You Bet Your Bottom Dollar

We've all seen the bumper sticker Real Musicians Have Day Jobs. A song tells us, Keep your day job/'til your night job pays (Day Job by the Grateful Dead),

We've all seen the bumper sticker “Real Musicians Have Day Jobs.” A song tells us, “Keep your day job/'til your night job pays” (“Day Job” by the Grateful Dead), and a poet laments, “Though the treasures of Babylon flow from your Muse,/even so you're late with your rent check.”

Okay, so I'm not much of a poet, but the idea is clear: singing for your supper doesn't work as well nowadays as it did for Chaucer's road show. Making your nut as an independent musician — or even something closely related — is tough. Some musicians make a living in the commercial sector, but those trying to present an artistic vision of almost any sort have a very hard time finding gigs that pay much.


One reason is that the nature of earning from both performances and recordings is changing. There has been a precipitous decline in venues offering live music. Depending on your viewpoint, there is a case to be made for a DJ being a live musical performer, but there is a qualitative difference between the feeling I get from a DJ and that I get from a live band. Perhaps it has to do with band members generating the source material while interacting with each other in real time. But I digress.

The old business model for earning money from recordings has all but crumbled, and the new one is not fully formed. With all the “free” music going around, marketing music for sale is a whole different challenge from before.

But I believe there's another underlying problem (at least in the USA; having lived in only one country, I can't speak for the rest of the world), which has been at work for many years now: music is often seen as not having fiscal worth. In commercial gigs, the value of music is tangible: a jingle for this ad, a score for that TV show. But value of the “pure” musician's work is not so easily measured. The payoff is much more subtle; it is in the emotional and ritual function music plays in a culture, the experience it presents to a listener. Music can weave spells, work magic, transport people, change lives. Yet a band charging a seven-dollar cover agonizes over whether it's scaring people away by asking so much — so how much is life transformation really worth?

For local performing bands, gig income often is proportional to the amount of alcohol people consume. As much as I like a good drink, there's still the moral dilemma of feeling like I'm promoting alcoholism in order to earn a living as a musician!

Most gigs, across many genres, simply aren't very profitable. But the fallout from this fact makes things worse. With lots of hungry musicians out there, lowballing drives prices even further down. When musicians are making little money, studios and other services associated with musicians also feel the pinch and fall prey to lowballing, too. May the Good Dog keep me from owning a studio where I have to buy the latest widgets to attract clients who want to pay less than the starving studio across town charges.

So, many of us toil at day jobs of varying quality and try to keep mustering enough energy on evenings and weekends to keep playing music, even though it leaves us with no life and screws up romantic relationships. It's a pretty ugly reality: frustrating, demoralizing, and brutal. Given all the other rigors associated with the musician's lifestyle, especially in performing, it is, tragically, not surprising that so many people get chewed up, burnt out, bitter, or just worn to a frazzle trying to make money from music over a number of years.

The situation is so deeply entrenched that I've never seen a way through it. The only solution I can see is to try and find ways around the problem: clever alternative approaches and niche markets that may not make you rich but might earn enough to provide a decent living.

Good luck making your night job pay.