My Advice: Pay the Band

 

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.

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  1. Blondie Thatcher
    Blondie
    @Blondie

    I grew up in a small backwoods place and never knew there was such a thing as paying the church organist/pianist til I moved to the “big city”. My mom and my aunt both played at my home church and were never payed. Neither was anybody else around the community. 

    I agree with you about paying a band. My sister has a friend who has plays in a band that is booked solid mostly for private functions. For some reason, they don’t have to beg people to get out on the floor like the DJ’s do. And you can hear some original music! So, pay the band, people! 

    • #1
  2. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    One of my best friends plays in two or three tribute bands (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Boston, and Journey songs).  He gets to travel and play with some other fine musicians.  We all dreamed of being rock stars, but he’s the only one actually doing it . . .

    • #2
  3. Vectorman Member
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Blondie (View Comment):
    I agree with you about paying a band. My sister has a friend who has plays in a band that is booked solid mostly for private functions. For some reason, they don’t have to beg people to get out on the floor like the DJ’s do.

    At my daughter’s wedding, located in the groom’s city 100 miles away, the in-laws wanted a special band to play. They were a “rock” band and quite expensive, but knew enough typical wedding stuff like the “chicken dance,” the father-daughter dance, etc. Everyone had a great time, and the band played an extra hour because they were having a good time too.*

    Including the church service, both young and old have remarked how that wedding was the best they’ve ever attended. Nobody got drunk, either.

    * We fed them the same quality dinner as our guests, with an open bar, so maybe that helped…

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    My first paying gig was in 1972. I got meal money for an afternoon of playing Sousa and K. L. King for the horse races at a county fair. I was 12, and I was worried that it would screw up my amateur standing.

    • #5
  6. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Thanks for this post. 

    • #6
  7. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    The only time I got paid to play anywhere, my high school rock band jammed in a small coffee shop off a busy road. They kept the door open. People could hear us while driving by, so eventually there was a small crowd gathered outside.

    We played only original music. Eventually, the shop manager graciously set a bucket in front of us for people to throw donations in. I don’t recall how much we made.

    I never perform. But that would still be my preferred method of payment. I recorded a song of mine from those high school days just last week (still trying to get the mix right).

    • #7
  8. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    There is nothing like sound from live musicians playing actual instruments made of natural materials. Pay (and feed) the band!

    • #8
  9. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    James Hageman: 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.

    I once heard it claimed that Columbus, Nebraska is the Nashville of Polka music. I have a friend who did much the same thing through the late 70’s early 80’s, and talks about how many bills he paid from those gigs. His son is a first rate guitar player, but he says his son seldom clears more than $15 – $20 a night theses days.

    • #9
  10. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Working in a warehouse as a teenager was good prep for my brief stint as a gigging drummer, percussionist, and keyboard player. I was accustomed to lifting heavy things. 

    • #10
  11. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    I have enjoyed this post and the comments since I can relate to the experiences, not directly, but rather as a patron. My son turns 50 this year. He has really never done anything in his life but music since we picked up a guitar for him at a garage sale in 1982. He went to college for a year after high school. It was a disaster. So then we financed a year plus for him in Hollywood at the Musicians Institute. He has played in bands since then. He also plays solo acoustic. He teaches at the School of Rock. He writes songs, music and lyrics. He books gigs. He records and produces CD’s to sell and giveaway. Music is his life’s work and his passion. A portion of my life’s work has been augmenting his ability to pursue his. Life is complicated or not.

    • #11
  12. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    A portion of my life’s work has been augmenting his ability to pursue his.

    On behalf of irresponsible sons and artists everywhere, thanks!

    • #12
  13. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    • #13
  14. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Great advice about working bands, bridging nicely to our March theme, “Working.”

    This post is part of our Group Writing Series under the February 2020 Group Writing Theme: “Advice.” Thanks to all who signed up, filling the month with advice of all sorts. Next month’s theme is “Working;” stop by and sign up now.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #14
  15. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    I have enjoyed this post and the comments since I can relate to the experiences, not directly, but rather as a patron. My son turns 50 this year. He has really never done anything in his life but music since we picked up a guitar for him at a garage sale in 1982. He went to college for a year after high school. It was a disaster. So then we financed a year plus for him in Hollywood at the Musicians Institute. He has played in bands since then. He also plays solo acoustic. He teaches at the School of Rock. He writes songs, music and lyrics. He books gigs. He records and produces CD’s to sell and giveaway. Music is his life’s work and his passion. A portion of my life’s work has been augmenting his ability to pursue his. Life is complicated or not.

