Respect, Just a Little Bit.
(from January 6, 2009)
I am a freelance musician; mostly a jazz musician, but I am also into playing/arranging/teaching funk, salsa, R&B, gospel … anything that’ll get you movin’ & groovin’. I love my job. However, that doesn’t mean that I feel it’s a GOOD job. We all go through phases in our lives when we evaluate the results of our decisions to do what we do professionally … “Am I satisfied with my work?”, “Do I make enough money?” “Is this worth getting up in the morning for?” … I believe it all comes down to respect … either the respect you get at work & have for your co-workers/boss/clients/etc, or ample compensation for the absence thereof.
I judge how good a job is based on its bullshit/pay ratio. For example, if I’m a corporate IT minion, I’m happy to sit there and waste half my day on some mindless Human Resources training exam about what expenses are/aren’t admissible when I take a potential client out golfing … you’re paying me $150/hr, so you can wring me through as many pointless surveys you want – bring ’em on, I’ll be Facebooking in the mean time! This job would be considered a good job because although there is a mother load of corporate policy blah and red tape, the compensation is plentiful, and the BS/pay ratio is therefore favourable. Take another example … I’ve just started up my own business making and selling my own natural organic soaps and body products; I make maybe a $1000/month profit, but there are no stuffed-shirted bureaucrats breathing down my neck, no ambitious backstabbers trying to stamp me down as they claw their way up the ladder, just the sweet smell of cinnamon and lavender to greet me and my tree-huggin’, feel-good hippie customers. This is also a good job … the pay is minimal, but there is no BS to be seen, heard or smelled for miles around. Again, the BS/pay ratio is favourable.
I have come to realize that, based on the above criteria, being a freelance jazz musician is NOT a good job. I’m constantly encountering the “yeah you’re a musician, but what do you really do, for a living?” attitude. Clients and bar owners expect me to play for hours on end without breaks because hey, I’m enjoying it, right? We’re all here to have a good time so I should just shut up and be grateful that I just get to goof off and have fun while everyone else is working. Besides, they’re doing me a favour by giving me …’EXPOSURE’… (to which I usually respond with “don’t people die from that?”). And of course there is always that one dashing young man in a designer suit with the mischievous smirk on his face who comes up and plinks on my keys, thinking he’s oh so suave – meanwhile I’m trying to deliver a decent rendition of some insipid ballad the client’s uncle requested. Now, I don’t give a damn how good looking or rich you are, when you do that, you are a jackass … and you can be sure that the pianist does NOT think it’s remotely cute or charming, but actually wants to murder you at that moment. How would you like it if I barged into your office with a full-blown New Orleans marching band and knocked my trombone slide onto your speaker phone button right when you were about to close that deal? I didn’t think so. So don’t do it, it’s extremely disrespectful. Just because I happen to enjoy my work does not give anybody a license to treat me any differently than any other professional. An esteemed colleague and I were discussing this very subject, and his thoughts on the matter were, “you know, you’d never go up to a prostitute and say ‘hey, wow, sex is GREAT, it must be fantastic to do that for a LIVING!'” … think about it.
