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The first time anyone paid me money for playing music was in high school. A little dixieland quintet of which I was the drummer played a gig for, of all things, a convention of parapsychologists. We played, maybe, half an hour. Then the band ate dinner with the host, who after dessert handed each of us twenty-five dollars. “What a world,” I thought. “Paid good money to do something I love.” And, considering that those twenty-five 1975 dollars would now be $123.75, some of the highest pay I’ve ever received.
In college I played for a polka band. Nearly every weekend we drove to what must have been every small town in eastern Nebraska, hauling amps and drums and the leader’s Hammond B-3 organ up (then down) narrow flights of stairs into dark halls, setting up on broken down stages or in barns and backyards, to play for wedding receptions, dances for Eagles, Elks, and Masons, and the occasional family reunion. And while the Beer Barrel Polka, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain and various schattisches are not great challenges for drummers, I didn’t mind the pay, which sometimes included a place at potlucks or cut-rate chicken dinners. Nor did I mind the fellowship of rejoicing families and friends, or of the semi-drunken lonely hearts we ran across in those upstairs clubs.
Those days are long long past, and the paid musicians I run into most often now are church organists. Very rarely do I come across a band; most venues are co-opted by DJs whose talents run in another direction. But money is always an issue: one DJ, with maybe a buddy or two, is a lot cheaper than a band. And most churches will cut their budgets on the backs of their musicians: “She only plays for two services a week and practices with the choir one night a week. Why are we paying her so much?” (I’m sure churches with worship teams and contemporary music run into like problems.)
No mind that the musician has trained for years and should be a skilled practitioner. What can we get by with? Throw into that mix the fact that I can get flawless, endless, perfect music of my own choosing with my Spotify account, and why would anyone spend dollars on real musicians playing real music on real instruments?
But as anyone who is honest will tell you: it’s not the same. It’s not the same to dance to that perfect selection from your favorite band as it is to ask the band for a tune, hope they know it, and enjoy that the sound you’re getting isn’t exactly what you hear on iTunes.
And that’s not just OK. That’s great. That’s people interacting with their environment, musicians feeling the vibe, the audience grooving and whooping and cheering when the band adds some flair of their own. If you know the band, that’s even better. You’re happy that they’re happy that they’re making you happy. The whirlpool swirls through your soul and leaves a residue of bright-eyed smiles and life-long memories.
This truth extends far back into our heritage. Here is Odysseus at the feast of the Phaeacian king Alcinous:
And he went and took his seat beside the king.
By now they were serving out the portions, mixing wine,
and the herald soon approached, leading the faithful bard
Demodocus, prized by all the people—seated him in a chair
amid the feasters, leaning it against a central column.
At once alert Odysseus carved a strip of loin,
rich and crisp with fat, from the white-tusked boar
that still had much meat left, and called the herald over:
“Here, herald, take this choice cut to Demodocus
so he can eat his fill—with warm regards
from a man who knows what suffering is …
From all who walk the earth our bards deserve
esteem and awe, for the Muse herself has taught them
paths of song. She loves the breed of harpers.” Odyssey, 8.527ff
It may be self-serving of Homer, but you get the point.
So pay the band.Published in