I watched your TED video recently while on the road—I’m a jazz/punk pianist, singer and songwriter from New Orleans. I, too, travel about 9 months out of the year, playing 200 gigs a year. Most of them solo. I don’t revere social media the way you do, but I’ve had parallel experiences brought on by your Twitter shout-outs and couch surfing excursions, not originating from my computer screen, but through meeting people on the road at and around gigs. Over the course of the 5 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve almost always crashed with strangers who become fast and lifelong friends. I’ve never had to ask for a place to sleep or food to eat—people offer.
I’ve stayed in punk houses and mansions. I’ve slept in people’s beds while they insisted on sleeping on the couch. I’ve slept in a sleeping bag in the open basement of a farm in North Carolina next to a fireplace that was roasting the next morning’s coffee. I’ve stayed in a condo in Eugene, OR whose owners gave me the key to the joint after stocking the kitchen with food beer and wine, and left a paper bag of snacks for the next day on the road.
I’ve stayed with a woman in west Texas whose 2-year-old granddaughter shared the room with me—when she woke me up in the morning, we played dress-up until her grandmother was awake. When you said in your video you only recently had a couch surfing experience by yourself and thought “is this how stupid people die,” I laughed hysterically.
I’m writing because while I loved the performance you gave for the video—it’s obvious by the structure of your presentation you applied as much care as you do to your musical performances—I think you’re missing the larger point.
As a musician who often performs for tips, I have no problem passing the hat. I’m not self-conscious, embarrassed, feeling guilty about not having a “real job” (which I do, because this doesn’t pay enough.) My problem is that, while it’s a nice sentiment to “let people pay me,” when I get in my car and back on the road, the people who sell me fuel, auto insurance, food, a new tire, and rent to my apartment, do not “let me pay them.”
Sometime in the 90s, listeners decided that recorded music should be free. It’s largely a replicated digital product. I honestly have little problem with that. You can pay me what you want for copying a copy of my records. But for some reason, those listeners also decided that live music should also be free, unless accompanied by a social stamp of approval—be it favorable blog reviews or top 100 radio airplay. And it’s only getting worse. For those of us who aren’t famous, not only is it increasingly hard to be able to afford playing gigs on the road, it’s very near financially impossible. There have been many days I have had to choose between filling my gas tank to get to the next gig and eating a meal. I always choose the gas tank.
Playing a gig is a service. A service like mixing a drink, or preparing a dinner, or fixing an engine, or screening a movie. Those who provide the service should receive financial compensation for the work that they do, just as those who provide a tangible product should receive financial compensation for their tangible goods. Whether you agree with the tenets of capitalism (or understand them truly), our society is built on an equilibrium of goods and services. Would you also recommend that waitresses not take pay while serving at a restaurant, and instead ask their customers to pay what they’d like? Should the service industry as a whole “let people pay them”?
We tend to demand an extra 15-20% from customers for a dining experience. And an automatic extra dollar per drink at a bar. Should a bartender not take hourly pay or expect a tip every time they open a can of PBR and instead walk around the room at the end of a shift with a bucket, asking for money? Some might argue “but I love what I do, and waitresses don’t.” Even when that’s the case (and often times it’s not), no one should ever be punished financially for choosing a profession they don’t hate. Instead they should be rewarded for the patience required to get to that profession.
Furthermore, the service provided in playing a show takes cumulative hours, if not years, of preparation. Being able to play and sing live in a room, in my case, took 13 years of piano lessons, 4 years of music school, decades worth of practice, not to mention thousands of dollars in instruments and gear. And practicing is hard work. An hour’s worth of practicing requires far more brain power than an hour’s worth of pouring coffee or editing a manuscript (both of which I’ve done.) When do I get paid for those hours I’ve logged? Just as we automatically put down an obligatory extra dollar on a shot of whiskey, why can’t we be expected to shovel out an extra $2-$5 at the door of a small venue? It’s less than the cost of a drink in many American cities. Why is that too much to demand?
Another thing you overlooked: you compare your experiences now to working as a street statue. (One of my friends in New Orleans is in this business and loves it, by the way.) I appreciate where you’re coming from about sharing visceral emotional experiences with strangers and relating it to your work in music. After one particularly rough gig at a bar in Pittsburgh (one of those where I sat there with a bottle of liquor afterward thinking, “what the fuck am I doing?”) a man came up to me and told me that my recording of “St. James Infirmary” from my last record was in his ear on repeat for a month and helped him get through his friend’s suicide. That said, you compared working as a statue to working as a musician. You’ve done both. Can you honestly tell me you believe that standing in Jackson Square and holding a flower requires the same amount of resources, focus, energy, talent, and experience as playing a concert? And therefore should be compensated equally?
My concern is that musicians aren’t demanding the financial compensation they deserve. And when a person in your public standing (thanks in large part to your stint with a major label, whether it worked out for you or not) comes out and says the things you said, you make it that much more difficult for those of us who are out here working our asses off without the long arm of fame. Musicians should get paid for doing work. Because it is real work. Simple as that. More people need to hear influential figures say those words.
Just another view. Thanks for the work that you do. It’s wonderful.
Photos: Meg Hannah