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February 1991 - Nightflying Column (Ampside Chat) - Union
by Lee Tomboulian

Musicians: We have to stop victimizing ourselves. We are our own worst enemy. Clubowners and managers aren't really deviants, usually. They are just aware that there's always an unlimited supply of people willing to jump up and down onstage to loud accompaniment, for next to nothing, and in Hollywood, pay-to-play. Of course, there, the stakes are higher, what with the A&R men and woman lurking about, ready to sign you into a higher tax bracket.

However,I know a fine musician who took a job at a local Best Western, five hours a night, thirty dollars a night, five nights a week. So what? Well, Bob Steele told me that he, himself was making fifty bucks a night for the same hours in 1960! What's wrong with this picture?

My gut level response is, some musicians don't take much pride in their work, or else they would do something honorable like temp services. When you do accept ultra-low-paying music jobs, you are, in effect, training club managers to believe that's the going rate for musicians, which is low even if you forget the benefits and percs that other workers enjoy, and the unpaid thousands of hours of practice, equipment, lessons, etc.

I know, it's a right-to-work state, but...

You can die from exposure.

One of the best pianists I know plays piano in a department store for close to eight hours a day, five days a week, six dollars a hour. While I admire the stamina that takes, if I were playing that gig, I can't help but feel my care-per-note ratio would go down, or I'd be tempted to go over passages I muffed the first time. (I don't know how he deals with it, but to me anytime people can hear you, you're not practicing, you're performing, and it's got to be a plainly positive statement, no second tries, a concentrated dose of energy. That's my ideal, God knows I don't live up to it. But I digress.)

I've made five bucks for a night's work, lost money on gigs. Every musician does. I've also had to learn not to pay unnecessary dues, either. Tommy Tedesco, the session guitarist, advises musicians not to take a job unless it's fun, or broadening musically, or has connections, or is lucrative. It has to be one or more of those, or it's hard to justify. It's a judgement call, like whether or not to use an agent.

Yet, we have to work together, co-ordinate our rates. Like Ben Franklin said, we will hang together or we will hang seperately. That's why I advocate joining the American Federation of Musicians (Local #266, P.O. Box 1735, Little Rock, Ar. 72203). Of course, the union can't stop part-time performers from prostrating themselves in front of neighborhood bars for the privelege of singing for their workday peers, for 1960's wages. But if enough professional musicians join, perhaps we can raise them to where they should have been in, say, 1980.

Is that too much to ask?

Happy chipping to us all, until next time.

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