Appreciating/Valuing the Arts

A few weeks ago I posted a rather long status (read; rant) on Facebook.  I’d like to repost it here, slightly cleaned up and edited.  There might still be some profanity.  This is still a long entry, and my main points are at the end.

January, 11th, 2016
I am a professional musician. That’s my profession, my job, my career. I play, I teach, I write, I hear other musicians, I try to be an active member of the “scene”.  I like to organize different events.  Music is how I support myself – pay my bills, buy food, buy clothes, and fill my gas tank.  Music also happens to be one of my passions.  I like music a lot. I play the drums. I like playing the drums, and sometimes I get to make money by playing the drums.  Pretty cool stuff, no?  Last month I was playing music at a bar, from 9pm to 1am in the morning. On a break, I was sitting eating and then heard my drums being played. I looked up and saw an incredibly drunk woman sitting at my drums, playing them, laughing… And then she face planted directly onto my snare drum, leaving a line of lipstick on the brand new drum head, and bending the arm of the stand until the snare tilted sideways and fell to the ground. She got up and walked away like nothing happened. I went over to her group to talk about what just happened, where I was confronted with confusion, anger, and then outrage. She denied anything happened.  A man in their group starts to yell at me,

“She never touched your stand! How can it be broken?  What’s your fucking problem, man?  You want to kick us out of the bar now or something?  What, you want us to pay for something?  We didn’t do anything.  Even if we DID play those drums…. How were we supposed to know that they were YOUR drums?  There’s not event a fucking sign that says ‘don’t play the drums!’  You can’t expect someone not to play the drums in this place.  Without a sign, anyone could just walk up and play them…”

“What?  What are you talking about, sir?”  I was getting very angry.  It was about to come to blows. I was prepared to get violent with this guy. And you know what?  The management/staff at this establish immediately saw the confrontation unfolding, and stepped in and had that whole group escorted out of the building. They sent in 4 or 5 security guards. They asked me if I wanted to press charges. They asked if my equipment was damaged. They felt so bad, and were appalled at the lack of respect that group had for us. They told us how much they wished everyone valued us as much as we should be valued. They made me feel respected and valued, and treated me like a human being. It was a great feeling. They gave me a fresh drink, and I finished my meal, and then I had a great time playing the rest of the night. I wish all establishments cared about musicians/artists/staff/people that much. But I’ve noticed, there isn’t a lot of respect going around these days for musicians/artists. Being self-employed is a lot of work. It’s rewarding, but there’s a lot of work involved. I started thinking about the pros and cons of this line of work. Why do I get discouraged so often? Why do I feel powerless? What is causing this emotion? What IS this emotion?

Oh, I’m feeling disrespected and devalued.

I’m sick of that.  And you know what I’m sick of? I am sick and tired of being told,

“Hey, THIS guy over here is willing to be taken advantage of way more than you. THIS guy doesn’t have as much self-respect, and doesn’t mind when we ask him to devalue himself and be treated as less than what he’s worth. Why are you so adamant about being treated with respect? Like a human being? In fact, it would be in your best interest, and you would even BENEFIT from treating yourself this way and doing what we ask of you, because it will establish a reputation for you as a ‘like-able and friendly guy’ and insure you more work. I think you should be more like THIS guy, because we LIKE this guy. It’s way more beneficial for us to employ THIS guy, because it means we end up more on top. Don’t you see that by lowering your standards, and not needing to feel respected, OUR company does better? And you want to work for us, don’t you? So you should just stop feeling this need to be treated decently. It’s only going to get in your way. I’m doing you a favor by telling you all this, can’t you see that? Just drop the idea that you need to be compensated, respected, or valued. THAT’S how you make it in this world. One day in the future it’ll all pay off! I’m also acknowledging the fact that you and that other guy have the same product. You’re both great! But it’s better business for us to not have to respect you – that seems too costly for us… Think of it this way – the more people you bring in, the more we’re able to use you for whatever purpose we see fit, the more business you bring us…. The bigger your pay check will be! We will reward and give special treats to those whom we deem our most valuable workers. Anyone willing to abandon their own self-worth holds a special place in our books. Give us everything you’ve got, and hey, you *might* get rewarded!”

