skilled wage earners, artists, and/or craftsmen.  Vendors see us as a commodity.  However, according to my sources, musicians in 1978 were earning $75-$100/person, but if they worked hard and built a following, they could easily get $300-$400/person.  Let's take that into 2012 terms, shall we?  In today's money, that $100/person should be $315/person.  On the upper end of the 1978 range, a $400/person would be $1300/person.  I'm going to sidebar this for a minute while you are letting that sink in.  Think $1300/person is unrealistic today?  Consider the source for my info has a band that fetches in the $4500/gig range for 4 people today.  It took over a dozen and a half years to get that band to that point, but that guy who was earning $75-$400 in 1978 is earning almost $1200/person for his band today.  So now, is that so unrealistic?  Ain't it spooky how we have an actual case study right here in Birmingham who has managed to bear out the realities of a musicians value over time?  I'm not making this stuff up...just using that calculator, his figures from 1978, and the figures of what his band does today.

Speaking of commodities, let's talk about that.  Beer is the primary commodity of a bar, right?  1978 cover was $5.  How much was a beer?  Typically $1-$2 depending on the town you were in.  That hasn't changed much, although in 2012, the beer choices are exponentially greater, with high gravity being an option even for the likes of Budweiser.  So a craftsman beer is going to run you $4-12 at a minimum.  I've seen them as high as $20 in Decatur GA.  But back to the basics, if a Coors was $1 in 1978, it's 3x that in 2012.  Think about that for a minute.  Beer is 3x, but cover is 1x.  Then of course you have all the "social" drinks like "_____ bombs" and Tuaca shots, martinis made from darn near everything but the juice from the bar rag.  And all of those come at a hefty price.

How does this relate to musicians?  Well, there's a lot hiding under the surface.  We complain for lack of proper compensation, yet we all know someone willing to play for gas money.  I consider anything less than $100/person gas money.  Those who say "gee, you're willing to PAY me to play here?" should be shot on sight, right between the pickups.  Believe it or not, there's an awful lot of animosity among musicians in every town with angst for these folks.  As another pro musician pointed out to me the other day, those people are in this for a hobby.  In 5yrs, they'll drop their Squire guitar combos and pick up a golf bag or a fishing rod.  But in the meantime, they managed to screw up the true value of a musician along the way, and like a tornado, they leave a scar that won't heal anytime soon, nor will they have anything to do with the healing process.  I can relate to this from my professional photographer background.  Along comes a soccer mom who thinks she can buy a camera from an electronics warehouse, set the dial to auto, open up her Fauxtographer Facebook Fauxto page, and start taking pics for $50/session.  Puke f'ing puke.  A pro wedding photographer fetches $5000-$10000 per wedding.  Aunt Sally is going to shoot it for $400.  Deal!  Bit*h.  Thanks for ruining the marketplace.  When her fauxtography business doesn't work out, she goes back to painting rocks for craft shows, leaving us pros in the ruins.  How do you pick up a turd from the clean end?

Now let's work on solutions.  How do we increase the bottom line in our back pocket?  I have a couple ideas in mind (and open to more), and it may be a combination of both to achieve success:

  1. Convince the bars to increase cover to $10 across the board.  Doesn't matter who the band is on any given night, doesn't matter where the venue is in the metro area.  If they charge a cover, bump it to $10 and keep it there.  Of course people are going to whine.  And they may stop going out for a couple weekends until it sinks in that this is the new reality.  Did you stop driving your car because gas is now approaching $3.80/gal, but you were paying less than $3/gal two years ago?  If the venues stick to their guns, people are going to pay, because they have no other choice, except to stay home, and we know that's not going to happen.  The bar will be forced to bring value to their patrons, which means choosing bands who know how to entertain and keep a crowd (more for another blog).  The garage band industry-wrecking hobbyists are eliminated from the circuit almost immediately.