Where does the money come from?

Warning: This post has more questions than answers, because we can’t find the answers until we ask the RIGHT questions.

In recent weeks I have read the complaints of a number of people about the amounts of money that performers are paid in “creative music” situations. I know that I could spend an entire book weeding out meaning from the term “creative music,” so let me just clarify that I mean art music that is outside of the economic mainstream.

One of the people who inspired this post simply thinks that the musicians should “make” the clubs sign a union contract and pay a good wage. If music is part of the club’s business model, in the way that a band on Bourbon St. is there mostly to make the party happen, and making the party happen is how the club makes money, then I agree. The market sets a price for beer, and it should also set a price for the band. Both the beer and the band are part of the formula that the club uses to make money. We should also note, that in these situations, the band plays what the club wants them to play. These are craftsman musicians who are hired to provide a service for an employer. The club takes the risk, the band simply provides a service.

This isn’t really the situation I am thinking about.

What about a situation in which I (the hypothetical artist) have a band and some new music, and we want a place to play this music. This is original music, and it isn’t particularly mainstream. My goal is to find a place to present this music, and in doing so build an audience, and make some money.

Some venues pride themselves on presenting new music. It is part of their business model. Let’s take a “best case scenario” for the artist version of this situation, and assume that our hypothetical venue is dedicated to presenting new music. For our little thought experiment here, the genre of this new music isn’t really important, we just have to stipulate that the new music is made by an artist who is not yet well known.

Where does the money come from?

One version of the “unknown band” plan is to offer free entrance to entice more people in to hear the music. I won’t go into my arguments about why it is a bad idea to present yourself with the implication that your performance has no value. If there is no cover charge, then all of the band’s money must come from the bar. Giving the band 20% of the bar ring is on the generous side of standard. If 50 people come to your gig, and each of them has three drinks, and the drinks average $7 each, then the bar ring is $1,050. 20% of that bar ring is $210.

The cover charge scenario is the other way to go. With a $5 cover that goes entirely to the band (which can be rare), those same 50 people generate $250 for the band. Now, will there still be 50 people there with a $5 cover? Probably a question for another post.

Based on these numbers, when you get to audiences of 200 or so, you get to numbers that can support budget style touring (a van and couches). As cover charges can go up, the numbers change. The math isn’t difficult. The point is that the money for the band either comes directly from the audience (cover charge/ticket sales) or indirectly from the audience (percentage of bar sales). No matter how you look at it, audience size is the determining factor in terms of available money for the artists.

Who is responsible for bringing the audience? That may be another post.

The point is when there are 50 people in the audience to hear my great new music for the first time, and the band makes a total of $300, then we did a pretty good job of converting audience into dollars.

$300 a night for an entire band is not a living wage.

This raises more questions. Am I entitled to a living wage from my art? Do I make art as a financial sustenance or just for psychic sustenance? Do we, as audience members, have a moral obligation to financially support the artists whose work we enjoy? Do we, as artists, have a moral obligation to freely share our art with the world? Are there other places to find money besides the bar and the door? (I consider merchandise sales to be a separate income stream from the performance fee.)

The answers to the above questions can inform our search for answers about how to increase the amount of money performers make for live performances.

3 thoughts on “Where does the money come from?”

  1. Hey Jeff, great post and interesting questions. One thing I would suggest is reframing the question of “am I entitled to a living wage for my art?” This phrasing unnecessarily puts the question in ideological terms. Are real estate brokers “entitled” to 6% (or a month’s rent, or whatever the local standard is) of every deal? Well, we’ve made laws that say they are, but I am not sure that there is any inherent reason why they are “entitled” to that money.

    I think this question really breaks down into two unrelated questions:
    “if my work is making money for other people, should they be required to share the revenue with me, and how much?”
    “what kind of artists do we want to have as a society?”

    The first question suggests that, like various other professions, perhaps there should be legal minimum requirements for any performance. Or not: most regulated professions require official licenses, and since any licensing scheme would raise freedom of speech issues, and bad music is unlikely to meet the standard of a compelling public interest, it’s hard to see the gov’t getting involved. It is also untenable from the union angle, since there is no penalty for hiring non-union. Maybe there is a workable way to have a “musicians’ minimum wage”, I don’t know. We could consider that any sales occurring while a musician is playing are subject to a legally mandated commission, set at statutory rates for food, drink, and cover charges. This may be possible (at the state/local level), but of course whether it would be wise is another matter. One thing I don’t understand is the Musicians’ Union’s failure to have solidarity agreements in place with other Unions.

    The second is something we answer collectively as individuals vote with their dollars. It seems that the music industry is currently echoing society at large in that the erosion of the middle class in favor of the rich and poor is similar to the division between music “stars” and nobodies. People have in general decided to treat musicians as if we are all looking for our “big break”, so we should do everything for free until some tipping point when we will be rich and famous—it’s a winner-take-all mentality that treats musicians not as professionals but like people who decided to play some idiotic lottery. The idea of being a working musician, that all the day in, day out work is our work and should be paid—this has lost currency in the popular understanding of what we do. A TV show recently asked me to provide a weekly house band, with no budget. That they even ask that is indicative of the poisoned mentality I am talking about.

    I don’t have any answers, either, but thanks for asking the questions and starting the conversation!

  2. Well, let me state up front, if there is money generated, the musicians should get some. My post is more about people who think their band should get $500 for the night, and there were only 20 people in the place. That math just doesn’t work.

    The Open Ears gig last night was quite successful, for two reasons. The first reason was that the music was REALLY GREAT! And secondly the artists did a really good job of getting their fans to know about the show, and to show up. They did well at the door, and he sold a reasonable number of CDs.

    My question of “are we entitled to make a living from our art” is really asking, why some people think they should be paid well for doing something that creates no monetary value? The real estate brokers get their 6% because they provide a service that we value. When we contract a real estate agent, we agree to pay them 6%.

    Similarly, when someone hires me to provide the service of playing trombone, we agree beforehand what I will be paid. If I do not like the terms, I don’t do the gig.

    When I am trying to sell my art, it is a different scene than when I am selling my services as a trombonist. As an artist, it is up to me (or my team) to create the value. The most important part of that equation is to make art that is good. Then we must find and connect with an audience that will dig what we do. For those of us who make niche art, we need to be prepared to deal with that fact that sometimes that audience is small.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to grow our audience, but I am saying that we shouldn’t go to a city where we are barely known, play for 20 people, then complain that we didn’t make $500.

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