The Sacramento Valley is going through a bit of a live music boom as of late. This is a good thing. A healthy music scene has a lot of diversity and a lot of live music to choose from. The downside is that many venues are booked through the end of the year, and many of the gigs that do come up don’t pay very well. What is a fair price to pay for live music, anyway? Allow me to offer a musician’s perspective.
The current state of the music scene in the central valley isn’t just a supply and demand issue. There are a lot of new venues opening up with little or no previous music booking experience. The extremely high failure rate of new small businesses is hardly news to anyone, especially in California. Permits, taxes, employees, insurance, real-estate—there is no end to the expenses and regulations working against you. Hiring out music is just one more expense businesses need to negotiate down to stay afloat.
The thing is, bands are a small business, too. Granted, there are many levels of bands, spanning amateur to professional that are available to hire, but we also have our share of permits, taxes, insurance, real-estate, and people to pay. Even among the professional ranks, it’s common for musicians to have day jobs. If not for maintaining a stable income, at least for health insurance. Sometimes gigs require you to take time off from your day job, and if your day job pays more than the gig, it might not be worth while.
When a band takes a gig, there are a lot of things happening behind the scenes beyond just performing the music. At a typical gig, my bands play three 50 minute sets of music. Let’s break down what goes into making that happen.
When the Bottom Dwellers play three sets of music, we’re usually in charge of doing our own sound. This adds quite a bit of extra time and work. To prepare for a gig like this, we need to account for the time it takes to break down and pack up the PA in our rehearsal space, load the vehicle(s), travel to the venue, unpack, set up, sound check, then try to relax and clean up a little before we perform. These things need to happen in reverse order after the gig as well.
We like to arrive at the venue one hour before the performance time. This usually allows for 10 to 15 minutes of downtime after unloading, setting up, and soundcheck. This means the PA needs to be packed and loaded into the vehicles before hand, which takes about 30 minutes. Depending on travel time, it’s not uncommon for us to meet up two hours before the performance time to get started.
Once the performance is over, everything needs to be packed up, loaded into the car, driven back to the rehearsal space, and unloaded. We typically don’t set up the PA again until the next rehearsal. With drive time, this can take another 60 to 90 minutes out of your day.
When all is said and done, we’re usually looking at a minimum of 6 hours of labor for a typical 3 hour gig. What is this time worth to us? How do we charge for it?
As a rule of thumb, we like to get a minumum of $100 per band member. For 6 hours of labor, that puts you a little over $16/hour per person. That is better than minumum wage in California; however, the expenses of running a band don’t come cheap. As I have previously mentioned, we pay taxes, rent, fuel, insurance premiums, and various other business expenses as well. Another good rule of thumb for a four-piece band is to pay an additional “5th member” to account for these expenses. If you don’t charge $500 for a four-piece band, this takes your $100/per band member down to $80. Still over minimum wage, but not a lot. Also, if you weren’t aware, PA systems, cymbals, bass strings, and guitar amps are extremely expensive things. I personally have about $10k invested in my bass rig alone.
Perhaps you can see why our minimum target fee is over minimum wage. Let me pose another question: Would you expect to still be making minimum wage at a job you have been working over 30 years? Probably not. There is a reason not everyone is a musician. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and a certain level of talent that not everyone has. It is a specialized trade that has an intrinsic value. The Bottom Dwellers rehearse weekly. It takes practice to stay proficient and memorize three or more sets of music, and that work also adds value to the service we offer.
Playing music can be an extremely variable source of income, so you need to make money wherever you can. It’s not unheard of for a band to owe $20 at the end of one night, and make $5,000 for another. I know, because these exact things have happend to us. The trick is to play enough $1k+ gigs to make up for the $200–$400 gigs.
As an artist, there are compromises you can make on your end to make the lower-paying gigs more lucrative, such as not doing your own sound, playing with a back line, playing with fewer members, playing acoustically, or simply playing fewer sets. While many these will take hours of loading and setup time out of the equation, they can result in less than ideal performance conditions.
In the case of the Bottom Dwellers, we like to uphold a certain standard of excellence. Every performance features all four members of our band—no substitutes (we will occasionally add a guest musician that knows the material well). You get exactly the band you paid for. We are well rehearsed, we arrive on time, we load in and set up discreetly, we play on time, we take short, reasonable breaks, and we play until the agreed upon time, even if the catering crew is bussing tables and are the only people left in the audience.
We choose not to make compromises to our lineup or performances. This makes it more difficult for us to accept lower-paying gigs, but any band you hire is going to have stories about owing money at the end of some nights, and walking away with a few grand at the end of others.
There will always be bands willing to take a lower price, but there are often compromises on both sides of the deal. Perhaps now you might have a better understanding of these compromises, and how they can effect the health of the music scene.