Category Archives: Blog

Join the Musician’s Union

I’ve been a union member off and on the past few years while working the union gigs this town has to offer. After giving thought to the challenges involved with being a musician in 2018 Seattle, I’ve decided to make my membership permanent. Here’s why:

Musicians create one of the most in-demand products on Earth. We’re surrounded by music constantly. It’s in all of our media, playing in all of our public spaces, and enjoyed almost universally. Every single person I know owns and listens to music. It’s as ubiquitous and beloved as coffee and, like any product of value, requires skill and effort to be made. And musicians produce the supply.

In past decades, the costs of production and distribution were so incredibly high that musicians were in genuine need of partners. Record labels provided the capital for production, promotion, and distribution and, in return, demanded ownership of the product and the lion’s share of profits. Short of already having massive sums of money, musicians had no choice but to acquiesce.

Fast forward to today. Production, promotion, and distribution come at a fraction of the cost, within the grasp of the average group of working musicians. But for some reason we still rely on partners who, with mixed intentions, demand unfavorable terms. Employees of Spotify and the like compile massive libraries of our collective work, pay out fractions of pennies for its use, and enjoy six-figure average salaries. Bars and venues that would otherwise be empty book musicians to draw patrons, cover their own costs first, and pay out what’s left. And because we still believe that we need these partners to be successful, we continue to accept terms no sane business person with an in-demand product ever would. We have almost no leverage when we should have almost all of it. Continue reading Join the Musician’s Union

Low-Paying Gigs: Think About Where the Money Goes

I’ll preface this by saying that the majority of club owners I deal with are good people. They love and believe in live music and have handed over their lives to the punishing task of owning and operating a small business. There are definitely snakes out there, but generally they’re hard-working people who took huge risks operating in an industry with a shrinking audience and growing costs. But when a business operates at a loss somebody has to be the loser. Guess who?!

Most venues that offer door deals or low guarantees have no built-in crowd, meaning the only reason people walk through the door is to see a band. But when the end of the night comes and there isn’t enough money to compensate everyone, the bands are last in the bread line. The staff gets paid, the food/alcohol vendors get paid, the utilities get paid, the taxes get paid, the bank gets paid, and the owner of the building gets paid. This is a common refrain and isn’t surprising to anyone, and I’m not arguing that these people don’t deserve to be paid for their work. But the thing that often gets missed is that, when you commit your time to one of these businesses without a reasonable guarantee, the fruits of your creative output are being used to pay other people, including the generally wealthy people who own the building and loaned the business money. But for the music you create and perform, the money to pay all that overhead wouldn’t flow into the business in the first place (The same could be said about Spotify and other streaming/radio platforms by the way). Given that banks and commercial real estate owners are profiting from your work, you should think hard about whether or not you’re getting something meaningful out of the arrangement.  Continue reading Low-Paying Gigs: Think About Where the Money Goes

Lessons Learned

On Friday I joined Jessica Lurie and Arne Livingston in opening for and sitting in with Victor Wooten, Dennis Chambers, and Bob Franceschini, musicians I’ve been listening to and admiring for half of my life. Here’s what happened and what I learned:

They walked in and sat down to watch just as we started going over tunes at soundcheck. I was nervous to the point of almost shaking but thankfully my body took over and made the music happen. Living Daylights’ repertoire is full of twists and turns and, this being my first time playing their music, I’m glad I studied and had a strong foundation of practice to fall back on. Preparation and time on your instrument always pays off. I give full credit to mega-bassist Damian Erskine for being a shining example of how a pro gets ready for the stage. He plays through the music on his own, marks up charts so they’re extra readable, and makes his own charts when necessary. Whenever I’m prepping for a gig, I always ask myself “What would Damian do?”

