How much are we worth?
Just before the Olympics began in London earlier this year, there were several articles circulating about the International Olympic Committee’s approach to live musical entertainment at the games. The IOC took a hardline stance on live music, which meant that no musician would be paid at all during the games. Exposure and prestige would apparently be payment enough. Unfortunately, this kind of attitude is nothing new and we all have to deal regularly with an incredibly varied and erratic monetary value that is assigned to our services. So how did this apparently random valuation of musical performance come about and what can we do about it?
In many ways, I feel that the problem and the solution lie with musicians. For anyone who has made a go of a professional career in music, it is no surprise that good gigs are hard to come by and income streams from performances are irregular. Even if you might have a good teaching situation there are usually semester breaks and holidays that leave chunks of the year with little or no income. For this reason every gig that comes along is valuable and it is very hard to decline an opportunity to make some money. Some gigs might be stellar with good organization, artistic fulfillment, and a healthy fee, but a large portion will be less enticing and they can often be underpaid. When a musician accepts an underpaid gig they are agreeing with the client that their services are worth a certain value, this agreement will most likely influence any further interactions the client has with musicians in the future. This process, when repeated throughout society, starts to develop a general idea of what the monetary value of live music should be. The result is what we saw with the Olympics and it is not that uncommon in my experience.
As students we perform regularly without pay because it is part of our education, the performance experience is valuable, and our level of performance might not warrant professional fees. I have found that after leaving university, that it is very hard to make the transition into charging professional fees and adapting my self-perception from a student who is grateful for performance opportunities, to a professional musician who offers services for a fee. I have often accepted gigs where I feel underpaid and as a result I feel resentment towards the client and frustration towards my own career potential. It is only recently, however, that I have considered saying ‘no’ to performances where I feel the organization and pay don’t reflect my value as a performer. It is early days yet, but I find this attitude more empowering and I believe that the people I work with react positively to being charged more because they then perceive more value in what I offer. We all assign value to products, and we are more willing to shell out the bucks for one brand over the other. Often the more valuable brand does not offer anything particularly different over their competitors but their branding has developed a value in your perception and you are happy to pay for that value. There is no reason that we cannot elevate our own perceived value.
The crux of the situation boils down to survival. We have to make a certain amount of money to keep ourselves afloat, more money if we want to undertake artistic endeavors and even more still if we have responsibilities, such as family. Therefore it can be a bit of a luxury to decline gigs on the basis of self-empowerment or branding.
A solution that works for me is to have many fingers in many pies. The popular term is ‘portfolio career’ and it entails working in several areas to generate multiple income streams. Recitals, wedding gigs, teaching, and bar tending might be one collection of income streams, and it is really up to your own entrepreneurial nature to invent ways of making ends meet. This takes some planning, and patience, and often involves a bit of risk (like living without health insurance for the first few years) but it is one viable alternative to accepting any measly gig that comes your way.
With the economic climate providing more and more challenges to musicians, I don’t see too much of a sea change in regards to this issue. Sorry to be pessimistic. I do believe, however, that each individual can benefit by taking a good look at what they offer and placing a value on it that doesn’t get compromised. I believe that in the long run it will result in higher fees and more respect, and it can create positive ripple effects for the musicians in our community.
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Knowing the value of our service is important. However it's very important to know when to perform pro-Bono. I developed a relationship with the leaders of our local Chamber of Commerce. I performed pro-Bono for a half dozen chamber functions this year and every time the connections gained and gigs booked have been far beyond my expectations. I also perform pro-Bono for our local theater group writing, arranging and performing for theatrical performances. This community service also pays big dividends in resume, references and community support.My pricing is also flexible. I have serial gigs that I perform at a steep discount just so I can have the gig on my resume for wedding clients to review. You also never know who is going to be booking you. It pays to research your client before submitting a quote. I had several gigs this season with well healed clients who would have been offended by a low balled bid. Fortunately my network of contacts often give me referrals and a heads up to the nature of the gig. This brings the topic of social networking. A web site, Facebook, Twitter help get the word out but friends and colleges bring me a great deal of my most lucrative gigs. Adapting and arranging songs for guitar is another avenue for unexpected profit. A client requested a song for a wedding last summer, Lou Handman's "I Solemnly Swear". They were heirs to the Handman (he wrote "Are you Lonesome Tonight" for Elvis) Estate and my arrangement was well received. My demo may well end up on the Handman web site. The bottom line is you can't ask until you give.
I think you have great points, Jon. There are many different types of value that one could get out of a performance and financial value is only one of them. Thanks for writing!