When making music, I'm often lucky to get paid at all. More often than not, I play for free with the unspoken DIY promise of setting up contacts in other states when I travel. Those contacts, so far, have netted me a total of zero paying gigs outside of New Mexico. I'm not complaining—I love playing DIY spaces, and doing so has honed me into the musician I want to be; love of the craft and all that.
That said, when I do get paid, it tends to be the same paycheck regardless of crowd size, how well I played, how much alcohol the venue sold and any other number of factors. That amount is usually around $100—not bad, if you consider that with set up and take down, my bands usually spend about an hour on stage. Split that four ways and I've got $25 in my pocket.
Let's start there.
Subtract $5.99 before tax for the strings on my guitar. Like a painter must replace brushes, guitarists need to restring—so we're already at $19 an hour.
Then let's talk about the stage time. First, I need to get to the gig by load-in time—usually around two hours in advance, if not more. That means I'm heading to the practice space and helping load gear, which takes at least 30 minutes in a perfect world, but we'll round up to an hour since I have to load out at the end of the night, too. We're roughly at an hour on stage, though this varies from band to band, and an hour of whatever physical labor needed to make sure my band has all the right stuff on hand. Now I'm making $8 an hour, just slightly above federal minimum wage and well below New Mexico's state-mandated minimum wage.
Now let's look at buy-in cost—because if I want to get booked, I have to be able to perform something people want to see. So, again, let me be generous with my math and say that at least two years of lessons are needed to learn an
instrument … well, anyway. There are some incredible self-taught players, and they're probably smarter than me, but lessons are a sure way to learn your basics and improve your musicianship. At The Candyman, weekly guitar lessons run $35 for 30 minutes, so for two years of weekly lessons we're looking at $3,640.
Then say you want your instrument setup, which can cost anywhere from $60-$80, so we'll round up to $3,700. A decent amp? Mine cost $750. Add in my $150 guitar—the cheapest piece of gear I own—and I'm now at a deficit of $4,600. Not a terrible number, but if I'm not even making minimum wage and playing maybe five paying gigs a year, plus unpaid rehearsal time, replacement parts and repairs, it's hard to make a dent.
Is this just me?
Not according to other locals, such as Mark J Ortiz, who plays guitar in
hard-working reggae act Boomroots Collective.
"When you live in a city that is surrounded by so much art, galleries, festivals that are geared to fuel an industry of artists," he says, "musicians get the short end of the stick."
Ortiz says his band plays year-round and, by his estimate, each member makes about $80 to $100 in a night. He still considers that breaking even.
"We play for the love of it, but don't get me wrong—I would drop everything in a minute if I made a living wage by playing music," Ortiz says.
For someone playing a regular paid gig at El Farol, he really should be able to do just that. Because playing music is a job. Making any kind of art is a job, and it's completely unsustainable to tell our artists they should be happy for whatever they make when it can't keep the electricity on.
Ten Ten Division front woman and solo artist Vonnie Kyle tries to play a couple times a week and, through this ethic and her willingness to travel out of town, has been able to commit more fully to music as a viable job.
She feels $300 is a fair wage for a three-hour solo performance, but is more often paid less than that.
"Most places can't afford [$300]," says Kyle, who adds that she sees a change as more working musicians book local shows. "Typically those people do everything they can to ensure that the musicians they book are fairly compensated."
She feels that while certain venues pay better than others, she can just treat it like any other job—building relationships and negotiating her pay on a case-by-case basis.
"I kind of feel like it all averages out," she tells SFR. "You just have to play a lot of different places and figure out which ones you want to come back to and which ones you don't."
So is there a solution? Again, I'm not an economist, but I know I've played enough shows with other acts that are getting a fair wage. But maybe until we start to view music as more than just a frivolous flight of fancy, a world where musicians are supposed to effuse gratefulness for any no-pay gig they can get, we won't start to see any change. I wouldn't hold my breath.