Why don’t musicians get paid?

Posted: February 26, 2012 in Christian Living, Music & Videos, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The other day a friend of mine and I were discussing how hard it is for musicians to get paying gigs. Most musicians and bands play at various venues for only tips simply because owners of the establishments refuse to pay them.

Not only that, but in most cases the musicians are responsible to promote their gigs themselves through flyers, contacting media outlets with press releases, and word of mouth. Some establishments charge a set cover price but then require musicians to give up anywhere from 60 – 80% of the money collected at the door. Venues that have their own sound system sometimes charge the band a fee for their own sound engineer. (Even if a band has its own sound man) One venue I know of even has a policy that if the musicians don’t bring in at least 25 people the band has to pay the difference! What?

After discussing this issue with my friend, he sent me an article on the subject. Below is an excerpt from the article:

Why Music Venues Are Totally Lost: An Open Letter from a Professional Musician

By Chris R. at CD Baby – February 13, 2012

Jazz musician Dave Goldberg wrote a pointed and darkly humorous open letter to LA club owners that I thought was worth sharing. In it, he argues that it’s actually a counterproductive practice for venues to book bands who are willing to work for free. And when I say “counterproductive,” I mean it’s bad for the venue’s business.

Just the other day I was told by someone who owned a wine bar that they really liked our music and would love for us to play at their place. She then told me the gig paid $75 for a trio. Now $75 used to be bad money per person, let alone $75 for the whole band. It had to be a joke, right? No, she was serious. But it didn’t end there. She then informed us we had to bring 25 people minimum. Didn’t even offer us extra money if we brought 25 people. I would have laughed other than it’s not the first time I’ve gotten this proposal from club owners. But are there musicians really doing this? Yes. They are so desperate to play, they will do anything.

But let’s think about this for a second and turn this around a little bit. What if I told the wine bar owner that I have a great band and we are going to play at my house. I need someone to provide and pour wine while we play. I can’t pay much, just $75 and you must bring at least 25 people who are willing to pay a $10 cover charge at the door. Now wouldn’t they look at you like you are crazy?

“Why would I do that,” they would ask? Well, because it’s great exposure for you and your wine bar. The people there would see how well you pour wine and see how good your wine is. Then they would come out to your wine bar sometime. ”But I brought all the people myself, I already know them,” they would say. Well maybe you could make up some professional looking flyers, pass them out, and get people you don’t know to come on out. ”But you are only paying me $75, How can I afford to make up flyers?”

You see how absurd this sounds, but musicians do this all the time. If they didn’t, then the club owners wouldn’t even think of asking us to do it. So this sounds like a great deal for the club owners, doesn’t it? They get a band and customers for that night, and have to pay very little if anything. But what they don’t realize is that this is NOT in their best interest.

Running a restaurant, a club, a bar, is really hard. There is a lot at stake for the owner. You are trying to get loyal customers that will return because you are offering them something special. If you want great food, you hire a great chef. If you want great décor, you hire a great interior decorator. You expect these professionals to do their best at what you are hiring them to do. It needs to be the same with the band. You hire a great band and should expect great music. That should be the end of your expectations for the musicians. The music is another product for the venue to offer, no different from food or beverages. To read the whole article, click HERE.

Sadly, it’s even worse in churches that claim they are followers of Jesus and the Word of God.

Many churches expect, and even demand, that its musicians and singers show up to practice during the week and arrive early before Sunday morning service to practice again; all without pay. But heaven forbid if these same musicians play clubs in their free time to make money to support themselves and their families!

We find by reading Nehemiah chapters 12-13 that Israel had the same problem. At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem the Levites were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. (The singers and musicians were also Levites) Later, Nehemiah left Jerusalem to see Artaxerxes, the king of Babylon. But when he returned to Jerusalem he was upset to find out how much had changed.

“I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.” (Neh. 13:10)

The reason the Levites had gone back to work in their fields is because they had no other way to support themselves; since the portions of the offerings assigned to the Levites had not been given to them.

Is the church today any different? Why are not musicians and singers, who sacrifice so much in worship services, not given a portion of the offerings taken up in the church? And yet when these same musicians go back to their own fields so to speak, and use their talents to support themselves by playing in clubs, they are looked down upon and in some cases, shunned.

While teaching Sunday school in Fort Worth, Willie Nelson was also playing honky-tonk clubs on Saturday nights; when his parishioners demanded he choose between the church and music, he chose the latter. I wonder how many people missed out on hearing the Gospel at that church because Willie Nelson was not allowed to teach.

I have been playing Christian music now for over thirty years and even though many people have told me how much they have been blessed by my ministry, in all that time I have rarely had the opportunity to minister in churches. Why? Because it seems that churches are more interested in bringing in some nationally known Christian recording artist to entertain people, (and bring in more money) than to have local musicians come in and minister to the hearts of people.

I know that I am not alone. There are many talented Christian musicians right in our own backyards. And if we were to give them the opportunity to minister in our churches maybe they wouldn’t need to go outside the church and play in clubs to support themselves.

(editor’s note: I realize that many churches have small congregations and don’t take in much in the way of offerings. But even a portion of a small offering would do well to encourage the Christian musicians in your church)

  1. Paul Koski says:

    I like that bit about Willie Nelson. That’s interesting.

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