GET THAT DECEITFUL, BULLSHIT, CARROT-ON-A-STRING OUT OF MY FUCKING FACE.

I don’t want to hear it anymore. I don’t want to hear your twisted, mendacious prophecy about how I could be the artist who will surrender his whole being and will be rewarded for my life of humbleness. When a restaurant says, “We’ll start at this pay, and if you bring people, and if we like you, maybe we can talk about raising it to this pay. No. The reality is, if they’re actually willing to pay something higher, they should be able to pay that now. You know what happens? You do a gig once or twice for little to know money, and they dump you, and they find someone else willing to give it try, and repeat that formula forever. That’s how they win. That’s how they take advantage of you.  Or worse: Maybe the budget DOES increase over time. Maybe they DO start to value you, or at least pretend to. You played it their way for a while, and took an initial hit, and in the long run you made a good investment. And then some time goes by…

“We’d like to renegotiate the band’s compensation. It worked a lot more in our favor when we paid you less, so we’d like to go back to that now.”

“What? We had an understanding that what we are currently being compensated is the appropriate amount. We started lower than this and worked up to it. We had an agreement. Why would we go back to being paid less? What happened?”

“Well, we’d like to make more money. And we realized we’re losing money when we pay you the current amount. We’d like to go back to paying you less, and you were fine with that earlier in the month/year, so you should be fine with it now, too. You’re options are to either continue playing here for less money, or we’ll get someone else who’s willing to do it for less than you.”

AT THIS POINT IN THE CONVERSATION, THEY ACTUALLY HAVE THE UPPER HAND.

How? How did it get this way? What’s going on? I had a thought –

**Musicians will do whatever you tell them to do if you threaten to take away their opportunity to play music.**

Somehow, this has become a truth in the music business.  Somehow this leads the way.  This includes devaluing themselves. And unless everyone stops accepting this as a truth, it will continue to be a truth. It’s actually quite simple. You know how to make that $50 gig disappear? You know how to put an end to being/feeling devalued?

Just don’t do it.

It’s really that easy. Don’t take that gig. You don’t have to blow up and chew out the person asking you. You don’t have to write a novel on Facebook declaring it (though I am…) But when something stupid is proposed to you, make sure to keep in mind that it’s not your only option.

One time, I was approached by a coffee shop to play music in their store. They called ME! *I was approached. I didn’t call them or go in asking about putting together a show. They called me. Think of the biggest coffee chain the world – the most famous one you can think of. The one that generates more business than most of could ever dream of. That one. This coffee shop wanted to have some live music for an event and they called me; they got my number from someone, with a recommendation to hire me and bring in a group to play music. We started discussing details about the event, and when it came down to the key points, they told me,

“WE CAN’T PAY YOU, BUT YOU CAN PUT OUT A TIP JAR AND SELL YOUR CD’S.  ALSO, WE CAN’T GIVE YOU ANY FOOD.  WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO GET YOU SOME DRIP COFFEE, BUT PROBABLY NO OTHER DRINKS.  MAYBE JUST A DISCOUNT OR SOMETHING.”

Oh I’m sorry, I thought you were one of the biggest companies in the world, one that could afford to have live music 24/7 at every location on Earth if they wanted. I’m sorry, I guess $100 or even $75 each for three people plus some food is too much of a dent for your business. My mistake. Did you really just call me, a total stranger, and ask me to work for free? What makes you think that’s OK? Do you not realize how incredibly insulting you’re being?

