What is fair compensation for musicians?
What is a fair price for our services as musical entertainers of the world? This is highly subjective, but in general, most musicians are underpaid.
My career as a professional musician began in New England, where I played the nightclub circuit from 1989 to 2002. When I first started out I made $300 per week salary in a top 40 band called Crossfire. We played about three nights a week on average, 50 weeks a year so I was basically making $100 a night. I left Crossfire in 1992 to join one of the first incarnations of a new local band, Jet City. The early version of this band was a bit disorganized, and we had literally no draw, rendering our pay to about $30-$50 per player per night. Shortly after this I started the cover rock band Shockwave, and we began playing around southern New Hampshire and the Merrimack Valley for similar wages initially. By the peak of that band’s popularity in the mid-to-late 90s we could draw 50 to 100 friends and followers nightly, plus whatever local following the bar already had. This got our nightly fee up to between $700 and $1000. We had our own production, a sound engineer and lighting designer, and each earned between $100 and $125 nightly. By the year 2000, Shockwave was dismantling and I started a three-piece blues rock band, and my nightly average went down to about $75 to $80.
In 2002 I relocated to Nashville and quickly learned that in-town nightclub gigs that guarantee a hundred dollars per player per night are few and far between. There’s a handful of gigs that might pay that, but for the most part, clubs pay a base pay of $20-$50 per player plus tips, and if you can draw 50 people it won’t necessarily get you any extra money. If your gig is in a tourist hotspot, and you play the right songs and work the crowd correctly, you can make $100 a night, sometimes even more. In those same scenarios you could also make $40 or $50 depending on the circumstances of a given night. This is why so many players in Nashville work towards landing touring gigs as a tour will pay you a considerably higher wage (usually $250 per show day or higher).
In recent conversations with friends back in New England, I learned that a hundred dollars per player per night is still somewhat of an average wage. It’s a sad state of affairs, but the truth is that musicians are a commodity, and we are working in a world of supply and demand where the supply far outweighs the demand. In this day and age if you’re getting $100 per night to go out and play music locally, that’s pretty decent money for us musicians. It’s just sad that when you factor in the cost of living increases and inflation, $100 in 2010 is considerably less than $100 was in 1989. I was, however, encouraged to also learn that in the New England club scene today, having a strong following, or possessing the ability to create strong sales at the cash register can still help bands to command a little better money. I guess in reality, that’s how this whole base pay plus tips thing works as well. Build a crowd and get them dancing and drinking, if they like you they will tip = earn more money.
If you play in a band and have reached a pay ceiling in your region, the “base pay plus tips” concept might be worth trying in a club or two. The way this works in Nashville is that clubs guarantee a minimum base pay of typically $200 to $300 per band per night, they don’t have a cover charge, and a tip jar is placed on the front of the stage. The lead singer will make an announcement, usually near the end of each set, that the jar will be coming around, at which point a friend or band girl friend will walk the tip jar around the room, stopping at each table or patron for tips. Not everyone will tip, but many will. The better the party you have going on, the better the tips will be. You can also use the tipping concept to joke around with the crowd. For instance, when somebody requests Sweet Home Alabama or Mustang Sally, you respond by saying “That song is usually at least a $20 tip.”
The reality is that it’s simply hard to earn a decent wage as a musician. So ask your price, take the gigs you find acceptable, and try to make it fun, because it doesn’t look like we were meant to get rich doing this.