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. That said, when a venue doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay everyone adequately, musicians are often the ones who bear the brunt of that shortfall.

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, musicians are generally last in line to get paid. 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 their earnings. But the thing that musicians often miss 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 first, 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 indirectly earning money from your work, you should think hard about whether or not you’re getting something meaningful out of the arrangement. 

Is this fair? Yes and no. Musicians are skilled laborers providing a service who aren’t being compensated accordingly. In some sense that’s not “fair,” but it is true that most performances don’t generate enough money to cover the ever-rising cost of their presentation, which is mostly borne by the venue, and that musicians are generally the ones seeking out gigs at these venues, not the other way around. The staff, vendors, utility companies, taxes, banks, and building owners have to be paid because the venue owners is contractually obligated. Musicians, by accepting vague terms, low guarantees, and verbal agreements, have made it clear that they don’t, and continuing those practices reinforces that perception.

So, why are we inclined to take these gigs? At the band level, we think playing venues is a good way to get stage practice, hone our set, and build a following. At the musician level, we want to keep our chops up and be out there playing in the community. These are all worthy goals, but is performing at small venues with low pay the best way to accomplish them? I can count on one hand the number of rooms that have anything close to an optimal, or even tolerable, sound setup. The majority of them haven’t invested in good equipment, acoustics, and qualified sound people because they can’t afford to. Does it really make sense to practice in a place where you can barely hear each other or go home with your ears ringing? How many times have you played at your potential or really pushed yourself musically in one of these rooms?

And what makes a more meaningful impact on a band’s following? Playing for an audience you drew to a club, or producing quality content and putting it online? My sense is that playing local clubs without a built-in crowd does little for a band’s following and that, more importantly, the bands that gain recognition mostly do so through compelling video, radio, press, and mostly just being the right band for the cultural moment. Ask a member of a successful band what made the difference for them. I’ll bet the answer won’t be “That one show at High Dive!”

So when does it make sense? When I’m offered a gig with low pay I go through this mental checklist:

– Will I be able to hear myself and everyone else in the band without blowing out my ears?
– Is there a reasonable chance there will be human beings in the room who haven’t already heard the band?
– Do I really want/need to play with the musicians involved, is this the only way to do so, and will they be fully engaged in the music?
– Is there a reasonable chance playing the show will result in meaningful benefit for me or the band?

If the answer is no to any of these questions, why would I lug around heavy gear and give up 4 hours of my life to generate revenue for a business that isn’t mine? Why not bring the same musicians together at a space without all that overhead where we can really dig into the music and pay attention to our playing? We should put our energy towards things that actually build a following so we can demand reasonable pay when it comes time to do a show.

And what counts as low pay? That’s a question to which everyone will have their own answer, but we all need to establish a bottom threshold below which none of us will accept. Given the time you’ve spent on the music and what you need to survive, think about the number you need to go home with to feel compensated and, if the venue can’t guarantee that number and there isn’t a reasonable chance the door will provide it, don’t take the gig. If you do, you’re setting yourself up for frustration and resentment, driving down pay for musicians as a whole, and doing more to support others than yourself.