Your Band Will Never Be Your Job
A few weeks ago at the dawn of Summerfest 2010, the Shepherd Express’ Evan Rytlewski posted a blog saying he received a number of emails in response to his Cascio Groove Stage preview, complaining that the stage doesn’t pay its local lineup. He then posted a follow-up blog asking, “should Summerfest pay local bands more?” The comments (in which I voiced a couple quick opinions) ranged from “bands should get paid” to a few local musicians saying “we don’t care, we do it for fun,” to one commenter calling local bands “dummies” for agreeing to play for essentially free when Summerfest apparently paid local bands a decent amount 30 years ago.
One commenter claimed that Cascio Interstate pays Summerfest for the right to book the bands and have their name on the stage. “This is a PR opportunity for Cascio, as well as a chance to support their passion–local musicians. For Summerfest, it’s just another stage with naming rights to be sold–which is also a neutral thing–neither good nor bad, just a revenue opportunity for a great local event.”
So, if Cascio makes no money off its stage, that doesn’t really answer Evan’s question—should Summerfest pay local bands more? Less widely discussed were the local bands playing at other stages on the Summerfest grounds—like, say, Jaill’s July 1 set on Thecool TV Rock Stage. How much did one of the local bands actually deemed worthy of a direct Summerfest billing earn? I sent Jaill’s drummer, Austin Dutmer, a message asking him about his experience on the stage and what they were paid (because I’m rude and willing to ask my Summerfest co-workers how much they make).
“Boy, I hate answering this question,” Dutmer said, “but if I had a dollar for every time I was asked it, and you wanted to ask me the same amount of times concurrent to dollars we got paid, you would have to ask me two hundred times.” So, two hundred bones for the new local buzz band on the big indie label. Not bad, at least compared to what local bands usually make around here. But is it a fair rate by Summerfest standards, especially if the commenters on Rytlewski’s blog post claim that the Big Gig used to pay locals a lot more? After all, Jaill are on Sub Pop! Nirvana’s label, maaaan! Two hundred measly bucks?!?
It’s really part of a bigger question: should local bands get paid more, period? Anyone who plays in a local original band (and the word “original” cannot be stressed enough here) knows that playing original music in Milwaukee isn’t a lucrative enterprise. After the sound guy gets paid, that $7-$8 cover (still less than a night at the movies!) gets split between three or four bands of three to 13 members each. Not exactly “quit your job” numbers. Think this reflects badly on Milwaukee’s support of local music? Then you haven’t gone on tour recently, because things are tough all over. Just be glad bars in Milwaukee haven’t adopted New York City’s insane and offensive “tally sheet” practice, where they ask every paying customer which band they are there to see, then divide up the door money accordingly. If you’re on tour and lucky enough to have a pair of friends in town who came out to see you, congratulations! You get their five-spots, while the local band who doesn’t need the gas money gets to clean up (comparatively). Awesome.
Make the argument that original music is undervalued, and I’ll agree, but it’s based more on the principle that the act of creation should be commended and supported instead of the act of aping what sells via cover songs and variety bands. The truth, though, is that we don’t live in a world that appreciates artistic creation—we appreciate mass appeal and lowest common denominators.
So what should be done? That commenter over on the Shepherd’s site who thinks we unpaid musicians are “dummies” is convinced that “people who play gigs for free are morons that perpetuate increasing arrogance by Summerfest talent finders, local talent agencies, and club owners.” Ah! So all we have to do is unite and demand our fair paycheck from the club owners, right? Hey, fellow locals, let’s go on strike! No more performances until every band is guaranteed $100 per band member per show. How fast do you think it will take for local shows to completely dry up? Bye-bye local music scene. It’s not that I think the clubs wouldn’t love to pay bands that much—I just don’t think the money’s there.
So, any ideas? How do we get local bands more money?
How about we limit the number of shows at clubs? Let’s only have shows on the weekends, and only book the bands that are good enough to draw the number of people necessary to cough up the scratch for the musicians. The local musicians with less mass appeal will be shut out, but hey, that’s capitalism, right? Survival of the marketable. Completely setting aside the idea that art is subjective and marketability shouldn’t be prioritized over originality (and face it—originality will never be marketable), a system like that would kill Milwaukee as a destination for touring bands (and in turn kill the ability of Milwaukee bands to get shows in other towns).
So much for the Cactus Club hosting the next White Stripes on a Tuesday night.
The only real solution I’ve come up with is to not worry about it. Local original bands will always be paid like shit. It’s not going to change. So why fret? If you’re in a band because you’re looking for a paycheck or to get “signed,” you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and your music probably sucks anyway (because if you’re writing your songs by giving too much priority to mass appeal, rather than speaking from the heart, chances are your music is formulaic bullshit).
This isn’t to say that bands shouldn’t work hard. Bands should practice their asses off, listen to other bands, exchange ideas, listen to constructive criticism, and strive to improve. But do it out of a sense of self-respect, a desire to be the best artist you can be, and because you enjoy it, not because you think maybe you’ll get a paycheck someday. The music industry is collapsing, y’all—we have no idea how much money we’ll ever see from this stuff. So why do it? Because working hard at something you love to do is its own reward.
By the way, Austin, how was that two-hundred-dollar Summerfest experience?
It was “memorable,” Dutmer said. “The staff were not dicks–they were all very friendly, but fairly lazy. For instance we asked how we could get some water when we were loading in, and a staffer said he would make sure to have it in ‘dressing room 2’, which would be OUR dressing room for the afternoon. We walked around Summerfest for a while and about an hour later when we walked into our dressing room for the first time, there was a dude crashed out in it! We told someone and instead of moving the dude, they moved the number on the door so now room 2 was room 1 and vice versa. Room 1, our new room, had no water, no anything. And when we saw the door open to our former dressing room, dude had like a whole cooler of red bull and a pile of water. Thanks, stage guy, for your initiative to correct the problem, but I wants me some water!!”
Not a terrible experience, and definitely a good story. But next year, give me the Cascio stage where the pay is scarce but the staff really cares. Not that we’ll have a choice in the matter, but hey. All in good fun.