by Christopher Marsceill
There is a great store up the street from my apartment called Mango. They sell this adorable “Philly Girl” shirt, one that can be bought elsewhere around the city, but locally it is a Mango exclusive.
Imagine someone going into Mango and informing, not asking, but informing the staff that he or she needed the shirt yet had no funds in their budget for the shirt. It’s OK, though, because when people saw them wearing the shirt they would know that it was from Mango. The person wearing it would even keep some business cards from Mango handy to give out.
Sounds inappropriate, right? It is something that I deal with multiple times a year as a full-time musician. What is even more amazing is that these requests for free services always come from groups that have members whose yearly income is double what I make as an independent artist.
I am not sure if a monetary value can be put on the training I have had: a couple hundred-thousand dollars of higher education followed by years of performing six days a week in and around New Orleans honing my craft. Add to that a few hours a day I currently spend practicing, composing or arranging new material. Then there is the maintenance on equipment, upkeep on my physical appearance (you gotta look good if you want to get hired), hours – I mean hours – on the phone booking new venues, meeting with potential brides and grooms to help plan their big day, plus dealing with hotels, township offices (if the performance is outside and a variance is needed) – the list goes on and on.
Did I mention that to stay competitive and be able to put bids in for jobs, I need to have the same liability insurance coverage that a caterer or general contractor has? Places like the Highlands Historical in Ft Washington won’t hire me without it, and it isn’t cheap.
A study from 2015 found that the average yearly income of a full-time musician in the United States is around $20,000. I mentioned earlier that, in my experience, those looking for free music are wealthier than I am and always white. When talking to older musicians, I am told that $100/man was considered a fair-paying gig in the early 1960’s. Why then am I fighting to get $150/man in 2017? And remember: $150/ man doesn’t include what I need to put aside for my insurance. And taxes. Don’t forget the tax man. As I said: I am a full-time musician. That also means Uncle Sam gets about 23 percent of what you are paying me. Suddenly a $100 gig becomes $77, which becomes $50 or less once I take care of the insurance bill. I need gas to get to the venue, and that brings us down to $40. Am I performing downtown? If so: parking garages are about $25 or $30 for a weekend night, right? So at the end of the night I may have $15 – $15 for three or four hours of work.
Why then, time and time again, am I approached with “Our group is hiring a few musicians to entertain, but we don’t have music in our budget”? If this is the case then (1) you aren’t hiring musicians at all, and (2) you should focus on what actually is in your budget.
When I am asked for something for free from people who make more in one week than I make in one month is insulting and borders on indentured servitude. What is amazing to me is that when I am asked to perform for groups from lower income areas (i.e., West Parkside Business Association, various community groups in Germantown, Mt. Airy, etc.) my price is never questioned, and a generous tip is almost always included. Why does this issue seem to be native to Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia’s “Garden District”?
Don’t think I don’t do “freebie” gigs. I donate my time and talent to a number of good causes. There are a few children’s charities that I contribute a silent auction item of a performance in your home, and many times I will perform for free at the auction itself. Occasionally, my band mates join me and the auction item becomes a jazz trio for a house party, etc. It always comes back around in the end. A child gets medical bills paid and you get some great music in your house. But asking musicians to play for nothing more than “business card placement” is despicable.
I am a firm believer that live music makes any event more memorable. If you feel the same and don’t “have it in your budget,” then ask your members, friends/neighbors for help. If you have 25 members and they each contribute $20 then you have $500 for music, which –in 2017 – is a fair price for a duo to entertain for three or four hours.
Music for nothing? That’s called stealing.
Christopher Marsceill, aka Rev Chris, is a full-time jazz pianist, vocalist and composer. In 2016 he performed 231 times live in the United States and released an album with his quintet called “@etude.” He can be found at Twitter, @revchristopher and on Facebook at facebook.com/RevChrisMusic. He is an avid blogger writing about the music business and his own vegetarian recipes. His blog is online at www.revchristopher.blogspot.com.