The Plight

Everyone knows it’s hard to make a living as a musician. I’m just not sure that people other than musicians know just how hard it is.  There needs to be more and clearer illustrations – perhaps, best expressed in actual hours of labour and dollar figures – of how the struggle unfolds for each of us.

Most musicians – even established ones – do something other than making music (i.e. performing and writing) in order to survive.  In fact, this is the expectation going into it. As we begin to develop our craft, we know we will likely have to support ourselves outside of music whether we want to or not. Some of us can work in a related area such as teaching music or repairing instruments or doing tech work at concerts.  This can be both beneficial and detrimental.  On the one hand, you can apply and gain further knowledge that can feed into your art.  You can make valuable social connections that will lead to support.  On the other hand, it can take crucial amounts of physical and psychological energy away from the work you really want to be doing.  So, for example, often the last thing you want to do when you come home from an exhausting day of teaching is work on your own music.

To be fair, some musicians actually want to work at something other than making music whether or not it’s related.  But for most of us who want to make a living playing and/or writing music life is damn hard.  One of my goals is to illustrate just how hard it is with more concrete examples.  Maybe if the wider public can get what’s going on in a more tangible, less conceptual way,  musicians might stand to benefit.  I’m not very hopeful about this but it’s worth a try.

The struggle is not unlike that of other workers who want to improve their conditions.  Throughout history we’ve seen plenty examples of this. Without taking the time to cite  specific examples, I do want to point out one of the key factors contributing to the continued economic plight of workers across many fields: it’s taboo to talk about money.

Nowhere is this more clear to me than in recent Equal-Pay-For-Equal-Work protests.  Our laws have already caught up to the discrimination.  In simple legal terms, no demographic group should be experiencing the form of discrimination that results in unequal pay for the same work.  Yet, it’s still bloody happening!  I think one of the main reasons why is that we haven’t been talking straight up about it, and I think this stems in part from the taboo about talking personally about money.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to share some info publicly about what I make, particularly what my projects yield, and pit this against expenses and the labour put in. All the above serves as an introduction but since it’s a bit extensive, I’ll keep the following segment as brief as possible (I see this as an ongoing series of posts).

Sax Drive performed its first gig on July 7th, 2019.  I’m kicking myself now for not tracking the tremendous number of hours involved in preparing the scores and parts, both for that first set of six tunes and for subsequent music (we have 18 tunes now, and I recently completed #19 which I’ll add in next time we rehearse). To better illustrate the prep time involved I’ll try to track the hours going forward   At this point I can only say that creating a score and parts for a 4-5 min piece for seven players is a lot of work!  More than what you might expect, is all I’m getting at.

That first gig was for a HONK! ON fundraiser and our next two gigs were at the Festival itself, July 27-28.  Neither of this was paid work, which is totally acceptable under the right circumstances.  We treated it as pro bono because we were essentially donating to the HONK! ON cause, which is rooted in free, accessible, public music performed primarily by amateur players.  It was a great opportunity for a new band to get off the ground.  After this, because of lack of availability and prior commitments, we didn’t get to do our fourth show until late November (also our last appearance of 2019), our first paid gig where we earned $210.

We happily agreed to the terms of this gig for various reasons that I won’t go into.  I simply want to point out, and emphasize in the future, the socio-economic conditions under which we work – and are expected to work – as musicians. These conditions are so complex and go way beyond the simple human-to-human transaction that consists of making the contract (formal or not), showing up to play and getting paid.

Some of the parameters of this first paid gig: 1) a Thursday night 2) at the Tranzac Club’s Southern Cross Lounge – a lovely room to play in 3) a one-hour slot to play one set  4) part of Lauren’s (who played alto sax in our band) Drawing Free For All 5) no cover charge, as is often the case, so we played for donations 6) the event was well-attended and the energy was very positive.

In summary, Sax Drive played four shows in 2019.  Apart from the hours I personally spent preparing music, the band rehearsed about 30 hours (and there was at least some personal practice).  We spent $474 on rehearsal space.  I’m sure it’s clear that, like most worthwhile ventures, there’s a lot of investment required, initially as well as part of maintenance and further development.

So, there’s some economic data representing the first phase of Sax Drive. It’s open to interpretation, and I’ll offer some of my own at another time. For now, it’s important to just share the numbers.

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