Sunday, October 27, 2013

Minimum Wage

"Would you like some JAZZ with that?"
I have noticed that the jazztruth posts that seem to get the most attention are the ones where there is some controversy or something that deals with the current state of the music. I say this because in some ways I want to avoid always talking about these kinds of things, because, let's face it, it's depressing. However, I saw something on facebook which piqued my interest.

Dave Captein, a marvelous Portland-based bassist, posted this:

I played 3 three hour door gigs last week (including one of which was on a Friday night). My total take was $64. $16.55 below minimum wage.

There are hundreds of comments below this post. Some are humorous; indeed, this is an instance where you would have to laugh to keep from crying. It's interesting to me that we have reached a point in time where many younger musicians almost don't believe that it's possible to make money as a musician. I remember(before I started touring)as a local musician in Baltimore and Washington in the late 80's and early 90's that we tried to avoid the dreaded "door" gigs because they were beneath us, and because there were actual paying gigs. Now, it almost seems as though it's reversed; the gig that actually pays is a rarity. Some people are not aware that even the major jazz clubs in Portland are door gigs. In our present day, if you refuse to do door gigs, you will find yourself playing very infrequently. 

This is the new paradigm. Because live music is not considered essential anymore(at least in America), we have nothing to bargain with; if we, the musicians, somehow were able to say to the clubs, "You need to guarantee pay for the musicians," then the clubs would say,"We'll just buy an ipod," and that would be that. So we begrudgingly play for the door and hope that people will come. But oftentimes, people don't come, because we, being the musicians that we are, spend much of our time thinking about the music and less about how to get folks to come out. 

Sometimes, we can convince our friends and family to come out.(When I would come back from New York to play Blues Alley in Washington D.C., my father would try to get all of his friends to come out to see the show, and I would do pretty well. My mother would do the same when I played at An Die Musik in Baltimore.) But this is cool only once in a while. Unless you have an extraordinarily supportive family who has nothing but time on their hands, you could do that maybe once or twice a year. Once a month? That's pushing it. Can you get friends and family to come out once a week? I'd be surprised. The friends and family plan just doesn't work after a while.( I played a gig recently where the young bassist in my group invited everyone from her work to come down. They weren't jazz fans, consequently, they didn't like or understand what they were hearing. They most likely won't be coming to any more of her jazz gigs.) You have to be known enough to get strangers to come to your gigs. How do you do that? I have no idea. If I did, I would probably be doing something other that writing this blogpost about door gigs. 

Mr. Captein is a high level musician, and he's no kid right out of college; he SHOULD be paid for his time, but he also remembers a time when gigs paid real money. The minimum wage analogy is somewhat facetious; obviously, Captein and other musicians of his caliber don't always do door gigs and often do receive respectable compensation for their work. This is a different kind of life than a life where one has no choice but to work at McDonald's or Starbucks or what have you.(I worked various minimum wage jobs in the late 1980's. Let me tell you, I would much rather play music than drop McChicken sandwiches in the fryolater....)

In a way, the lack or musician income, the lack of audience, and the general lack of abundance in our community is a by product of our current economic situation; the top 1% has all of the money. There isn't enough money circulating to do things. Everyone is doing more for less, unless you are part of the 1 percent, and then you are just sitting around while your money earns interest. Until we can figure out a way to get money back into the community, this is only going to get worse. 

In the meantime, people are offering solutions, or at least, ideas which could lead to solutions. Drummer and educator Jason Palmer writes:

I was having this conversation the other day (seems like all most musicians talk about these days...), and I was wondering if maybe there needs to be a broader discussion of how to make it seem 'cool' for people in our society to seek out live music in general. If we could somehow figure out a way to make it seem like 'the thing to do,' then it would be easy to fix the other parts of the equation; like pay, contracts, and our relationships to club owners. We need a picture of Miley Cyrus in a Portland jazz club...I'm joking, but I think this is really the issue. When I talk with musicians who played a lot in the 60's, 70's etc. and were making good guarantees, seems like they also always mention how the clubs were often packed, and that there were a lot of folks OUT. Some of them were getting drunk/high, some were trying get laid, or what have you, but the music was the center of this. Now, the Dj's are doing that job for younger folks in my generation. So, how do we change this? Just a thought...

Again, if I knew how to make jazz cool again, I probably wouldn't be sitting here writing. (It's kind of odd because I'm actually sitting in a hotel in Umea, Sweden; last night, I played with Jack DeJohnette at a major venue to a packed house at a major jazz festival. Have you ever heard of Umea? I hadn't either. They have a major jazz festival, and people of all ages come to it. Baltimore doesn't have a major jazz festival. I'm just sayin'.....)

