The World According to Keitho

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Business, pleasure, or both?

Posted by keithosaunders on April 9, 2010

The music business is a strange one.  Leaving out Broadway shows and symphony orchestras, most of our gigs are freelance affairs which are most often one time engagements done without contracts.  On any given night there is nothing standing in the way of a club owner paying the band other than his conscience.  Yes, there we have small claims court, but this is a lot of trouble and expense to go through to collect one night’s pay.  Even if the court rules in favour of the musician, collecting the money is no easy feat.

So we take our lumps while developing an admittedly unscientific, but surprisingly accurate risk/reward analysis before accepting a gig.   The more you improve as a musician and the more gigs you play, the better  situations you find yourself in and you can minimize the amount of drama.  You pick your fights and you realize, that like parking tickets, the occasional shortage of money is inevitable.

Then there are the grey areas worthy of Talmudic study.  Because we tend to get along personally, as well as musically, there can be a blurring between business and friendship.  For example, say a club owner decides to short the band 50% because of a low turnout.  The leader wants to go with it so that he can get a return engagement.  You, as a sideman have agreed to a certain price and think that the leader should hold out for the full amount.  Arguing is almost always futile and leads to bad blood.  I believe that at this point the sideman has only one recourse and that is to not accept the next gig, in effect quitting the band.  You have to weigh your principles against the future earnings that will almost certainly be lost. 

There are so many factors.  How much do these gigs pay?  How often are they?  How close are you with the band and how much enjoyment do you get playing the gigs?  Sometimes quitting is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s better to suck it up and take one for the team. 

I have quit gigs and felt terrible, and at other times I have  felt that I did the right thing.   I once had a steady Thursday night with a jazz quintet at a dive bar.  The piano was horrible beyond belief.  To this day it remains one of the worst pianos I have ever played.  I’ll never forget — it was a Young Chang that was finished with a gumball-blue lacquer.  It was perennially out of tune and had an action that was so heavy it required chops of steel.  There were, however, some positives to the gig.  The joint became a kind of Thursday hangout and great musicians used to stop by and sit in with the band.  Joe Lovano, (sometimes playing drums!) would play, and  Ralph Lalama, one of the best saxophonists in the world, was in the band. 

It wasn’t the worst spot in the world to be for a young pianist who had only lived in New York a few years.  After two years of battling with the piano I couldn’t stand  it any longer.  For a while I was lugging a keyboard and amp to the gig  — up and down subway steps — and that was even worse.  So I quit.  Looking back I think I should have stuck with it because the pluses outweighed the minuses. 

On the other side of the coin I used to work with what we East Coast call a “club date” band.  This is a euphemism for wedding band.  The leader kept us very busy with gigs, but he constantly lowballed us, paying as much as 30% too little.  True, the gigs paid 3 times as much as jazz gigs, but they were way under scale for these kind of affairs.  In that situation you can be assured that somebody is making money.  The fact that the leader was making hundreds more than me, yet refused to pay me a small percentage more than what I was making led me to quit that gig.  Even though I lost out on a large quantity of work I felt better about myself —  not the least because I was no longer degrading myself musically —  and I would eventually end up in better situations.      

Sometimes I look at salaried people and I am envious.  They are free of the barter system that we musicians are entrenched in.  This feeling usually lasts until the next gig.  By the middle of the first tune I’m thinking “Now what was I mad about?”

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