After soundcheck I escaped to the green room to pull myself together. When I came out 10 minutes later Dennis was walking back and met me in the hallway. He smiled big, threw his hands in the air, and said he was looking for me to ask about sitting in. I was stunned and the nerves came rushing back, but he was so kind and funny and personable that within minutes I was fully relaxed, hanging and shooting the breeze with one of my idols. By the time we took the stage an hour later I was completely comfortable and just happy to be playing, free from fear of being judged by the incredible musicians I looked up to, and that’s the key. My nerves were an extension of an irrational fear, and getting comfortable with the source of that fear allowed me to get out of my head and enjoy myself. Our set went great.  Continue reading Lessons Learned

Bandleaders: Pay Your Musicians

I had a long conversation with some of my favorite musicians last night about taking gigs for crap money. I’m against it, some were for it, I’m curious what everyone thinks.

My position is that part of a bandleader’s job is to make sure you have money to pay your musicians what they deserve, regardless of expected turnout, and even when hiring your friends (I think ESPECIALLY when hiring your friends). There’s money out there to support music (How much did KEXP’s new building cost? How much did folks raise to save KNKX?), it just requires making the case to get it. Grants, fundraising, negotiating with venues, seeking out money gigs, merch, etc. It’s not easy and it takes effort and creativity, but it’s doable. Aside from making sure you have money to keep for your own effort, there are a ton of positive side-effects to having this attitude.  Continue reading Bandleaders: Pay Your Musicians

Bye Dad

Looking back, Dad knew he was going to die. Yes, we all die, but I mean he knew in spring that he wouldn’t make it through summer. His body began to shut down on our trip to Peru (“Peeru” in Dad speak) in January. He couldn’t walk more than a few feet without stopping. His bad heart would leave him short of breath and full of excess water, complicating the problems already plaguing him from his poorly-managed diabetes. His swollen feet would tingle, he had ulcers on his legs, he would moan and scream in discomfort when he lay down for more than an hour. None of this kept him from chocolate-covered cheesecake in “Mia Flora” and churros at the beach, or put a dent in his determination to take the day-long plane-bus-train-bus trek to see “Maco Paco.

When we got to Cusco it became clear his body was calling the shots. The elevation pummeled him, reducing his once barrel-chested, proud stance into the huddled arch of a sick and frail man. He passed out the moment he stepped off the plane. When he wasn’t unconscious he could only sit or lie down, unable to get warm or eat, spending the entire first day under the covers screaming at me and the hotel staff to bring more blankets and heaters. He did get up once to yell “Get your head out of your ass!” At dinner time he tried to take a few bites of the chicken sandwich and fries he requested but quickly fell over unconscious while vomiting. I rolled him over onto his side and clawed the food out of his mouth, helping him back to bed when he regained consciousness. This was a shell of the man I played tennis with as a 10-year old, the man who would so blatantly lie and yell “Ouuuut!” when he didn’t want to lose a point to his barely athletic son.

The second day he got up and got dressed in the clothes he wore his entire adult life. A dress shirt with a bulging wallet in the front pocket underneath a pullover sweater (“blover”), sport coat, suit pants and, if the swelling was down, leather shoes he bought in Cairo or Seoul or Bandung, Indonesia. He looked sharp. He stood tall, took the elevator up one floor to breakfast, sipped on orange juice, ate half an egg, and puked immediately. Dad spent the rest of that day in the hospital on oxygen and, the next morning, took a flight back to Lima. He insisted I stay and see Machu Picchu and, when I met him a few days later to head back to Seattle, told me “I think I am an old man now.

In the last two years of his life he aged thirty. His skin became leathered and scaly, his strut turned to a shuffle, his clothes hung long and wide like they were borrowed from a giant. He had moved back to Seattle from Cairo to be closer to my brother and I but was unable to extract his dollars from Egypt without taking multiple trips back and forth, each airport wheelchair etching another crack in the hourglass. His heart failure would manifest as a stubborn flu that would put him out for weeks at a time. He had a quadruple bypass, then another stenting surgery a few months later when his heart function plummeted, the natural result of his post-bypass diet of soda and “Abblepees.” His answer to “How are you?” transitioned from an upbeat “Good!” to a defeated “Could be better.” Going through his estate I learned that he closed dozens of accounts and started consolidating his money after Peru. He took early lump-sum payments from various pensions and booked one more trip to Cairo to get the last of his money. A person in his condition who wanted to live as long as possible wouldn’t take a 20-some hour international trip to recover a few thousand dollars, but the truth is he wanted to get it over with.

