Updated: Mar 5, 2020
There is a common misunderstanding that if you are a singer, performing at a variety of venues, you must be making GREAT money. But the fact of the matter is that, like actors who move to L.A. in search of a star-studded career, gigging musicians are also “starving artists”. Let’s talk about the real experience of an artist trying to pave their way to the top.
Starting out, the rush and thrill of booking is quite the adrenaline rush. You are getting attention, booking different venues, doing what you love and making money from it. It seems like A LOT at first. $150 here, $250 there. The more you book, the more you make. But if you take away the excitement that comes from new ventures, there is so much more that musicians have to go through to make your dining experience a lovely one.
Setup...musicians often have to lug around big rigs stocked full of amps, instruments, monitors, wires, microphones, stands, etc. That’s a lot of heavy equipment to lift, setup and breakdown. On average, musicians have to start setting up 30 minutes to an hour prior to the gig, then put everything away afterwards. And those extra two hours are not paid for.
Pay...most gigs are about 2 - 3 hours long and on average, amateur musicians may start off getting paid $150 per show. To be clear, that is roughly 2 hours of setup and breakdown time, plus 3 hours of performances for $150!!! Luckily, a 3 hour gig has two 15 minute breaks, leaving play time at 2.5 hours. However, if you do the math, that means they are only making roughly $33/hour. It seems like a lot right? Except, there are many musicians who do not have permanent gigs, or what we call residencies. They are lucky if they can secure more than one per week. So, someone starting out might average about $600 - $800 per month.
After a few months, and with a lot of leg work, knocking on doors, cold-calling and a good amount of FREE gigs, they might be able to increase their pay to $1200 - $1500 month.
Perks...some venues will give musicians a tab for food and reserve a spot for them to sit at and take their breaks during and after gigs. But more often than not, they are treated more like commodities. Many servers walk right past them and can go an entire 3 hours without so much as offering them a drink, which is very sad. Tips are always welcome and an added benefit for musicians to be compensated for their time and all the effort they put into preparing themselves for these gigs. Unfortunately, there are actually some venues out there who don’t allow musicians to put out a tip jar...as an advocate for all things artistic, I’d advise these venues to recognize that this should ALWAYS be allowed for artists who entertain your customers.
Consistency...a residency is wonderful for most musicians who can land them. This can mean a constant flow of income for these artists. The downside to being an independent contractor, or musician for hire, is that you can be replaced or let go of at any time for no reason at all. In addition, there have been multiple venues who have shut down their music programs for one reason or another and this left artists like myself trying to scramble for something to make up the difference to pay our own bills.
Hecklers...while most customers are absolutely fabulous, many musicians have fallen prey to hecklers, drunk or otherwise, who have made them feel like trash while they are performing. It’s hard enough to keep smiling and playing for customers at a time like this, and it's not easy when management doesn’t do anything about it. Unless they are getting physical or disrupting other customers, it is rare that anyone will step in to stop these hecklers from harassing the talent. And yet, we continue...we sing...we smile...and we give our absolute best because WE ARE PROFESSIONALS.
So WHY?...with all of these uncomfortable truths that seem to put quite the damper on the world of gigging, you may ask, “why we’d still choose to do it?” The answer is short and simple…we LOVE it! We all have bills to pay, and a 9am - 5pm job can take care of those, however, it cannot give us the true joy and happiness that our passions can. No matter what kind of day we’re having, or the uncertainty of whether or not our jobs will still be there in the morning, the love and fulfillment we receive from singing or playing music is everything that we need to keep us going. Why else would someone push through and endure this, if not for the love of it? When push comes to shove, it’s worth everything to continue doing what we love, and hoping that maybe, just maybe, the industry, the venues and the people would be a bit kinder.
The next time you are out and listening to live music, remember that those people you are listening to have real lives, feelings and experiences just like you! They have their good days and their bad days and they still show up to share their gifts with you! They go through a lot, work really hard to perfect their voices and the way they play, and work really hard to make your night a wonderful experience. They do their best for each and every one of you. So please treat them well, appreciate the effort it takes to do what they do, and give them a smile! You never know, that one small act of kindness can mean the world to them! For anyone hoping to get into this business...know what you’re getting into and make a commitment that if this is your dream and your passion, that you’ll find a way to push through! That you’ll always remember your...why? If you love it, you will succeed. You may have to go through a bit of dirt and a lot of struggle, but if you persevere, you won’t have any regrets because you’re doing what you LOVE!
Goodluck! Keep Going! And no matter what...Enjoy The Ride!!!
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