I more or less joined the hippie subculture by the age of seven or so, when my parents thankfully realized that me and normal public school weren't mixing well, and I needed to be among my own kind. By a freak coincidence, the New York City suburb we had moved to several years earlier because they had “good schools,” happened to actually have a good school in it, a product of the 1960's cultural renaissance called the Learning Community.
I consciously recognized my hippie nature when, you could say, I became a member of the opposition. Because upon graduating from the sixth grade, there were no more hippie school options for little David, and I went for the first time since my abortive attempt at first grade to a non-hippie school, in this case a public school full of the children of Republican businessmen, Middlebrook Junior High School, run entirely (or at least so it seemed) by pasty adult products of the 1950's.
Surrounded for the first time by children who were clearly not hippies, I realized I had a very different value system than the vast majority of these little consumers, and I started feeling very special and very isolated at the same time. Having grown up in the Learning Community, I thought that sharing, cooperating, enjoying and discovering were what it was all about. The positive was emphasized, and little time was spent dwelling on the negative. So it was only once I was completely surrounded by it that I understood that the converse of all this was that competition, hoarding, selfishness, proving that you're better, “winning” – make people miserable.
I have never adjusted well to mainstream society. Early in my adult life in the ranks of the workforce, I was employed as a typist at the age of 23. After being on the job for a couple months I learned that I was being paid better than any of the other typists because I was the fastest. The guy who sat in the cubicle next to me was a working class Republican, which is conceptually perhaps even more annoying than being a rich Republican, but nonetheless I liked him because he treated his coworkers with cordiality and respect, despite the fact that his boss was a female Democrat and the guy sitting next to him was a long-haired, pot-smoking, self-proclaimed Maoist at the time (me). Anyway, when I learned I was being paid more than anyone else ($12 an hour before taxes) I didn't feel at all good about it, and I wanted to ask my boss if she'd consider either giving the other typists a raise or lowering my wage and raising theirs so we were even. But no one would tell me how much they were being paid. So I felt fairly unequipped and unsupported in my idea, and never pursued it further.
Nobody in my immediate or extended family, none of my friends in public school or their parents talked about such things either. But the value system I learned to embrace in elementary school told me that how much money someone made didn't matter, in terms of their value as human beings, as friends, future spouses, etc.
Of course, if you don't value money beyond making what you need for you or your family to live a decent life, and if you're a basically not-very-well-organized hippie musician type, you may not know how much money you make. Taking me for example, when I used to make a living as a street musician I carried around what I called my wallet, which was a bag of coins that usually weighed about ten kilos. Eventually, in order not to embarrass my girlfriend at the time, I started going to the bank and changing the coins into bills, which is what the other street musicians generally did on a regular basis. If you watched another street musician in action for a half hour or so you could generally get the idea of what kind of money they were making, which always depended on various factors including how good they were, what kind of material they were doing, where they were playing, and at what time of day or night they were doing it. At the end of the day all the street performers would naturally count their earnings, whether they did that publicly or once they got home. For any of them it would be very easy to figure out how much you were making per hour on an average day, but there was only one other street performer in the Boston area aside from me who didn't mind talking about that.
I don't think it had to do with musicians not wanting to divulge information that might be helpful to the competition in terms of figuring out where and when to play what kind of material. Most of the performers were quite obviously just playing the kind of music they liked anyway, which was usually not the familiar pop songs that could have made them the most money. I think people didn't talk about it because of their training growing up; if you're not making much money you should be embarrassed, and if you might be making more than someone else you shouldn't want to risk making people feel jealous by talking about it, because of course money is what everybody wants.
The one thing I have found that people sometimes feel OK about asking, though quietly, in private, and often in hushed tones, is “do you make a living at this?” It's usually pretty clear that this would be the first in a series of questions on the subject, if the person asking felt comfortable with follow-ups, but they almost never do. This is as far as they can go.
But if for no other reason than mutual aid and support between fellow musicians and other cultural workers, and more broadly for the millions of self-employed people out there (or at least people attempting to be self-employed), having regular, honest and open discussions of the actual numbers involved with making a living as a musician would seem very useful.