I’m ready to exbire.

wp_20160407_18_24_47_proA week before leaving he drove over his ridiculous 15-year-old Mercedes convertible to get my help replacing some inconsequential flap on its undercarriage. The cheap plastic tools he brought with him barely worked and we spent hours lying under the car together. By the end I was dirty and annoyed and confused at why we spent time on such a stupid task, but he was proud and happy. My roommate came home just as he was leaving. He looked Nick up and down and said “Nick, you look fuller. It’s good! But maybe you should run around…” He confused me again when he called a few days later wanting to meet one more time before his flight. We normally saw each other every three or four weeks. I brushed him off. That was the last time I spoke to him outside of a hospital.

By his second day in Egypt he was through with business. He called his niece, the only member of my extended family he spoke to, telling her “I think I’m going to die soon.” He went to Sharm El Sheikh the next day. I learned later that he was already vomiting blood before the trip, adding to the insanity of foregoing the hour-long flight for an eight-hour bus ride. Fucking asshole.

He was eventually admitted to a hospital in Sharm. When the bleeding stopped he left against their advice, refusing to go back when it started again until his hotel forced the issue. He had stomach ulcers that, paired with his blood thinners, wouldn’t stop bleeding. When I finally heard the news I called him to see if I should come and, in a strong and stable voice, he said “No, stay where you are. Don’t worry, I’m ok.” I believed him until we talked two days later. He could only speak in a confused slurred whisper, so intent on staying out of the way that he only kept repeating “Go. Go away. Go. I love you. Go.” He died a month later in a Cairo hospital bed.

I’m not sure what to make of his wanting to die. I know he didn’t want to but his efforts to avoid it were so minimal, and the way he pushed himself at the end feels like the opposite of what a parent who wants to watch his kid move through life would do. He left the country when I was a teenager. He wasn’t there when I graduated high school or college. He wasn’t there when I had broken bones or relationships. In a way it feels like abandonment but, even if it was, would only be the latest and last.

The majority of our relationship was about navigating through his temper and mistrust of the people around him, advising him against filing lawsuits against tenants for making his condo smell like curry and trying to convince him that my mom, who he was divorced from for over 20 years, wouldn’t come to his house when he was gone and sleep in his bed. His father died when he was 11 and his oldest brother in the Egypt-Israel war when he was 20, his mother becoming paralyzed from a stroke not long after. He studied engineering and eventually landed at Boeing in Pennsylvania, where he proudly worked until discovering that his American coworkers were earning twice as much. He went on to do very well with contract work all over the world, but lost his house and kids in the divorce and fought bitterly with siblings over farmland they inherited when his mom passed. The chip on his shoulder was self-aware and infinite in mass, leading Dad through life on a tightly-held leash.

But somehow during his last years I managed to burrow under the impenetrable steel wall he had built inside his mind and earn his trust. I was the only one who knew anything about his finances, he wanted me there when he went in for surgery, I’m the one he demanded the post-op nursing home call when he refused to stay there, having accused them of colluding with the hospital and police to hold him hostage and bill his insurance.

He began calling less and less towards the end, though. He told me he “didn’t want to be a purden on my brother and I, but what I realize now is that his burden was the only functional and positive part of our relationship. His fathering manifested exclusively in unsolicited advice based on a poorly-informed picture of my life, such as “you should begin your search for a bartner and be married within one year.” or, my personal favorite,  Your music career is advancing very slowly, and your earnings are not keeping up with inflation, and you are all by yourself.  Bretty soon you will be a middle aged lonely man.” Our conversation otherwise would center around how he would invest his money in a “Purger King” franchise or a debate about whether or not Bill Gates is Jewish. But when I brought him food or delivered him home from a doctor’s appointment or sat by him in his hospital bed in Cairo he would smile, hold my hand or hug me or kiss me, and say “Thank you Tarik. You did good.”

So, for the time being, I’m left missing a sick man. A father who spun silver from straw but was furious his neighbors had gold, who left a long time ago, came back for a few years, said his piece, stirred some shit up, dug a hole in the desert, and buried himself in it.

Bye Dad.
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