Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Paying Dues Evermore

Of late, I've been paying more attention to Craig's List than I should. Ostensibly, I'm fishing for new gigs for me & the boys, or new likeminded bands to network with, but --if I'm completely honest-- I'm largely in it for the bickering.

Having children has made me highly-attuned to the tiniest hint of tension, and constantly ready to spring into action as arbiter for any petty conflict that reaches my ears. And when I'm not embroiled in true childish argument, I fill the aching void with the next best thing: reading the semi-materialized gripes of my fellow struggling musicians.

Of late, their bloods been a-boilin' over what they perceive to be the weedlike creep of open stages across the Portland music scene. Here are some actual caricatures to present the rabble-rabble arguments of those opposed:

CARICATURE #1: Rabble-rabble! Those durn venue owners and their confounded open stages! Tarnation! They're getting music fer free and makin' musicians pay for beer to boot!

CARICATURE #2: Rabble-rabble! You fool sucker musicians playing these open stages are ruining our tenuous grip on the market. BOYCOTT OPEN STAGES! Insist on fair pay for all musicians! Living wage! Unionize!

False, false, false, and false, sirs.

Look, I'd love to make my living from playing. I'm passionate about it, I'm dedicated, and I'm skilled, but get real. An attempted career in music has an arc. There is a ladder, and the bottom rungs exist to position you for your ascent.

  • Learn your instrument(s)
  • Learn to play with others
  • Write something
  • Learn to play in public (here's where open stages come in)
  • Improve
  • Book a gig
  • Attract some fans
  • Improve
  • Make an album
  • Book bigger gigs
  • Attract the notice of the press
  • Improve
  • repeat, repeat, repeat, or so I've been told

Being an aspiring musician is more like being an aspiring astronaut than being an aspiring accountant. You've got to work as hard as you can, take advantage of every opportunity, distinguish yourself at every step and still come to grips with the fact that you will probably not make the final cut despite your dedication and deservedly-hard work. In all likelihood, you will find yourself resting breathless on a middle rung, still looking upward, still paying dues --too committed to quit, but so very far away from success.

Oh, and incidentally, open stages aren't generally free to the venues. 90% of the time, this off-night event is hosted by a professional musician who is getting paid. It's possible I know this for a fact.

Now, do some venues seek that bottom rung population? Yes. There are venues with only open stage nights. There are venues that book artists to play for tips only. But there are times where that is the right opportunity. If your band is comfortable playing open stages, you've got to move on to full-night sets. And tips-only gigs may be your next step up. Take full advantage of them. You need video. You need live recordings. You need new fans. You need a list of places you've played to help convice bigger venues that you know what you're doing.

Great musicians can find places to play. I'm not even great, and I've had no trouble landing small paying gigs within a month of re-entering the scene. But I still like hitting open stages to meet other musicians and to tune up new material. Boycott, shmoycott. If you want a living wage, go do something that has an unsaturated market value. There are fewer people who can effectively use apostrophes than can get up on stage and belt out the old sing-songs. I hate to break it to you, but this is a quixotic dreamer's life, destined for failure, but unrelentingly tantalizing to those that're bit.

The fact of the matter is that there are literally 10,000 bands who are failing more effectively than me.

The fact of the matter is I'm way better than 100,000 bands who are failing worse than me.

The fact of the matter is no one reading this post will make it big.

The fact of the matter is, we all deserve our shot.