Saturday, April 6, 2013

Of Prostitutes and Musicians: the Price of a Song

You're a prostitute, too?”

I was staying with the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Mitch Podolak, an unabashed Canadian communist who has been around long enough to have met just about everybody – and he has at least one good story about each of them. I don't have enough fans anywhere in Manitoba for a gig to break even on the airfare involved with getting there from just about anyplace else, so this visit to the province was being subsidized, as usual. Like any good communist, Mitch knows people in the local labor movement who are sympathetic with the folk scare, and one of my gigs was in a union hall. (During a snowstorm, but that's normal in Manitoba.)

A couple days into my stay, Mitch took me to the home of Nathan Rogers, son of the late Canadian cultural icon, Stan Rogers. There in Nathan's dining room was another well-known Canadian songwriter, James Keelaghan, looking like a real touring musician, with a headphones cord draped around his neck. (The cord gets tangled if you do anything else with it.) Mitch introduced me to Nathan and James at the same time.

“You and David share a profession in common,” he said.

One of them responded immediately (I don't remember which one): “Oh, you're a prostitute, too?”

It must be good to do what you love for a living.”

When I meet someone new who is not a musician, this is the response I get a majority of the time when they find out about my profession. It's always a slightly awkward moment for me. I always wonder which people in which other professions get that line. I do love playing music, and I also enjoy meeting new people and seeing new places, so I'd say I'm well-suited for the job. But I'd enjoy life more if I didn't necessarily have to be traveling most of the year, spending sometimes half of my waking hours while on tour behind the wheel of a rental car or cramped up in an airplane.

I always want to ask these new acquaintances if they've ever seen the movie Control about the band, Joy Division, or the documentary about the Canadian metal band, Anvil, two of the best movies ever about the realities of life on the road for working musicians. But most people have never seen those movies, and if you complain about the difficulties of playing music for a living, many people will understandably look at you like your an ungrateful wretch, and will silently wonder if this prima donna might rather work in their cubicle for a change instead. To which my answer would be “no.” So I just smile agreeably most of the time.

Demystifying the Price of a Song

In my post, TaxTime: A Musician's Income, I laid out the financial realities of being a touring musician, feeding a family, paying the rent, and how when you do the math, after expenses, you pretty much need to do 120 gigs a year and get paid an average of $500 for each one. So that's why traveling contract workers, like musicians, need to be well-paid (relative to many other workers who stay in one place and have a more predictable source of income, like a monthly paycheck).

But what about the music itself? What is the price of a song?

When I was setting up my Kickstarter campaign last summer (through which I raised the money I needed to record Meanwhile In Afghanistan,) I was trying to think strategically about different rewards I could offer for different levels of donations. $15 for a copy of the new CD, $25 for a signed copy, stuff like that was pretty standard. But when I put some thought into the idea of offering to write a song on commission for some kind of bigger donation, it took a while first for me to become comfortable with the concept, and then to come up with a realistic number.

If you forget about all the research that is often involved with good topical songwriting, and if you forget about the years of working on your craft that led you to be able to write a good song and deliver it well, and you just consider the cost of making a good recording with a bunch of good musicians in a good studio, a song costs at least $1,000 to "make." It occurred to me that I love it when people give me good song ideas, regardless. But if someone really thinks a song should be written on a certain subject in the near future because they think it could have a little impact in the world, or just because they really want to see it happen, why not associate a price tag with a song? Some of my best stuff, as well as some of Woody Guthrie's best stuff, and Alistair Hulett's and many others, were commissioned.

If a song's going to get written, and especially if it's going to get recorded in a form that lots of people might want to listen to (that is, in a good studio with a good band), somebody's going to have to come up with the money. Could be a record label, or a wealthy relative, or hundreds of different people pre-purchasing a copy of the forthcoming CD.  It could be a government funding for the arts (haha).  It could be hundreds of people subscribing to an artist on a long-term basis, freeing them from the constraints of thinking about how to fund each new project.  Or, at least partially, it could come from people or organizations who are aware that a song is a potentially valuable educational and motivational tool for their cause. (Two such commissioned songs will be appearing on my next CD.)

Inevitably, though, there is the nagging question associated with the whole idea of being paid to conduct sacred activities. In utopia, only the purest motives would cause someone to write a song. And in utopia, no one would have to pay to record the album, either, I guess. It would be preferable if there were a clear way to find the moral distinctions between, say, prostitutes, lobbyists, and songwriters. But in reality it's all a bit fuzzy. And to be sure, most of the songs people are paid to write really suck. Just listen to the formulaic pap that Nashville or LA excretes on a weekly basis.

But certain facts remain: the world is undoubtedly better off since Woody Guthrie recorded an entire album of songs about Sacco and Vanzetti, and he never would have done that if it hadn't been commissioned. It's very possible that the best song Alistair Hulett ever wrote was “He Fades Away.” And even for a DIY musician, you'd be hard-pressed to evaluate the cost of a song at less than $1,000. (And in Nashville it's a hell of a lot more expensive than that.)


Maxina Ventura said...
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Maxina Ventura said...
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Maxina Ventura said...

Yowee, David! You've hit the nail on the head. Recently, at the request of an old friend from the anarchist community who became a teacher with all manner of positive aspirations of reaching out to young people to get them to think, all that good stuff, I went into her classroom for a day to do History Through Song workshops (Labor History in the 30's for U.S. History, and Music of the WW1 time period, including songs from various parts of Europe and the U.S. for her high school World History classes). Forty hours of work putting it together, 5 classes, 158 students, and 19 bells later, I emerged with a check she'd wrangled out of a philanthropic organization of some sort, but she warned me that I'd never get that $500 out of any principal in Oakland Unified. Sounds like a lot for a day, but you have to look back, like you say, at... lemme see.... how does one calculate the DECADES of work that gave me the ability to present this music in context and in the really hard setting of cramming a ton of history into the 46 minutes realistically available of the five 51- minute classes. People who aren't in this side of the world too easily go, "Ooh... that was an easy paycheck." Ha!

Glad you are finding ways to make it work, and I'm glad to know people are standing behind you with some bucks.