Oh, The Stories I Could Tell . . .

Every two weeks the blogosphere comes to life when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. The topic this time is “If you can’t afford the tip you can’t afford the meal.”

Here are two not-actual but representative-of-actual ads I’ve seen on Craigslist:

Seeking band to entertain at publishing industry event to benefit a worthy cause. We’re looking for a jazz quartet to play from 7 – 10 pm on Friday at a beautiful SoHo venue. No pay, but great exposure to publishing and fashion industry types.

Your music at our restaurant, Friday nights, 6 – 11 pm. If you’re a solid band with a good following, let’s talk. No $$, but a receptive place for your music; you can pass the hat, and get dinner for up to a trio. Potential for longterm gig.

Hmmm. Let me ask you something, industry event throwers: Is the catering being donated? How about the invitations? The flowers? The venue? All being donated for exposure and the chance to contribute to a worthy cause? Nobody’s getting paid a cent for any work they do to make this happen? If that’s the case, then, okay, you have the right to ask musicians to work for free, too.

Restaurant owner or manager: before I help you build up your business by bringing in my band and my following, please come to my home and cook dinner for my friends and me. I have a stove and electricity (you supply the ingredients). No $$, but a great opportunity to share your talents with an appreciative group of hungry musicians. If the food’s really good, we’ll ask you to come back and do it again.

It seems hard to put a price on something as emotional, as ephemeral as music. But there are hard costs, just as there are with any product. The CD your kid is downloading for free because he knows where to find it online (and, after all, how’s it going to hurt Amazon or iTunes or Gaga or Jay-Z if they don’t get his $10 or $15?), well, that CD may have cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to make, and those thousands may have come out of the artists’ pockets. Granted, my own musical subgenre doesn’t include Gagas and Jay-Zs and overnight YouTube sensations, and that’s a-ok with me. For many of us, pop stardom isn’t remotely the goal. Me, I just want to make music I like and can feel proud of, and to earn a reasonable return for doing so. I’d like my friend who recently didn’t get paid for a gig, and had to pay the band out of her own pocket, to find the check in today’s mail. I’d love to think I might break even on what it costs to make a CD (and I’m only talking hard costs–not time, training, skill, and so on), though I know that’s unlikely.

Now, look, nobody’s forcing me or my friends and colleagues to make the kind of music we make. You are who you are, after all, and I’m sure I wouldn’t get very far as a pop star if that was something I wanted (I’m way too old now, but even when I wasn’t, that wasn’t my thing). But many of the musicians I know are people with masters degrees (and student loans), children, health problems, rent, mortgages. You know the type I’m talking about: regular people. Some of them just happen to be regular people with decades of experience and with incalculable amounts of time and money invested in the development of their art and craft. They’re people who create possibly somewhat esoteric but also possibly meaningful music. And while their music may be appreciated for giving joy, provoking thought, soothing savage breasts, it’s rarely understood as something having monetary value. Music, after all, is free. It floats on the air, on waves. You can’t hold it in your hand, put it on the mantle, hang it on the wall.

Well, it’s easy to take some things for granted, isn’t it? We all do it. I do it. I’m tuned in (no pun intended) to where that for-granted-taking happens in music because that’s the world I inhabit. I thought it might be interesting for non-musicians to have a peek at some of the adventures in Musicland. But that’s all this is, a peek. Oh, the stories I could tell you! But I won’t, not now. I’ll leave you with this request: some time today, or in the next few days, please put on some music you really like. And listen. Really listen. Embrace the music, and let it embrace you back.

(Apologies to other participants. . . as usual, I entered the code to show the list of bloggers, but all that shows is the code. My blog apparently doesn’t want to cooperate.)

6 Responses to Oh, The Stories I Could Tell . . .

  1. Joe Freenor says:

    I don’t play an instrument, but music has always been one of the joys of my life. My personal preference is classical music, but I do listen to other genres. We do have an absolutely first rate local guitarist named Peter Pupping who I discovered quite by accident. We live in San Diego and went to the Del Mar Fair some years ago. It’s a county fair with the rides and booths and lots and lots of opportunities to buy things. They also have several huge buildings that are just filled with various exhibits. Well, one of them was featuring his CDs, and the lady demonstrating them put on Peter’s sole classical CD. The piece she played was a guitar transcription of the opening section of Bach’s Suite for Unaccompanied Cello No. 1. I kid you not, in the midst of all that noise and confusion, I actually had tears running down my cheeks!

    I bought the CD and soon learned that he was local and put on occasional concerts. We have since had the privilege of hearing Peter and his group in concert three or four times. We always paid admission, I am happy to add, and I push his music every chance I get. Like this. Google him and see what pops up. Most of his recorded music has a samba beat, as he has done better with that, but he is an absolute killer musician who really should be much bigger than he is. I think about him sometimes because I know he has a wife and family. I don’t know if he has a day job or if he has been able to scramble enough paying jobs to keep body and soul together, but I firmly hope it is the latter.

    • Thanks for telling me all this. I really appreciated reading it. By the way, I played at Dizzy’s in San Diego a couple years ago. If we tour out that way again I’ll be sure to let you know. Happy holidays to you and your beautiful bride.

  2. You remind me of the old adage, “the only good artist is a dead artist.”

    I see musicians getting the short sheet in the restaurant industry, as well. Our chef tried to have “jazz night” by enticing a local musician to play once per week for tips and dinner. But what he could order for dinner was, of course, quite limited. And the hostess had to serve him because the waitresses were working for tips. Penny pinching all around.

    • Yikes! Years ago I played about once a month in a restaurant where the band was only allowed pasta with red sauce and a salad. That’s it. Once I asked if I could please get some broccoli or some kind of vegetable – you wouldn’t believe the hullaballoo that created. (On the other hand, I’ve also played at places where the management really appreciated the music and treated us very nicely.)

  3. scottsliver says:

    My wife has a business, Sparkle the Clown and Friends. In addition to doing kid’s parties and corporate events, she does professional balloon decor’. She gets a steady flow of calls asking her to support their cause, “just for a couple of hours” or “All we need is a balloon arch for the finish line.”

    She does more than her share of freebies and we support several non-profits… it’s just a mindset that’s out there.

    I’m sure there are a ton of startup bands willing to play for the exposure and a free meal. Unfortunately.

    Great post!

    • Exactly – many students and young bands are happy to do it. And if restaurants can get good or good enough music for free, why should they pay? It’s a sad state of affairs. I sympathize with your wife, too!

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