Working musicians – an oxymoron?

Once upon a time, musicians could buy a home, raise a family and even plan for their old age by being a musician.

They could work seven nights a week, even perform more than one gig per day, and could apply for a home-loan based on their income as a musician.

These days, a musician is teetering on the edge of being a second-class citizen unless they work in an orchestra, a big-name band or are teaching music.

The skill and talent required to be a professional performer takes years to perfect, and in fact without consistent practice, such skills can quickly fall away to mediocrity.

Why is it that musicians so often feel that asking to be paid for a performance is difficult?  That they feel they ought to be grateful for whatever crumbs are thrown their way?  Why do they not feel they can charge, say $100 per hour, without having to justify it in some way.  Social media metrics, a “following”, whether or not they have any albums to their name – these are things that an employer might take into consideration when deciding how much a band is “worth”.

Does an optometrist have to justify his fee? Does a doctor? Does a plumber? They all have a reasonable expectation of being paid a minimum fee. Why then are musicians in this strange “no man’s land” when it comes to pay?

Notoriously, we are our own worst enemy.  We do not unionise. We are, by nature, non-conformists. We don’t want to band together and present a united front. Heck, we don’t even want to get out of bed before noon let alone think about political issues like unionism.

So, we go about deciding our own worth, every time we quote for a job. We have to play “russian roulette”wondering at what point our pay request gets shut down and we are out of a job.

With so few live music venues left that offer work for real bands (4 piece and up), the soloists now rule the roost.  Walk past any pub on any night of the week and witness the sad reality of a soloist shoved in a corner of the bar, under a TV screen, being largely ignored.  Duos are now even struggling to compete with soloists who can charge anything up to $600 a night if they are good.

But is a soloist really indicative of “live music”?  I never wanted to be a soloist because I believed the art of music was best practised with others who could teach me, guide me, improve me, have fun with me.  Sitting at a piano in a bar somewhere in the wee hours didn’t seem much fun to me.

With the advent of affordable digital equipment like loop machines, stomp boxes and the like, a soloist can quickly make himself sound like more than one person.

But there isn’t more than one person.  He or she is all alone.

My son is a guitarist and he largely dislikes playing on his own.  He really enjoys playing with his trio where he can bounce off people and truly feel what it’s like to be a working musician in a band.

Bands these days have to cross many genres in order to stay employable.  Does this mean there are fewer bands who can specialise in a given genre?  Do we all become “genre-crossers” and “all-rounders”.  From my own experience, yes.  I stopped calling myself a jazz singer a long time ago because this just pigeonholed me and closed a lot of musical opportunities off.

So, I am a vocalist. A singer. A musician.

I am one of many such people across Australia who struggle in this large continent with its tyrannical distances which make touring costly, time-consuming and, ultimately, profit-diminishing.

The constant hustle for work, the skills of relationship-building required to create new networks and opportunities – this is the life of the modern musician.

Oh yes, and we love what we do.

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