What I’m Worth vs. What I Can Get

Bassist performing on stage

Q: I’ve been thinking about the amount of time I have spent honing my craft in comparison to the money I tend to make, and then comparing that with other working professions. Honestly, I feel like I’m getting cheated. How do I demand to make what I’m worth, as compared to other professionals (doctors for example), but still get the gig over someone who might do it for half as much.

A: The short answer? You don’t, or you study up on business and marketing and create your own “money-making machine”-type band.

Many may disagree with the perspective that I’m about to offer. This is only my perspective and I welcome further discussion in the comments.

To compare your hourly wage to that of a doctor, attorney, or even electrician or plumber, and feel cheated is folly. Apples and cinder blocks, my friend.

Compare yourself instead to poets and oil painters. A select few make a fantastic living, most are poor, and the very determined (and possibly lucky) can live in the middle.

Doctors are paid well because we absolutely NEED them and when we need them, we prefer them to be very good at what they do. Attorneys are paid well because almost none of us can understand the intricacies of the law well enough to successfully represent ourselves in court, let alone know how to strong-arm an insurance company into making good on a payout (or something).

They are necessary professions in a society and we want them to be very well trained. Our education system is also very much a for-profit system, therefore it’s very expensive to get the degrees required to become anything that almost ensures that you’ll have a solid paycheck after you graduate. Those folks often graduate a quarter of a million dollars in debt.

You don’t need any schooling to make art, just vision and hours of practice.

And the blunt fact is: We’re musicians. Sure, on some level, cultures require the existence of art of all kinds, but, they kind of don’t really.

Creative people are going to create regardless. Art will always be there. Sure, people will pay more for very good art, whether it’s music, paintings, the written word, dance, photography. But, there is a never-ending supply of creative people making things for the love of that thing (thankfully). And most of them are happy to share it with the world and get whatever they get.

Why?

Because they are making that thing for the love of that thing and that is the best reason to get into an art form because you can’t imagine your life without it.

Do you really think anybody grew up yearning to specialize in prosecuting or defending criminals in court? A passion for injury law? Working in an ER? Plumbing?

Sure, some people are naturally drawn to serve their communities in whatever capacity they can (ie: whichever way which aligns with there personal strengths and abilities). And most people just try and find something that (at least) loosely aligns with their interests when figuring out how to make a living but, for the most part, people go into a profession because they want a solid and dependable income and they feel like, with whatever they have going for or against them, a particular path towards a career in ‘X’ makes the most sense. It’s usually primarily a financial decision.

Anybody that goes into the arts for financial security is a fool.

As an artist, you are:

  1. Guaranteed absolutely nothing for your art, no matter how talented you think you are.
  2. Highly replaceable (there are a million folks in line after you happy to do it for less)
  3. Basically spending your life unemployed, hustling for gigs every week. You have zero guaranteed workdays per year. Every year.

You ever hear of an actor buddy or friend of a friend who takes off to move to LA, get a job for the time being, and try to break into the movies? You know how almost everybody thinks, “holy crap… good luck with that. I mean, you were good in that high school play but, I hope you like bartending.”

Yeah, that’s also you as a musician! In every city or small town in the world.

We all went into music for the love of music. Personally, I couldn’t think of anything else that came close when deciding what path to choose.

And what happened next? We notice our friends, who got real jobs, start to have nicer cars, buying houses, etc. And we start to get bitter that we aren’t as well compensated (or even in the same ballpark) even though we probably worked even harder. We might even be way better at our thing than they are at theirs, but they make 3x as much money?!?!

You know what? That’s on YOU! I chose this path because I wanted to love what I did more than I cared about making sure I made six figures every year. When I got older and noticed some friends having nicer stuff, I thought about it and doubled down on the decision. I’ve never regretted it. What I did do was work my ass off and made as much of a career as I could but I still take the crappy paying gigs with the good, I still play gigs I don’t really want to play and teach lessons I don’t really want to teach as a compromise to keep my income from falling below a certain level. I’ve determined how much I’ll compromise my “art” for the sake of income and I know where my lines are drawn. I also know that I’ll likely never make $200k/year. I’m ok with that. I’ve made it to middle-class freelance musician, I love my life, and I’m not working 8-6 in a cubicle. I feel like I’ve won the lottery in contrast to that life.

I’ve been on tours where we’re making very good money per day and folks will still complain about the size of their hotel room. I’ve been on tours where we alternate who gets a hotel room and who sleeps in the van with the gear and everyone feels and acts like their living their best dream.

So much of your level of enjoyment or disappointment has nothing to do with anything other than your own way of seeing the world. If you only look at what you don’t have, you’ll never be satisfied. If you only ever feel content because you don’t want for anything, you’ll likely never move beyond where you are (although, at least you’ll be happier in general). Most successful AND happy (not or) find a sweet spot.

Finding joy and satisfaction with what they’ve achieved and where they are in their lives while also being aware that the path continues and, with hard work comes well earned rewards.

For example, love your apartment and be thankful that you have a roof over your head, but also think about how you might manifest enough money saved to put a down payment on a house of your own
.
That kind of thinking both leaves you feeling joyful and also motivates you to work towards that next level.

Back to your point, I’ve been on countless gigs where somebody says, “yeah, but if you think of the money and add in the prep time for the gig, driving, soundcheck, etc., it’s really minimum wage!”