    Go Dad

    • #15
  16. Richard O'Shea Coolidge
    Richard O'Shea
    @RichardOShea

    When I was sixteen I was asked to play the piano with a wedding band made up of older (probably in their 40s at the time) musicians.  I probably sat in with them a dozen times or so when their regular piano man couldn’t make it.  Having a Fender Rhodes electric piano, which was slightly more portable than a B3, that I could bring to venues that didn’t have a piano helped keep me in demand.

    Good times.

     

     

    • #16
  17. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    I have enjoyed this post and the comments since I can relate to the experiences, not directly, but rather as a patron. My son turns 50 this year. He has really never done anything in his life but music since we picked up a guitar for him at a garage sale in 1982. He went to college for a year after high school. It was a disaster. So then we financed a year plus for him in Hollywood at the Musicians Institute. He has played in bands since then. He also plays solo acoustic. He teaches at the School of Rock. He writes songs, music and lyrics. He books gigs. He records and produces CD’s to sell and giveaway. Music is his life’s work and his passion. A portion of my life’s work has been augmenting his ability to pursue his. Life is complicated or not.

    Go Dad

    Here’s what I got bobbytmusic.net for my patronage.

    • #17
  18. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    I play in two bands. While I agree with the sentiment I have a couple of bones to pick.

    Many people think that a free meal and or free beer is something they can offer as an incentive for giving  what amounts to meager pay. I understand it’s difficult to pay a band and make money as a restaurant or bar, but I’ve never really been in a position to take advantage of much of either.

    Eating on a gig is a real problem. For anyone who sings, it’s not good. A full stomach cramps your lungs, and you don’t want to activate your salivary glands. Gigs and performances are stressful and eating while stressed or preoccupied isn’t good. I’ve never arrived at a gig so early that all of my preparations and set-up is optimal and I have 20 minutes to spare. Never. 
    After the gig is usually late, everyone is packing up and you also usually have to socialize. And then you have to lift heavy equipment.

    Also I’m normally too pumped-up to have much of an appetite.

    As for drink, I can only drink so much before it affects my playing, and I will have to drive home.

    So … pay the band. Don’t rely on these in-kind perks.

    • #18
  19. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):

    James Hageman: In college I played for a polka band. Nearly every weekend we drove to what must have been every small town in eastern Nebraska, …

    I once heard it claimed that Columbus, Nebraska is the Nashville of Polka music. …

    Having been born and raised less than 25 miles from Columbus, I must say that I’m not so sure about that.  I woke up most non-winter Saturday mornings back in the ’70s and ’80s to the sounds of The Big Joe Polka Show coming from the neighbor’s yard.  So, while I will not comment as to the location of “the Nashville of Polka music,” I will state with much certainty that the epicenter of Polka music in America lies somewhere between Appleton, Prague, and my neighbor’s house.

    • #19
  20. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Bob Thompson (View Comment): He teaches at the School of Rock

    There is not one atom of musical talent in my body. Period.  But I will admit to having done a major part in supporting the local music scene back in the ’90s. By that I mean that a significant portion of my pay check went to keeping many of the establishments that hosted musicians and bands of all caliber (most days of the week) in business…one schooner at a time. (OK, sometimes two.) If you happened to catch Spankin’ Rufus at The Pig and Whistle in the ’94-’95 timeframe you most likely experience[d] the truest magic of live bar room music ever.

    All of that is to say, I have now become a homebody that just longs for the old days of live music.  I also have a teenage daughter with a boyfriend.  It turns out he is enrolled in the School of Rock and I was voluntold that I would be attending their battle of the band performance on a Sunday evening just over a month ago.  To say I was pleasantly surprised would be too much of an understatement.  I was blown away.  Sure, they were kids and many of the vocals were a bit on the weak side and one guitarist was inadvertently doing his best Tony Iommi impersonation but the whole thing honest and very entertaining.  There was one youngster who stepped forward and belted out Bulls on Parade…he owned it and it was awesome. Let’s just say I am now a big fan of The School of Rock. (Oh, it was free and I was still home and in bed by 8:30. Greatness.)

