Sunday, February 19, 2012

Response: CDBABY: Why Music Venues Are Totally Lost: An Open Letter from a Professional Musician

I love this letter from professional musician, Dave Goldberg, and if I could meet him, I would shake his hand and say thank you.

What follows is my support and response, stemming from not only my personal experience as a band manager and jazz pianist, but also from the wisdom of my father, Tim Ballard, who worked in this industry for over 45 years.


This is a great article with good follow-up from people who clearly care about this topic. Sadly, it is symptomatic of the state of booking live bands in many cities that I've visited throughout the United States. There are actually several reasons behind why some musicians have allowed clubs to get away with this, and I agree with the author's original ideas to improve the situation.

1. With the advent of the iPod, many clubs have given up on booking a live venue at all. Why book a $300+ band for an evening when the owner can invest in an $80 iPod and be set for months? Why book a band that insists on free drinks and free food all night, when the iPod demands nothing? And hey, there's still a recession out there. Restaurant owners are often fighting just to stay in business, so one of the first things to be stricken from the budget is usually live entertainment.

All of this taken together may push an unknown band to deal with the club owner, thinking that it's a win-win situation; however, as the article points out, only the restaurant owner (if there is a winner) will come out ahead.

2. Weaker music union power due to right-to-work laws combined with other musicians' cheap gigs. Since many locales have passed laws that prohibit venues from mandating that their musicians be unionized, local pay scales have also predictably fallen. A couple of years ago, I found a scale from the AFM (American Federation of Musicians). Scale for 2008 was that a band leader should expect about $220 for a 3-4 hour set, and all sidemen/women should be paid about $110. Take your average quartet and this amounts to a minimum set fee of $550. By the time one adds another hour to set up and sound check, and another hour to tear down (5 total), the leader is expected to make $44 an hour, and the sidemen/women, $22. However, to use the horrible example at $75, there is no leader pay and now everyone is making about $15 over those 5 hours. This is a gross amount, before taxes, before retirement plan. Absolutely no one can live on this.

All this said, aspiring bands, please, stop playing for super-cheap and/or free. You are ruining the business in your area in several ways for other artists, especially those musicians that elect to stay union, because you are driving down their ability to make a living at this craft. While some of us have day jobs, often union musicians do not, so the next time you consider booking a cheap gig for supposed gain, think about how you just might have hurt a fellow musician's ability to earn a living. It is up to us to help set the standard and therefore, a "musicians' economy." Furthermore, by playing for almost nothing, you contribute to the fantasy that playing music is not a serious craft. Ask any world-class musician how long he or she has studied his work to become that good, and you will find that most have studied and practiced for more years than any doctor or lawyer attended professional school. Yet, many artists do not demand such fees because music is considered "entertainment" or "fun time" and therefore not "serious." Playing for cheap only instills that fallacy.

Lastly, in terms of "exposure", Simon Cowell is probably NOT going to be in the audience that night to grant you the fame and fortune that you so desperately crave; instead, you must have the dignity to price your craft well, and long-term exposure these days comes from blogging, social networks, radio interviews, reviews, and constantly endeavoring to play in respectable venues. If a restaurant owner lets you play for free, in the long run, think about this way: you likely came off as desperate and probably not very good, else you would have demanded better money. The ONE exception to this rule would be for a special charity that's close to your heart or a rare favor to a friend, and even then, do not let this become a habit.

3. No auditions, no references. Along with no union, bands also do not have adequate references from other venues, attesting not only to the quality (volume, sound, appropriateness) of their music, but of their professionalism on and off the stage. Is this band a bunch of lushes that will empty your bar and never pay for it? Is the band timely -- shows up on time, takes 15-20 min breaks and gets back to work, leaves on time? Professionalism and references can go a LONG way to helping a band get the next gig and ease the restaurant owners' minds in the process.

The battle can be won, one venue at a time, but it will take an army of artists everywhere to reinforce it. Please understand that my blog here is for our collective betterment, and if you see yourself in its pages, perhaps it just means that it's time to take a good look at what you can do to help us all to succeed this challenging but fulfilling profession. Thanks for reading and caring.

Best always,
Kathryn Ballard Shut /shoot/
President, Jazz Pianist / Vocalist
TIMKAT Entertainment, Inc.
Denver, CO

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