So when that owner/manager tells you, “I know you said you want this amount, and we already agreed to it, but now I’d like to only give you THIS amount”, the only way they can get away with that IS IF YOU LET THEM. Don’t! Don’t let that be OK. There are ways to help secure this agreements. Contracts, for example. That club owner screwed you over? And they have a signed contract saying they’d pay you more than they did? Even if you think it’d be more costly to file for small claims court than to just take the hit – Don’t. Don’t get pushed around. Don’t get taken advantage of. Have some respect for yourself, your craft, your profession. That way they won’t keep doing it to other people over and over again. “Hey, they didn’t stand up to us, so the next guys probably won’t, either.” This helps to reinforce the precedent:

**Musicians will do whatever you tell them to do if you threaten to take away their opportunity to play music.**

Let’s make those musicians believe that they’re the only ones who benefit from their playing – They want to have a good time. They want to be able to make music with their friends. If we make it seem like this insulting offer we throw them is the best they can get, maybe they’ll bite and just do what we want.

If you don’t take that $50, four-hour gig on Saturday night, with no food or drinks, playing background music at the lowest possible volume, to room full of people who don’t give a fuck about you or what you’re doing, except when they ask you if you can play “Take 5” … Someone else will. You think, “eh, I won’t like it, but yeah I’ll do it.”

Hey. Stop that. Don’t support that. Just don’t, and it’ll all go away. I think some people don’t understand exactly what I mean. I’ve heard,

“That’s great that you stick to your guns. Good for you, man. That takes a lot of guts. I’m just not in a position to do that. I just don’t see it that way. We should be playing everywhere, all the time, no matter what. It’s just not that simple – the fact is, that’s what gigs pay now. That’s the world, now. We can’t change it, so just go with it and relax. It’s not about the money. It’s about the music.”

No. No, man. No, I won’t relax.

Hey, owner of establishment; A jazz trio at a fancy restaurant isn’t an “exposure opportunity.” The musicians performing at your restaurant are not there just for their love of the music. If they just wanted to play for the sake of touching an instrument and creating a sound, they could do that at home, in garages, in the park…. Anywhere else. Live music at your restaurant creates ambiance; it is a boost in atmosphere. The customers/patrons of the restaurant are there to eat, and the music is secondary.  Don’t expect me to bring 20 people to your restaurant. Don’t expect me to promote my Tuesday night restaurant gig like I’m going on a world tour. I want people to be there.  And yes, I’ll promote the fact that I’ll be playing there.  But don’t tell me I should be thankful I have the performance space (free of charge!) and then ask me to turn down the volume, and then ask to turn it back up, and then ask me to play just one more song even though it’s 10 minutes after the time we agreed we’d stop playing.

And what I’m saying isn’t an argument about “things being for the music, and not the bread.” I’m not saying you should only take a gig with a big price tag on it. I’m not saying I need to be the center of attention. I’m not saying I won’t do a background/casual gig. I’m not saying that I need to make at least $100 anytime I leave the house. I’ve played gigs before, and have no problem playing for far less money than that, depending on the scenario. There’s a time and a place.

What I’m saying is STAY RESPECTED. Don’t get taken advantage of. Make sure you know the difference between “a favor” and “let us just screw you a bit”. How much did that Bachelors of Music degree cost? How many hours did you practice last year? What percentage of your life has been dedicated to this craft?

IF YOU DON’T VALUE YOURSELF, HOW DO YOU EXPECT ANYONE ELSE TO?

SEND A MESSAGE.

That restaurant says they only have a total budget of $100 for a Friday night, and they want a 5 piece band? And they don’t want to feed any of the musicians? And they want live music for four hours? Well, shit. Sorry, restaurant, looks like you won’t be getting what you want. I’ve performed many times for little to no money. Charity events that I’ve been invested in, house parties, jam sessions, original projects… Those events are different from the situation I’m talking about. What I’m talking about has more to do with –

A BUSINESS EXCHANGE OF SERVICE AND COMPENSATION VS. OPPORTUNITY OF PERSONAL INTEREST.

The two aren’t too far away from each other, or completely exclusive. They’re close. But there are differences. Yes, you can be performing original music somewhere, and get compensated for it.  Yes, you can do something that you enjoy musically and still make some money.  But, how about this scenario:

I’m thinking I’d like a sandwich. I go into Subway and order a sandwich combo meal. I look at the menu, and I see the clearly posted prices for the various items on the menu. I ordered a meal combo that costs $10. I say to the cashier, “Now, I’ve read on your menu that you’ve valued this meal at $10. I’d like you to give me the meal for $8.”