    • #20
  21. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    philo (View Comment):
    There is not one atom of musical talent in my body. Period. But I will admit to having done a major part in supporting the local music scene back in the ’90s.

    Anyone who really appreciates music has musical ability IMO. Music is like language, you can understand but not speak. In order to be a musician you have to develop your ‘tongue’ vocabulary and grammar. Not a perfect analogy, but honestly there are people who have zero talent- they are the ones who can’t appreciate music.

    • #21
  22. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    philo (View Comment):

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):

    James Hageman: In college I played for a polka band. Nearly every weekend we drove to what must have been every small town in eastern Nebraska, …

    I once heard it claimed that Columbus, Nebraska is the Nashville of Polka music. …

    Having been born and raised less than 25 miles from Columbus, I must say that I’m not so sure about that. I woke up most non-winter Saturday mornings back in the ’70s and ’80s to the sounds of The Big Joe Polka Show coming from the neighbor’s yard. So, while I will not comment as to the location of “the Nashville of Polka music,” I will state with much certainty that the epicenter of Polka music in America lies somewhere between Appleton, Prague, and my neighbor’s house.

    I listened to Big Joe on Sunday mornings doing chores. I always liked his sign off, “God bless you until next week.” The claim of Columbus being the Nashville of Polka does seem odd, but apparently a lot of polka records were made there. 

    • #22
  23. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Franco (View Comment):

    philo (View Comment):
    There is not one atom of musical talent in my body. Period. But I will admit to having done a major part in supporting the local music scene back in the ’90s.

    Anyone who really appreciates music has musical ability…

    Well, there are always exceptions…

     

    • #23
  24. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Ray’s dad played accordion in a Philadelphia String Band which performed in the New Year’s Day Mummer’s Parade.  He also had a smaller group that played gigs around the area, and South Jersey, and that was a fair supplement to his day job at the Post Office.  Ray got all his music gig-books, and still sometimes plays and arranges stuff from them.

    I used to play in a piano trio, and we had exactly one paying gig.  We played for the wedding of my best friend’s daughter, and I think we split $100 for that.  The rest of the time, we just played for fun.

    I also played in a string quartet, and we were based out of a Lutheran Church.  We played for some Sunday services, and a few Christmas Eve services.  We did not get paid, and I think we didn’t miss it, we just liked the opportunity to play (and the congregation was very appreciative).

    • #24
  25. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Richard O'Shea (View Comment):
    Having a Fender Rhodes electric piano, which was slightly more portable than a B3,

    Emphasis on slightly. I had the “suitcase” version of the Fender Rhodes: 73-keys with the stereo amp that sat underneath it. Both pieces, along with the refrigerator dolly I purchased to move them up and down stairs, took up the back of a small station wagon.

    (I also had to learn how to tune the Rhodes with tweezers because constantly moving it was knocking the tines out of tune.)

    • #25
  26. Richard O'Shea Coolidge
    Richard O'Shea
    @RichardOShea

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Richard O’Shea (View Comment):
    Having a Fender Rhodes electric piano, which was slightly more portable than a B3,

    Emphasis on slightly. I had the “suitcase” version of the Fender Rhodes: 73-keys with the stereo amp that sat underneath it. Both pieces, along with the refrigerator dolly I purchased to move them up and down stairs, took up the back of a small station wagon.

    (I also had to learn how to tune the Rhodes with tweezers because constantly moving it was knocking the tines out of tune.)

    I had the suitcase version as well. It took two men and a boy to move it

    But I was young then.

    • #26
  27. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Richard O'Shea (View Comment):

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Richard O’Shea (View Comment):
    Having a Fender Rhodes electric piano, which was slightly more portable than a B3,

    Emphasis on slightly. I had the “suitcase” version of the Fender Rhodes: 73-keys with the stereo amp that sat underneath it. Both pieces, along with the refrigerator dolly I purchased to move them up and down stairs, took up the back of a small station wagon.

    (I also had to learn how to tune the Rhodes with tweezers because constantly moving it was knocking the tines out of tune.)

    I had the suitcase version as well. It took two men and a boy to move it

    But I was young then.

    Those were the days, weren’t they?

    • #27