Ben Jones added:

Ok, so, part of the issue is the age group. There are still people paying to go hear music they are just younger and listen to younger music. I have heard of folks spending upwards of $10 to go where there is a DJ. Why you ask, because neither the club, nor the patrons, have to worry about a 'BAD' band...the music is the real deal, all the time, really loud and at the end of the day, much less expensive than a live band of 1/3 the caliber...maybe. It boils down to the fewest moving parts theory...get the most out of doing the least. The venue owners have to go back to taking pride in their venues regardless of band, DJ, tap dancer or whatever entertainment they may have. Sure having a band with a following is good but it should not be the main draw. The venues have to help...end of story. We as musicians also need to realize that the only way we will ever get there is to work together...musicians w/ musicians, musicians with venues, and venues with venues. There's room for all if we stop trying to cut throats to try to get it all for ourselves.

This point has been made over and over again; have a PLACE where people go regardless of who is playing, and everything will take care of itself. Relying on individual bands to draw people just doesn't work. This reminds me of when I played at the Blue Note in New York with Christian McBride about 6 or 7 years ago. It was a packed house. McBride was telling a story, and it involved trumpeter Roy Hargrove. " I called Roy Hargrove. Y'all know Roy Hargrove, right?" The audience was silent!  So you mean to tell me that in the top jazz club in New York, in the jazz capital of the world, in a packed house, not ONE AUDIENCE MEMBER had HEARD of Roy Hargrove? One of the more famous trumpeters in modern jazz? Not one person had heard of him? Who is in the audience? Clearly not jazz FANS! They go to the Blue Note because they heard of the Blue Note. They go because somebody told them to go the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. It's the PLACE. Not necessarily the artist performing.

Pianist Peter Boe gives a darker picture:

The entire situation is flatly untenable. It's a joke. It is no longer a business (for the musician) and cannot even be viewed as one. It is a LESS than zero-sum proposition. The only people that go to clubs on a regular basis are kids - and they don't go to what we persist in calling 'jazz clubs' in Portland - well, we have ONE, and even they seldom have jazz on weekends, when people tend to go out much more. Why do you suppose that is? The other thing that bugs me is that no other club owners wish to take ANY of the risk in putting on a show. It's all placed directly in the laps of the musicians - promotion, advertising, press, internet. The club owners are in essence saying 'OK, you want your band to play here? Fine. Decide on a cover charge and, IF you get enough covers, we'll kick down a hundred bucks or so. But don't expect US to do a damn thing to help bring people here - that's YOUR job. Hell, it's OUR club'. If that isn't some stupid-ass reasoning. Whatever happened to the idea of a business promoting ITSELF? Three gigs, 60 bucks? That's working at a deficit. That's about a 200% reduction in what we were making 30 years ago. I'm beginning to think it's hopeless. Sorry to be negative. But do you know a single local musician able to make even a poverty-level living by doing nothing but gigs? I can't name one.

This might sound strange, but I actually think negativity is important. I can appreciate trying to stay positive in the face of doom and gloom; nevertheless, if you are unwilling to look at what is wrong, you can never fix it. If you are fat, but insist on seeing yourself as big boned, you'll never make attempts to lose weight. If you can't play your scales, just saying that you don't want your music to sound too "technical" won't make you play your scales any better. Negativity in this sense will actually HELP. Let's fix problems instead of acting like everything is cool.

At least one definitive solution was offered from Kit Taylor:

I could write a book on this, but I just had to put a few points in... first thing, every time I see one of you refer to Pop Music or Top 40 as the dumbing down of the industry, or the market, I cringe. How many of you would guess that the primary songwriter behind 20 Number One songs over the last few years is an absolutely shredding guitarist, studied Classical and Jazz, and was the lead guitarist in the Saturday Night Live band for 10 years? He's only 39 right now. You must adapt to your surroundings gentlemen and gentlewomen. There are millions being made on YouTube (, and there are countless other Music Sites such as where hundreds of thousands of dollars are made by artists you've never heard of creating new and fresh music. This is the digital era. It doesn't mean people are less musical. Just that people don't go to traditional jazz clubs anymore unless you give them a damn good reason to go. I'm just spitballing here... but what about Live Streaming some of your shows? Create a nice looking YouTube video... something edgy and modern but with the music you love. Using loops onstage along with a live drummer? Yes even for Jazz. ANYTHING to make it more current. Build a YouTube audience. I've worked with Shoshana Bean before, and she does shows ONLINE from her home, charging an online cover. That's bad-ass and brilliant if you ask me. I love and work in Pop Music, so I'm a little biased, but I grew bored and tired with Jazz for a reason. You must make it fresh. These same discussions are going on in cities all over the world, some bigger some smaller than ours. But the only thing that is for sure is, the change WILL happen, with or without you. Ok that's it for now. I respect all of you as musicians! Just felt like this needed to be 

At the very least, we need to think outside the box and come up with new ideas on how to have a life in music. As an educator, I feel a responsibility to acknowledge the difficulties and to be aware of and make my students aware of possibilities. I want my students to have a reason to try; if they don't believe they have a future, why should they spend years cultivating their skills? Thanks to people like Captein and others for keeping an honest dialogue; perhaps as one door closes, another will open. 


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