NOTE: This post started as a reply on a thread at Trumpet Herald.com. The thread was referencing Terry Teachout’s Wall Street Journal Article “Can Jazz Be Saved?”, which I wrote about here. After posting my reply to the rather long thread I thought it deserved a post of its own. I hope this is the kind of information that working musicians and aspiring working musicians will find useful.
You’ve probably heard the expression “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free”, right? Well, why would a bar owner pay a musician to play when he can find 10 other musicians who’ll do it for free? He won’t. That’s the reality of the situation, sad though it may be.
So, what do we do about it? More often than not, musicians sit around steaming about it, belittling the one’s that will play for free, berating the club owners and just adding to their own misery. I know, because that’s exactly what I used to do. But what did that get me? Nothing. Zip. Nada. I didn’t get more gigs, I didn’t make more friends, I only created more angst for myself. It was only when I decided to stop fighting the reality of the situation and look for alternatives that I had a great epiphany: Those gigs don’t matter! They are not worth my time and energy, especially when that energy is largely negative.
Don’t Fight a Losing Battle
Rather than fight a losing battle with the club owners/musicians who don’t value us/themselves, I decided to market my services as something that is much more than those other musicians could offer. I actually raised my rates, and promoted my band as a professional entity that could offer a polished performance, show up on time, play a killer show, dress appropriately and help the bar/club/business owner grow their business in ways the freebies can’t. I looked for places that weren’t offering music and convinced them to let me create a music series that would draw people in. I went to wine bars, restaurants, hotels, wineries, anywhere I thought there was space for music and it made sense financially for the business. I talked in terms of partnerships and “what can I do for you?”, not “what can you do for me?”. A new business even sprang up out of my efforts, and now my business partner and I help other musicians find these kinds of opportunities (J&J Music).
My friend Thomas Marriott, an amazing trumpet player and super nice guy, made some great points in the same thread, including this pearl of wisdom:
Something to consider (and I think this goes back to the original post) – when a club decides to book “free” bands, generally they get what they pay for. If you believe you deserve more money to perform, you must be sure you are giving more value to the club owner (and audience). If you can provide something no other person on the scene can, they will pay you to do what you do. If you intend to play what everyone else is playing, or to provide an average service, a club isn’t going to pay for that.
We’re not going to convince the club owners to operate differently until it’s in their best interest to operate differently. We have to show them why they should book our bands. And it has to make sense for them as well as for us. As Thomas says, we have to bring all of our skills to bear on the situation, and then we can expect the clubs to do the same. It is this type of partnership that is the only way we will succeed. The “us vs. them” mentality isn’t serving anyone.
But keep in mind, club dates are only one option for the working musician. Casuals, weddings, corporate work, nursing homes…there are SO many opportunities for the musicians willing to put in a little work to find and cultivate them. Not to mention all the ways we now have to record and sell our music via the internet.
As I’ve stated before, as 21st-century musicians we need many different skills to survive in addition to our musical skills. The modern-day musician has to be player/booker/marketer/internet guru/salesman/bandleader/schmoozer. If you employ these skills and do it with a positive attitude you can find work.
Thomas echoed these thoughts as well when he said:
[W]e all know lots of ridiculous musicians who aren’t working in our communities for a variety of reasons. And in many cases the best musicians aren’t the busiest. It takes a lot of diligence in and out of the practice room to stay busy and the folks who put in the time usually succeed. But you have to be your own manager, agent, producer and a musician as well.
Focus on the Positive
So my advice is, don’t worry about all the opportunities you don’t have, just concern yourself with those that you can have. If you want to play for free, so be it. There will always be those opportunities too. But if you want to make money, or even make a living, those aren’t the gigs you should concern yourself with. Search out those venues and opportunities that will appreciate what you will bring. They are out there. You just have to take the time and put in the energy to find them. Instead of being the person who is sitting around dwelling on the negative energy, be the person that is proactive and positive. I guarantee you will see the results!
P.S. – I should mention that I, too, sometimes play gigs for little or no money. There are situations where other factors outweigh the money – a cool group I’ve wanted to play with, a great project (like the Birth of the Cool Tribute I’m involved in this month), even just plain fun. But I NEVER play a gig for “exposure”. That’s a fallacy propagated by the club owners to try to add value where none exists.