Normally at this point, you would have to leave without a sandwich. But if we apply the “music business reality” concept into our scenario, somehow THIS becomes an acceptable continuation…

What? No, I should be able to get the sandwich for $8. You clearly enjoy making sandwiches, and you should be willing to sell them for whatever price I offer. In fact, you should be lucky you can even get some work in the sandwich business. You’re doing what you love, so it shouldn’t even “feel” like work at all. You guys are just up there, having fun all day making sandwiches. I think it’d be better for business if you lowered your prices. Think of how many more people could eat YOUR sandwiches. YOUR brand. How badly do you want to sell these sandwiches? Listen, if you don’t give me that sandwich for $8, I’m going to purchase one from THIS guy. He’s only asking $5! I’m paying you $3 more than he’s asking. Why can’t you just be like him?”

And then I wouldn’t sell my sandwich for $8, (lower rates to the counteroffer) and that customer (restaurant owner) purchases (hires) a sandwich from the other sandwich maker (musician) instead of me. (or, a musician looses a gig that they worked to attain because someone else has offered to do it for less money).

BUT IT’S NOT ALL BAD, AND SOME PEOPLE DO GET IT.

That’s a hard statement for me to believe just a week after I had about $2,000 worth of equipment stolen from me. But I’ve had a lot of really great musical opportunities, too. I once had a completely different experience with a different coffee shop than the one mentioned earlier. One time I went into a coffee shop where there hadn’t been a lot of music and I built something from the ground up with them, and it worked really well! They had so much respect and appreciation for what we were doing. This little independent shop did everything they could to make us feel appreciated and valued. They couldn’t offer a huge amount of money, but they consistently offered decent funds, as much food and drink as we wanted, and complete musical freedom in a friendly and creative space. No micromanaging, nobody on our cases about breaks, no pressure to pander to the customers, etc. Some people DO get it. Some places do value what we do. You just have to find the right connection in the right place.

Hey, just value what you’re doing. Value yourself. Think about repercussions. Don’t be a part of the problem. It’s hard enough as it is – we don’t need to make it worse for ourselves. As long as you continue to play just for tips or a meal, you have no right to complain about the fact that some restaurants expect you to play just for tips or a meal. Don’t complain that it’s Saturday night and that place only offers $50 even though you routinely play other gigs for $50. I’m not saying never play for $50. I’m saying make sure you respect yourself, and that others respect you and what you do. It seems that everyone *appreciates the arts. Not everyone *values the arts. Make sure you appreciate and value yourself.

Added thoughts: January 21st, 2016:

I received a ton of different responses to this post, and I’d like to make some additional comments.  Mainly, that the focus of this piece is about working musicians, being able to make a decent wage.   I hoped to bring attention to the idea of working musicians “being undercut by people offering services to businesses (which those businesses want) for low rates which are not sustainable amounts to live off of…” (D. Carter) 

-And the precedent it sets for those businesses to continue operating in this way.

A way that forces musicians to undercut each other and even at times themselves, just for the possibility of offering services. It forces rates and wages down further, and perpetuates the idea that it is not something to be valued. By accepting their conditions it’s a self-fulfilling series of events; “they don’t value their services, so why should we?” How did the industry/culture get this way?

 “Music has become devalued as a profession, as have most of the arts in America. It’s sad but undeniable. It has to do with both the glut of musicians produced by music schools who are willing to play for nothing, and the disintegration of arts education in primary and high school over the past thirty years which has lead to a culturally ignorant populace that can’t tell the difference between an amateur and a professional or a competent musician and an excellent one.” (R. Picket)

Yes.  A lack of music education and a huge increase of the number of musicians (students) willing to perform for little to no money.  Makes perfect sense to me.

 

 

Author: WendtWritings

JACOB WENDT is a musician, music educator, and event manager in the Los Angeles area. As a student of the University of California, Irvine, he received a Bachelors of Music degree in Jazz Studies and a certificate of Ethnomusicology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s