But I'm still gonna back up a little bit more and give a little more context for why I think this is the case. Chiefly, the largely self-imposed mystique of the arts. Maybe it's not a coincidence that “musician” and “magician” sound so similar in many languages. One thing most professional or aspiring professional musicians have learned along the way is that it benefits them, at least on one level, to maintain an air of mystery about what they do and how they do it. If people are under the impression that a) what you do is something that requires innate and rare talent which other people will never have, and b) even though you're not really famous yet, you are about to be -- then they're more likely to talk about you, which is what you want, because then more people will want to come to your shows so they can say “I was there back when he was playing for crowds of two dozen people in a noisy bar.” I know artists who have managed to maintain this almost-famous mystique for decades without ever getting the major label deal they were constantly rumored to be on the brink of.
But this air of mystery is a double-edged sword. By maintaining this almost-famous mystique, the idea of actually earning money as a cultural worker, having certain standards for remuneration, joining a union, or otherwise figuring out how to make a living on the assumption that you will never be signed by that major label (and if you do you'll probably starve under their auspices just as well) – all just seems passe and beneath anyone's attention. So what if the gig at the festival doesn't pay? There's an audience, and that A&R guy just might be in it this time. You'll get exposure! (But you won't die of it, hopefully...)
I played at a festival once where I was staying in the same cheap motel with most of the other performers. Many of the bands playing at the festival were ones I had heard of, what you might call second-tier celebrities. No hits or any of that, but bands with a solid national and international following, where many hundreds of people would regularly pay to hear them play a show, on their good days. So I was somewhat shocked to learn that among the musicians I interrogated, a consistent pattern emerged: because of the massive overhead expenses involved with touring as a band, rather than as a solo artist, none of these bands were making a living as a band. If anyone in the band was making a living as a musician, he or she was doing this because he or she had a solo career. When they tour as a band, the band members all have flexible day jobs that allow them to tour regularly, make a little bit of money if they're lucky to do better than break even on the tour, and then go back to work. The lead singer in the band usually would then continue to tour as a solo artist, and between touring as a solo artist and touring with the band, that person would often be making a living as a musician.
And then what does making a living mean? Different things to different people. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, the local musician's union is on a perpetual campaign to convince local musicians not to play for less than $25 per person for a gig. A very talented musician friend around here who usually does a bit better than that at his gigs claims to be making a living because he's paying his rent and eating, but he only has 17 teeth by his own count. (Normally you should have 32, give or take a couple.)
Of course, on the flip side of not wanting to talk about money out of embarrassment of one kind or another or because you want to maintain your almost-famous mystique, is not wanting to talk about money because you really just don't care about it as long as you're eating three meals a day and sleeping in a room with a roof and four walls on a fairly regular basis.
Early on in my musical career I was fairly deeply exposed to two very different models of how to go about attempting to be a full-time performer. I played backup for two brilliant artists on different tours around the US. One artist's mantra was “I'll drive eight hours for a $25 gig.” The other's was, “you need to make about $500 for most of your gigs or you won't be able to make a decent living.” I tried out both strategies over the years since then and found that the latter strategy, though ridiculously practical and way less sexy, is the one that works.
My method of trying out these strategies, however, was pretty much haphazard, because I never kept track of anything. I mainly gravitated towards the “try to get $500 to do a gig” methodology because, to my surprise, I found that wherever you go, you'll get better-organized and better-attended gigs if you ask for more money, and that includes among the Left. Since I had also discovered that although I had no interest in getting rich, having a certain amount of money was very useful for eating and such, it didn't seem like rocket science to take the risk of certain fringe elements of the anarchist scene calling me a sell-out, to start asking for more money to do gigs. (Which in itself requires having a following or making connections with student groups, unions, and other organizations with budgets, but that's another story for another blog post. Or you can just buy or borrow my booklet, Sing for Your Supper, for more on that subject.)
But until very recently I never truly understood the sense of my friend's $500 figure, or, to put it another way, I never understood fully why contractors like traveling musicians need to get paid so much more than your average hourly worker in order just to make ends meet. I can thank my wife, Reiko, for further developing this understanding, because several years ago she took on the unenviable task of sorting through the receipts and invoices that I now try to remember to save, and filing our taxes for us, with the help of the nice accountants whose office is a few blocks from our apartment.