I usually roll my eyes (on the inside). Really? Somebody is paying you $400 to play a short cocktail jazz set, and two short dance sets at an event and you’re going to complain that it’s a minimum wage for maybe 3 hours of actual music making? That kind of thinking leads to one who is never happy, never satisfied, and can’t even enjoy what it is that they are doing (likely because that type of personality tends to only find what is wrong with every situation as opposed to what is right).

When I do those gigs, I’m usually thinking, “nice… making $400 to play a few standards and groove hard on some top 40 for a few hours. It doesn’t get any easier than this (and it’s actually fun music) AND we get dinner… nice!”

End of the day, we both made $400 but I left feeling great and thankful that I could make that kind of money For playing bass (it does not work, I enjoy it too much) on a local gig while the other person went home feeling cheated and under-appreciated.

It’s all in the perspective. Look for what is right as well, if you find yourself focusing on what is wrong. It might help you balance the scales a little bit emotionally.

Also, keep in mind why you play music.

Did you really get into it because it was the path to financial security of any kind? No….

Do you regret that you didn’t prioritize a stable career? Maybe, it’s not too late! Evaluate if you’d rather have a solid career as an ‘anything you could realistically manifest’ as opposed to be a musician and get where you get with the money thing.

Go back to school? Do it! Just be honest with yourself about what your goals are for your life and make decisions based on those goals. Is music a passion but you just can’t take being broke half the time? Focus on a different career and do the weekend warrior thing! I know a ton of folks who are fantastic players, have real jobs with real incomes, and simply play in a band or two that only operates on the weekends… best of both worlds for some people!

I find that when we look at the world through the lens of how we think it should be as opposed to how it really is, there is a much greater likelihood for frustration and disappointment.

90% of the musicians in the world don’t make incredible money.

Thems not great odds.

Why then are you so surprised that you’re not as financially comfortable as your friend the general contractor or the graphic designer at Nike.

Did you think that, just because you got really good, that you’d automatically make fantastic money? When has that ever been the case with artists? Most artists we know from the past died broke and got famous posthumously. Most freelance bass players on bigger tours make a small fraction of what the actual artist makes, and they’re still unemployed and hustling in between tours. Middle-class musicians are few and far between. The odds aren’t great and, if you thought that they were, I’ve no idea where that notion came from.

I really don’t mean to give a negative spin on this whole thing but.. we have to try and be hopeful, but realistic. We have to strive for more, but be thankful for what we have. To compare yourself to a doctor and feel cheated is irrational and just plain jealous thinking. It doesn’t make sense. They chose the path that led through torturous years of continued education, years of studying harder than most any of us have ever practiced, unimaginable debt, and a job that consumes much of their waking lives while many of us spent years partying and playing with friends with a few spurts of dedicated practice in there, work part time at a coffee shop and work playing music for maybe 5-15 hours per week (not speaking for everyone here of course). We also like to sleep until, whenever.

There is no comparison. Even if you’re the hardest practicing and gigging bass player out there. You know why? Because you LOVE what you do, theoretically. And if you love what you do, it’s not even really work.

Sure some doctors love being doctors but the vast majority do it for a number of reasons beyond “it’s my passion and reason for being.”

If you went into music for any other reason, you may have chosen poorly.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

Get Ask Damian Erskine in your inbox.

Don’t miss an Ask Damian column. Sign up for email alerts (every Wednesday).

Leave a Reply to Rob Crumrine Cancel reply

  1. well said Damian….sometimes you have to work at both types of jobs (musician and…) to be able to create your art (finance your albums for example) Sometimes you have to be both a musician and something else to be able to play music…I know, I do both…and sometimes it can be very challenging…but I make it work…because I must play music and create and I must pay my bills…both parts of life are at times necessary and there is no crying about it…if you want to be a good bassist you must practice if you want to make money sometimes you have to have a day job…either way its a choice… and you only get one life…live it well….

    • Ralph Harris

      You say that your comments are true “In every city or small town in the world”. This may be true for the USA, but I’ve been to other countries where musicians are respected and appreciated and can make a decent living within the context of their society. Not getting rich, but they can raise their family.

      • Damian Erskine

        Artists certainly get more respect and are better supported in many other countries, true. But the point still kind of stands. One can make a nice living here in the US as well, but nothing is guaranteed & the successes are often more a matter of business acumen than inherent ability

  2. Rob Crumrine

    I totally agree Damian. I often tell people that “if money were no object, I would do nothing but play music, because that’s what I’m passionate about! But, unfortunately, I have this addiction to food and shelter…..”

    At any rate, we all have to do what we have to do. It all comes down to how you define success for yourself. No one can do that for you – nor should you allow them to!! As Laurence Hutton once said “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.”

  3. Christian DeFalco

    Wow. I love this. If you aren’t doing it because you love it you’ll never be satisfied.

  4. Len Mongeau

    I agree with Damian. The guy at the 7-11 makes more then we do. When I first studied with a Berklee Professor he told me to get a job that keeps you alive, then try to enjoy gigging.

  5. David Desmond

    As they say “Don’t quit your day job”

  6. Great article, bang on the money. Pardon the pun!

  7. Stacey

    Thank you for making this so crystal clear, Damian. I wish universities would do the same.