So how did it come about that here in North America it is socially acceptable to treat musicians this way? I have a theory about this, so hear me out here … notice that musicians who have jobs with symphony orchestras, pit orchestras, TV studios, etc. are generally looked kindly upon (and are protected by the union; sadly the benefits of being in the musicians’ union don’t extend to freelancers to nearly the same degree, but that’s another rant for another time). Also notice that what I’m about to point out doesn’t just apply to jazz musicians in small clubs, but freelancers who play R&B, blues, rock, funk and jazz in every setting from restaurants to discotheques, from cruise ships to summer festivals … somehow it’s ok to ask the musicians to play for free or dirt cheap, or not to cover their transportation, not to provide proper meals (what do you mean these 2-square-inch soggy egg salad sandwiches won’t get you through the night, you ingrates?!), how it’s fine to expect the musicians to just vanish into thin air once their set is done and magically re-materialize for the next one and the next, without offering or sometimes evenallowing us a place to sit and have a coffee while we recharge and collect our creative mind power to be able to deliver another hour of our specialized services. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to argue that this always the case; I have been treated and paid very well in many performing situations here in Canada. What I’m saying is that it is much more widespread than it ought to be, and it is somehow subconsciously acceptable on the part of North American society. My theory will not sit well with everyone, as it has some very uncomfortable racial tones to it, but after much reflection on this issue, I truly feel that this mentality stems from the days of blatant segregationist policies in the deep south, all the way up to the more subtle and not-so-subtle racial divisions in the northern USA and yes, even Canada. In those days, black entertainers were allowed to perform for a white audience, but they were kept separate by a water-tight barrier … the whites would be enjoying their 3rd dish of their 12 course meal at the dinner theatre, an ensemble of sharply-dressed black musicians would appear on stage and deliver a dazzling performance, lift everyone’s spirits, then be quickly whisked away and relegated to the basement to sit on rickety, splintering old chairs under dripping rusty pipes, snacking on their pickled pigs’ feet until it was time to go on again. All of the styles of music I listed above can trace their roots directly to the Black American musical tradition of the Old South as it found its way up the Mississippi and branched off into all of these genres we know today. Though the colours of the faces of the musicians who now perform this music all over North America are as varied as songs and grooves they play, the conventions of a past segregationist era die hard.
I will admit, some things have definitely changed in the last few decades, and at this point the whole industry has pretty much been taken over by lawyers, accountants and business tycoons wanting to make a quick buck. On many levels, it has become all about marketing an image, and less and less about the actual music; regardless of style or scene, the music business attracts so many phony, opportunistic name-dropping sleazeballs, with all the charm of a used-car salesman. This can be tolerated in the Pop and Top 40 circles where’s there’s actually money there to justify enduring that kind of massive headache (see BS/Pay ratio), but sadly it happens in all genres; hardly seems worth it … as a great jazz guitarist once told me, “there’s TENS of dollars in jazz”. Unless of course you’re Keith Jarrett, but who wants to be Keith Jarrett, really? So, given the severely disproportionate amount of money we get paid to deal with the aforementioned steaming pile, I reiterate, being a freelance jazz musician in North America is not a good job.
European and Japanese concert promoters are dumbfounded when I inform them of the average working conditions and expectations of jazz/rock/funk etc. musicians here; they simply cannot believe that all of the dedication and hard work it takes to do what we do is scarcely acknowledged or compensated accordingly. Keep in mind that these are much older, more mature societies with a drastically different history and view of art and culture than North America … after all, it ultimately took Europeans to nurture Black American musical talent in the first place (Germans Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff launched Blue Note Records, and Ahmet Ertegün from Turkey started Atlantic) thereby bringing to life what is arguably North America’s greatest contribution to art.