Half of the accountants down the street have pink hair and are themselves musicians. I heard about them years ago from a message one of them sent to me on MySpace. I guess they noticed I was local, and figured I might need my taxes done, and some of them specialize in doing taxes for musicians. Having not paid taxes since the last time I had a normal job, circa 1990 or so, I would normally have ignored such a message. But Reiko was moving in with me from Japan, we were getting married, and in order for her to get her papers to stay in the US we had to start filing taxes (and even five years' worth of back taxes).
I just brought our 2012 tax filings – a stack of papers several inches tall that Reiko neatly divided into folders – to Anne the accountant this afternoon. The impression I get from her is that the vast majority of self-employed musicians don't file taxes – since, she said, any time musicians file taxes with her it's because they're doing something that requires them to have a record of having filed and paid taxes, such as their spouse is getting a Green Card or they're buying a house. So self-employed people who aren't marrying a foreign national or buying something really expensive often don't have much of a paper trail of any kind and basically don't need to file, so they don't.
(For those reading this who aren't from the US, a clarification: the only reason most people file taxes in the US if they're not self-employed is because they basically have to, since their employer has been taking lots of money out of their payroll all year, and if they file they get a little of it back. In other countries people file taxes so they can take advantage of government services. It generally doesn't work that way here – the government only takes from us so it can buy bombs, it doesn't offer services in return like in civilized countries. It wouldn't even occur to most people in the US who are filing taxes to think that way, unless they're approaching retirement age and will soon quality for their Social Security pittance.)
I asked Anne how many of her musician clients make a living entirely as performing artists. The answer took me by surprise. None.
When I had a kid seven years ago I decided to stop touring all the time, and to just tour as much as I needed to to make a living, spending the rest of the time at home with my family. Since we started collecting receipts, filing taxes and otherwise keeping track of things in a way that I have never bothered doing previously, the numbers are no longer something I need to wildly guess at, and it's all a bit more distressing than I thought.
I learned that for every two dollars I make touring, on average over the course of the year, I spend approximately one dollar on traveling expenses – and that's despite the fact that I'm only staying in hotels about 5% of the time I'm on tour. Maybe I eat too expensively, but if you want to stay healthy on the road long-term you can't live on gas station hot dogs or fast food, and you don't have time to cook for yourself. In 2012 I toured a bit less than I did in 2011 – I was away from home a total of 202 days (some of it with my family, most without). During the course of those 202 days I did 120 gigs. Practically speaking, when you take into account travel days and the fact that it's hard to do many good gigs on a Monday or Tuesday, that's about how many shows you can realistically do in 202 days of touring.
If the average gig among those 120 gigs paid $500, that would be $60,000 total, so half of that would be $30,000, which is what I would then have for paying rent, feeding, clothing and healthcare for my family, and everything else – car insurance, the car loan, taxes... But when the average gig comes out to more like $350, as was the case in 2012, then I basically earned a total of $20,000, which, after rent is paid, comes out to just over $200 a week for the three of us to cover all our expenses. And we spend quite a bit more than that on an average week (partially thanks to my very expensive, aging teeth), thus the $10,000 or so in credit card debt.
So basically unless we're going to forgo dentistry, live on cat food, or some other popular American cost-cutting measure, if I'm to make a living as a musician I have three basic choices: a) spend 202 (or so) days on the road, do 120 gigs, and get paid an average of $500 per gig, b) tour more than that and get paid less on average per gig, or c) tour less and get paid more. Given that option B would result in absentee fatherhood and the sure death of any normal relationship, and option C starts becoming financially unrealistic unless you have a bigger following than me, it seems like option A is the only way to go.
So if you find yourself touring incessantly and working your ass off but you just can't make ends meet, (like most musicians), consider the possibility that this is because you're not making $500 per gig on average, and there are only 365 days in a year, or you don't eat enough cat food. And the next time you're thinking of organizing a benefit concert and asking a touring musician to play at it for free, think about that!