According to the United States Department of Labor, there were over 175,000 working musicians in 2010 in this country, and that number was expected to increase 10% over the following decade. The median pay was $22.39 an hour. Not bad, huh?
As a musician, I can attest that it's not an easy way to make a living. There are so many variables to contend with, and any job is pretty much considered temporary. However, if you have either chosen to make a living playing your instrument or you're just a weekend warrior, there are several things that you can do to ensure that you will continue to get work and tap into some of that healthy income.
We all put a lot of time, heart and soul into our chosen craft. As a musician the most important thing for us is that we get to play. But in order to get paid for what you love to do, there are many more factors to consider.
Below are some crucial yet simple guidelines to follow as an individual if you want to play in a band, make money and get consistent work.
1. Treat it like a job
Playing music is fun. It really is. There are people that can play an instrument or sing, and then there's everybody else that wishes they could. We are among an elite and selected group of the population. That's a really cool thing. If you're lucky enough to do something you enjoy AND get paid for it, you are living life the way everyone else wants to. And even though you're not punching a clock or sequestered in a cubicle, it's still a job...and it needs to be treated like one.
As with any service you render where you are provided compensation, you are under the scrutiny of your employer. Playing in a band is no exception - and it may be even more intensified than an office position. Whether you know it or not, club owners and managers are paying attention to your behavior much more than your level of skill.
Your band is hired for one primary reason - to draw customers into their establishment that will spend money on drinks. Running a club/bar/restaurant is a business just like any other. They are in it to make money. Your band has been hired in hopes that you will entertain people enough so that they stay and drink.
You're an amazing guitar player? Fantastic. It doesn't really matter. There are lots of great players of all instruments. Everywhere. All that matters to the person that hired you is what the numbers look like at the end of the night. It's not personal. You may be a virtuoso with your instrument. That's really cool, but the truth is that club owners and managers don't care all that much. They want a group of musicians that are good at their job, are easy to work with and will keep people in the room spending money. (Check out this excellent article from the club owner's point of view.)
So have fun. That's actually part of your job. The more fun you have, the more fun the crowd will have, and that gets them drinking. But always know that you are providing a service that an employer is trusting you enough with that he is willing to give you cash. It's a job. Treat it like one.
2. Be on time
This should be a fundamental practice for any job, but it's important to point out here. There are so many different things that can go wrong at a gig and you don't want to add to the possibilities by being late. A lot of people are counting on you. Not just the band, but everyone working at the venue is following a schedule - especially in bigger clubs where breaks need to be given for the staff. If you're late for the gig or late to the stage you will throw off the whole night for your employer, and that will reflect negatively on the entire band. A good practice is to be five or ten minutes early...especially to the stage. If the band goes on at 9:00, you should be on stage no later than 8:55 to make sure you're in tune, or settled in your spot, and you're ready to start playing at the proper time.
3. Learn (and remember) people's names
This is tough for a lot of people, but it goes a long way if you can make it a practice.
Anyone and everyone that is working in the venue while you're playing is an equally important part of the machine that is running a business. Don't think that you're above the doorman, bartender or even the janitor. Everyone is there to do a job - just as you are. They will almost always appreciate when you extend an introduction and treat them with respect. These are also the only people that have to be there and are forced to listen to your band whether they want to or not. So in addition to being a good player, you want to be a cool person.
I know people have a difficult time remembering names. I used to be among that group until I simply made it a priority. My little trick is as soon as they tell me their name, I repeat it back. If I continue in the conversation for at least another minute, I'll address them by their name again. When I leave the conversation, I'll say something like "Nice meeting you" and repeat their name once more. That usually helps me to remember it for the rest of the night and beyond.
Everybody wants to be recognized and feel that they matter, so when you as a musician take the time and care enough to acknowledge someone by name, they feel respected by you and usually will respond in kind.
4. Be polite to everybody
This is another fundamental policy to follow throughout life, but especially important at your gig. Bartenders, shot girls, doormen, barbacks, security, management etc. all talk to each other. If they like your band but one member was impatient about getting a beer and took it out on the bartender, everyone will hear about it and your band probably won't get booked at that venue anymore. You don't want to be the person to screw things up for everyone else. Shake hands, smile, and be cool to everyone.
5. Tip your bartenders
This is a valuable practice that will earn you and your band major points with the staff. The bartender has the most important job in the venue. They are the people that are at the center of the cash flow. And guess what? They don't usually make much of an hourly wage...if any at all. They rely heavily on tips to bring home a decent night's pay. Quite often, the tips are not only split between all of the bartenders, but they also have to cut in the doormen and/or other members of the staff. So that paltry 50 cents that you gave as a tip for your beer has to be split among several people.
If you like to drink at your gig, chances are you will make several trips to the bar since you'll be there the whole night. I make it a habit to always give more than just the standard buck each time I order something - regardless of whether my beer cost $2.50 or $6.75. Not only does this help ensure that the staff makes some money, but it also benefits me the next time I want a drink.
When you walk up to the bar, even if they don't look directly at you, the bartender sees you and knows why you're there. If you've previously given a good tip, 9 times out of 10 the bartender will make it a priority to serve you. They know that you are doing a job too, and they want to work with you.
This is especially advantageous when the bar is really busy. You'll get bumped to the head of the line if you consistently tip well. Even if you don't get served right away, don't ever get visibly annoyed. You want the bar to be busy. That's money that is eventually going in your pocket.
It also doesn't hurt to buy the bartender a drink once in a while. If you like to do shots, buy one for yourself and one for your server. Bartenders and musicians are probably the only two jobs in which you're not only allowed to drink, but you're encouraged to drink. You can establish a priceless rapport with the staff when you make the effort to be generous. The reward will far outweigh the cost of the drink.
6. Drink responsibly
As mentioned above, being a musician is one of the very few professions in which you're allowed to drink alcohol at work. It's easy to understand how one could get carried away with this privilege...and often times, people do. If you want to continue to get hired as a working musician, it's essential to drink in moderation.
This isn't to say that you can't get a healthy buzz and have fun. But if you're playing or singing is compromised by downing too many shots, if you get sloppy on stage, become rude to staff or patrons, or get so hammered that you get sick, then you will quickly get a reputation as someone who is unreliable.
So the best approach is to know yourself, your body and level of tolerance. If you can, eat a decent meal before your gig, and pace yourself properly throughout the night. When the gig is over, it's okay to pound a couple down if you want to, but just realize that even though you're done playing, you're still "at work" and you can still do damage to your reputation by going overboard.
7. Realize you are on stage and people are watching your every move
All too often I'll either be playing in a band or watching a group on stage and someone in the band is texting on their phone, or turning their back to the crowd, or just looking generally miserable.