Playing for free or getting paid to play; What is playing music worth to you?

Anyone who has ever gigged in Nashville knows that it is hard to make any real money by playing in the clubs around town. Aside from a very small handful of gigs that might pay $75-$100 per player, most offer minimal to no pay – some offering a base pay $20 to $30 plus tips, a lot more offer tips only (which often means essentially playing for free), and a few are even pay to play. Even on the base pay plus tips gigs quite often a player will only take home $25 or $30.

So from time to time the “playing for free” debate rears up in conversations. Some say that performing music in public for free is the only way they can gain experience, obtain exposure, make connections, and have any sort of musical life beyond practicing in the basement. Others claim that playing for free makes it harder to receive fair (or any) compensation for their services. Why would clubs and venues pay for bands and players if most will do it for free?

While both are legitimate arguments, to understand why things are the way they are I think it is important to consider the overall role of music and musical performers throughout history, not just in today’s world.

Daniel Levitin, in his book “This Is Your Brain on Music” talks about music being at the heart of human evolution.

“No known human culture now or anytime in the recorded past lacked music. Some of the oldest physical artifacts found in human and protohuman excavation sites are musical instruments.”

He continues

Even more so in non-industrialized cultures than in modern Western societies, music is and was a part of the fabric of everyday life. Only relatively recently in our own culture, 500 years or so ago, did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated. Concert halls, dedicated to the performance of music, arose only in the last several centuries.

With that, I state my case that music has always been there and is an important and crucial part of our being. It is perhaps the earliest form of communication. Somewhere along the way this art form, this way of life, morphed into a product, or a commodity.

In the book “Muse Power: How Recreational Musicmaking Heals Depression and Other Symptoms of Modern Culture” by Cheri D. Lunn writes:

Prior to the 20th century, the concept of selling music wasn’t really commonplace. One of the very first to consider music as a marketable commodity, was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “In the mid-to-late 1700s, performers and composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began to seek commercial opportunities to market their music and performances to the general public.” (5 Wikipedia /Dear Constanze The Guardian) Before that, in more traditional cultures, the Griots, bards, and musicians were cared for by their communities, as equals in the tribe doing their part to contribute. In Europe, up until the 1700’s music was supported by patronage from the aristocracy, or the church, and so there was no need for artists to sell themselves; and so the concept of selling music had just not yet come to be.

A crucial change in the history of folk music began during the twentieth century with folk artists adopting the very western concept of “marketing for money,” or “selling” the music of the people. In this time, a new genre of popular music arose that basically became an imitation to the original traditions of folk music as it was sung by ordinary people. These “folk” artists marketed themselves alongside more popular and modern emerging artists and created a niche for themselves by performing traditional music and songs in amplified concerts, and disseminating their work by recordings and broadcasting.

But along with the commercialization of music and musical performers, especially now in the digital age, comes somewhat of a desensitization to music, or what I call a ‘dumbing down’ of the masses in this regard. In today’s world, music is heard everywhere – from traditional advertising like TV and radio commercials to ring tones and ring backs, from video games to iPods, today’s Internet generation is saturated with digital music overload. In many situations, recorded music is now free, and with the advent of software like garage band, millions can now make homemade recordings to further flood the airwaves. In the midst of this oversaturation, TV shows like “American Idol”, “Nashville Star”, and “America’s Got Talent” have perpetuated the false reality that the masses can also now obtain superstardom.

Put all this together, and you’ve got more people than ever trying to get into the “music business”. But as millions more each year try to enter this world, the opportunities for them will inevitably shrink. There are only so many bars and nightclubs that need live music.

If you consider this history, it is fair to say that the concept of being paid for your music, or paid to play your music, is relatively new and largely an invention of our modern capitalistic society. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we abandon this concept, this is how I am currently earning the bulk of my living. What I am suggesting is that the evolution of the paid musical performer may have been accidental, and is not necessarily a sustainable vocation in this modern world.

Music belongs to everybody. We need to better understand the role that music has played in our history, and how the cultivation of music as a part of our culture can benefit our world as well as the futures of our children. Does our future hold a world in which musical performers are paid for their ‘services’, or will the performance of music one day return to something that is shared by everybody? Did society really benefit when music was turned into  a product? Do we deserve to be “paid to play”? I don’t know if I’ll always be able to earn a living from music, but even if one day I can’t, I’ll always play music, doing so enriches my life.

What is music, and the art of performing it worth to you?

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