Revisiting the question of money.

I have a confession to make: I still play music for free sometimes. Even when other folks around me are getting paid. And I feel like a hypocrite for saying so, because I’ve posted before that I would never play for free unless the whole event were pro bono, down to the catering and security.

Truth is, my mind is changing. And right now I’m not sure what I believe in with regard to music and money.

If I keep arguing up and down in favor of compensation for every little musical thing I do, I start to feel like money is the only reason I do music. It’s not true, but it becomes the truth. And then practicing becomes a chore, creativity a bother, and learning unnecessary.

I also wonder if all this shouting and soap-boxing is just me covering up the fact that maybe I’m just not that good; if I were good enough to be hire-able, I wouldn’t have to defend my position on being paid. I wouldn’t have to raise my voice about it.

How did I get here?

Just a few days ago, I shared the stage with one of the premiere singer-songwriters of the Detroit area, Emily Rose, at a local watering hole/brewing company. We had prepared a number of duet pieces and lovingly put together a show that formed a surprising symbiosis with the crowd watching the Tigers play the Yankees on TV for the ALCS. Everyone was really supportive, the listeners were great, and Emily and I had a magical time sharing our original  music as well as covers of Loreena McKennitt and Madonna.  People drank beer and made merry. We met each other’s fans. We were applauded up and down, and we played a few encores. Tim Gay, sax player and bandleader of the jazz group Rare Standard, also happily jumped on stage with me to play Sade’s Smooth Operator at the very end.

When the time came to go (just after Valverde took the mound for the Tigers in the 9th inning to nearly throw the game away–but that’s another story), I actually dreaded the moment when I had to talk money with Emily and the manager–not because we didn’t know or trust each other, but just because I didn’t want any conversation about money to disrupt a perfectly beautiful evening. I realized that if money wasn’t involved, I would still be happy and proud for playing well and enjoying the result of all our hard work. I didn’t care about money anymore. Nothing was going to get in the way of me enjoying myself as a musician. I’d written a love song to my husband and sang it directly to him that night, and he loved it. I thought, “THIS is why I write my own music, this is why I collaborate with good people, this is why I practice so hard and memorize everything: for the magic of it.” If it were only about money, none of that would have any value, and I’d go right back to my old cubicle job.

That’s not to say I didn’t get paid, because I did. We did really well, in fact, money-wise. And so did the venue; it was mutually beneficial. But what we were left with at the end wasn’t the cash, but the bubbling-up of possibility in our conversation: We have to do this again; you can come play with me at the next open mic, and I’ll come to your show…be sure to bring your guitar! Yeah!

That warms my heart more than anything. And warming the heart and filling the wallet are two separate things, no matter how hard we try to fit them together or make them synonymous. I have to respect that difference, and when I do, I can have both the warm heart and the full wallet to keep me going.

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3 thoughts on “Revisiting the question of money.

  1. While I completely agree that the real reason we play music and collaborate is for the connections with other people, I also believe in the “dollar vote”, and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. I rarely get paid for a performance, and while I’m one of the lucky ones who can keep up singing anyway, it is disheartening to see how reluctant people are to pay singers and musicians. I think it takes a lot of work, as a performer, to constantly remind yourself that your salary is not reflective of your worth or contribution to society. That said, real salaries for musicians would mean they have the time and resources to contribute in even more worthwhile ways!

    • I totally hear you, Allyson, and thanks for the comments. We’re living in a tricky point in history where no one seems to want to pay for music, and the whole business of music is in a state of flux. And it’s easy for musicians to get discouraged, especially when there are bills to pay. But what I want to do for myself is keep connecting with that fire and passion that has me do what I do, because any time I spend just complaining about other people’s greed is time lost forever. It’s been said that for a rich person to get into heaven it’s like a camel walking through the eye of a needle, but I’ve come to realize that poverty is no cure for that emotional attachment we have to riches, and it’s the attachment that derails me in my musical work more than most things. Monetary riches do follow when I simply focus on my work rather than worry about what other people are doing.

  2. jamiebobamie says:

    People will pay $4 for a cup of coffee, but balk at a cover charge. Doesn’t make sense to me.

    I made my living playing music for a long time. The only time I worked for free was if it was for an organization I really wanted to support, and if it was in a city convenient for my tour schedule.

    This is a popular topic for musicians. I wrote a post about this very thing:

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