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I really love about my country and this continent, but I’m not surprised that so many American artists and musicians have moved to Europe to live and work. I would now like to share a personal experience I had with this very issue. Five years ago I did my first small concert tour of Denmark, where I was very well-received, well-paid, well-fed, and the venues were almost full to capacity of jazz-appreciating concert-goers even in the smallest towns. The day after I returned to Montreal I was asked to do a jazz trio cocktail gig for the inauguration of a new building at a local institution, which will remain nameless. To set the scene a bit here, we were playing in the lobby/open stairwell and the music wafted up to the party taking place on the mezzanine above. We had already played for over 90 minutes straight without a break (which is beyond the call of duty according to the musicians’ union), when a crumpled-up napkin came hurtling at us from above. One of the organizers was trying to get our attention to stop the music so they could make speeches. Seriously, how much time and effort does it take to walk down one flight of stairs to address us face to face? No coordinator worth his salt would even DREAM of throwing a napkin at the bartender or the caterer … we certainly weren’t going to let him leave that event believing that this is acceptable behaviour. The trombonist gave him a stern talking-to, privately and quietly, and we thought that was the end of it. We played another set, and no sooner had we laid our instruments down for a short pause, a very agitated woman appeared at the railing above and asked why we weren’t playing. The bassist responded that we had just played an hour and that we would be back on after a 10 minute break. She sneered, “are we paying you to take breaks?”, to which I informed her, “yes, as a matter of fact, you are”. And we have a contract to prove it, beyotch. Then, yet another organizer came down and said there was a whole lot of hemming and hawing among the coordinators that the musicians had been rude and that she wanted to know what our side of the story was. The trombonist calmly explained the situation, and the lady apologized for the whole thing, then brought us our dinner and told us to enjoy our food and finish playing the last set when we were ready. So then we REALLY thought it was all over and we could finish doing our job in peace. WELL … then the previous agitated lady stomped down the stairs and started going off at us about how people like us are the reason that musicians have such a bad reputation and have trouble getting work, and that they were doing us a big favour by giving us this opportunity to get some experience and we were so ungrateful and that she was going to see to it that we would be fired from the following week’s engagement that we had also been hired to play at. (she was unsuccessful in that particular pursuit, fyi). I could hardly believe this was actually happening, it all seemed so surreal in my jet-lagged stupor, but it occurred to me just then that she thought we were naive 18-yr-old first-year music students she could just pull her intimidation trip on. Of course it’s not ok to treat anybody that way regardless of age or stage in life, but she clearly had no idea who she was dealing with. We had long-since finished our schooling, the trombonist produces a concert series for a venue in town, the bassist has many years of TV studio and pit orchestra experience under his belt, and I had just come back from a European concert tour – and I was tired and cranky to boot!! We finished playing and left without incident, but let’s just say several senior officials at this institution received detailed, angry letters the very next day, as did her employer. One of the other band members was really pushing for a formal apology. This we never got, but we did get word that she and her napkin-tossing sidekick were disciplined and re-trained accordingly. That was good enough for me, as my goals were not to get revenge or even an apology, but to (a) make sure these people knew very well that there is a protocol to follow when hiring musicians for an event, just like any other contractor providing a service, and that it must be respected, and (b) to do my damned best to make sure that this NEVER happens to myself or any other musician hired by that organization EVER AGAIN.
Now, don’t think I’m one of those self-pitying artists who thinks the world owes me a living just because I have a God-given gift and society should just hand me all the goodies in life on a silver platter. Yes, to be a good musician takes many years of hard work and dedication, and it also does depend on the luck of the draw, having been blessed with good ears and a good sense of rhythm, melody, harmony … however, I’m not letting musicians off the hook here. Sometimes we perpetuate our own situation and have nobody to blame but ourselves at the end of the day; sure the odds are stacked against us (based on my theory I described previously), but it is up to us to rise above it and command the respect we feel we deserve; because the bottom line is, if we don’t respect ourselves, it’s a sure bet that nobody else will either. Musicians may have a reputation for being irresponsible drunks, or for being slobs or for showing up late, or simply that we are just doing this on our spare time away from our ‘real’ jobs, and many members of the public at large react to us based on these pre-conceptions; we have to be actively working to turn this around. Case in point – a colleague of mine arrived at a venue to find out that the organizer had canceled last minute; no warning, no recourse, nothing … then he was hastily offered a beer in lieu of pay for the gig. My colleague proceeded to explain to him that he had turned down other work for the night, and being a freelance contractor that he was now, as a direct result of this lack of consideration on the organizer’s part, out of a job at that moment. He then firmly demanded to be reimbursed for the taxi ride at the very least, which fortunately he was. My friends, do NOT accept beer as payment, especially if that was not what was agreed upon beforehand. I don’t care how much you’re love to have a nice, cold beer after a hard day – because fact is you CANNOT pay your daughter’s med school tuition with a pint of Guinness, you cannot finance your home with a bottle of Molson Ex … if you want to be treated like a professional, then ACT like one. No other professional would tolerate this kind of cop-out, and neither should you, no matter how much you want that beer. Also, don’t play that gig for $30, even though you’re dying to play your new tunes for people. Because it just lowers the bar for everyone, and as a result it becomes more and more impossible to negotiate appropriate pay for the quality of the services we provide. At $30/night, let’s face it, you’re not paying the rent with that so it’s not as if you’re playing there because you need the money. A better approach would be to invite some people to your jam space for a party or a concert, maybe charge $2 or pass the hat, have them bring their own preferred beverages, and voila!, a modern-day salon, just like the artistic community in France used to do in the 18th century. Everybody wins, and club owners and the public at large are not coming away with the increasingly negatively skewed perception of the true value of live music. Some people will argue that the bars can’t afford it and that if we all refuse to play for less than we deserve, the live music scene will die. A compelling argument, but I’m not buying it, at least not for the long term … I had a Swedish student a little while ago tell me that he was amazed he could go and see a live band here for $5, that it would be at least $35 in his country. Currency exchange rate and other variables aside, this is a very strong statement about the value (or lack thereof) that North American society places on freelance musicians. This needs to change; it will take time, but we have the power to go out there and start getting some respect for ourselves and turn being a freelance musician into a good job.
I’m not going to deny that in most other fields of work, if we were to have attained the level of skill and experience that we have as musicians, we would be a lot more financially secure and would have been promoted a few ranks up the professional heirarchy. However, if we’re going to whine and gripe about how in any other profession things would be like this or like that, we also have to understand that in any other profession certain things would be expected of us as well, and we should also be striving to live up to those. Wear proper attire, get to the venue on time, and don’t give anybody an excuse to try to pull a fast one on you. You’re holding up your end of the deal, now they should be obliged to deliver on theirs. This works even better if you can get it in writing! (I firmly believe that if anybody you’re dealing with isn’t willing to sign their name to their word, you probably don’t want to be doing business with them in the first place). Bar owners/producers/agents etc. must understand that they need you in order to do business successfully; without freelance musicians, there would be no record companies or discotheques or music festivals; wedding ceremonies and corporate events would certainly be orders of magnitude duller … maybe some people would go to a club or bar anyway, but not nearly as many as if there were a really great band with a solid local following being featured there. You are entering a mutually beneficial arrangement with these organizers, and they need to realize that you and they are working together to help each other become more successful than either of you could have on your own. This is the whole point of doing business with somebody. And in order for them to recognize that they are doing business and not just dropping change in a busker’s hat, you have to make sure that they recognize you as a business person. Because as a freelancer, that’s what you are, whether you like it or not. (side-note: yes, buskers deserve respect too, but that’s another discussion for another time).
As a society we’re becoming desensitized to music because it is everywhere – ring-tones, iPods, the speakers at the supermarket, elevators (debatable whether to call it music, but I digress); and now we musicians are competing with XBox/big screen TVs/MSN messenger/you name it to entertain you … it’s amazing that people would rather stay home in their basements and play guitar hero than go out and check out an honest-to-goodness REAL guitar player. It’s no coincidence that North Americans are more depressed and anxious than ever before … I’m just holding out hope that some day we will all wake up and realize that real live music is inherently part of being human; human beings have been singing and banging on things (rocks, drums) since the dawn of existence. All tribal cultures have specific songs and dances for every important rite of passage in life … there is something so deep and moving that connects us to one another when we’re sharing a musical experience, whether we’re jumping up and down together at a rock concert, dining at an intimate restaurant to the sweet sounds of a string quartet, dancing salsa on the beach on a hot tropical night … let’s face it, musicians make life worth living! THAT is our job. Doctors save your health, farmers feed you, accountants help you keep afloat … then we musicians add passion, flare and emotion to all that. That is what we do. And just like any other professional who strives to make life better for themselves and everyone they deal with, we deserve to be respected for it.