Music

Can Music Pay?

The economic realities of making music in the Valley

Comments (4)
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Bonnie St. Martin photo
Jamie Kent (far right) and The Options

Down at Theodores’ Blues & BBQ, someone’s wearing a porkpie and running a slide up and down acoustic guitar strings. At the Clarion in Northampton, someone else is working the reed on her saxophone. At the Rendezvous in Turners Falls, a drummer is finding a place near the kit to stow his pint.

Most any Friday in the Valley sees musicians of many a stripe tuning up to entertain. Cultural riches like that are the default in every end of our region, and it gives us pretty fine bragging rights. There is, all the same, a worrisome current that runs underneath all that music-making. It comes to light as soon as you turn the equation around. If you’re a music fan, there are good choices awaiting your ears, and good venues all over the Valley where you can hear live music most nights.

If you’re a musician, what’s a good choice versus a bad is a more complicated question. Especially if you want to get paid well—and close to home—for the musical skills it’s taken years to master.

The Valley was good to musicians long before Northampton hipsters got around to emoting in square glasses. Just ask Bill Glenny, who’s been blowing his clarinet around these parts since about the time he came back home to Holyoke from his stint as a guard for the Nuremberg Trials. He remembers fondly the days when a working musician could find a venue to play by taking a short walk through town. One street in Holyoke, Glenny says, had music clubs lining both sides. A player with a musicians’ union card could find a berth in any number of local big bands, and keep a steady schedule of gigs.

Glenny’s told me just how big a scene the Valley then boasted: “There were 53 bands then in Holyoke, all under contract for steady gigs.”

Even so, Glenny said, “You never knew when you’d lose a spot at a club and have to find something new.”

And there’s the rub. Even when musicians had an easier time of it, it wasn’t a cakewalk to make a living through music alone—Glenny worked as a machinist, too. “Making it” in music isn’t easy no matter how you define it. When it’s writ large on the national or international scale, the mechanisms are clear: you tour, and you make money through ticket sales, album sales and placement of songs in film and television.

But what does it mean to “make it” on a more modest scale? How do you make music in the Valley and put enough cash in your pocket? When, as a fan, you visit Theodores’, the Black Sheep Deli or the Iron Horse, how—and how much—are your local musicians getting paid?

Local musician Adam Sweet wants you to know the answers to those questions. “I want to educate the musical people in my community—musicians, families and friends that don’t know that most of the venues in Western Mass.—and other parts of the country also—don’t actually pay bands.”

 

Sweet, who teaches music and is a violinist playing Celtic music, bluegrass, Americana and Eastern European music, has a fairly strict definition of what it means to “pay bands.” He points to the many local variations on compensation, which, he explains, range from giving musicians a meal and/or drinks to passing the hat for tips. Even offering a percentage of door proceeds doesn’t really pass muster, he says: “That’s not pay—can you imagine an electrician or a plumber getting paid with a percentage of the door, or pass the hat? There’s just no way.”

In the Valley of 20 years ago, passing the hat was the subject of frequent ire—many musicians avoided venues like Northampton’s now-defunct Fire & Water, where owner Star Drooker asked patrons to fill a toy dumptruck for musicians. These days, that pay scheme is so common that it’s hard to avoid.

“A lot of the smaller places and coffeeshops in the Valley play pass the hat,” says Sweet. “Before the pass the dumptruck thing, venues paid something. Maybe not a lot, but you’d be paid $50 or $100. You could set up a little tour and you could get paid.”

Why are venues not paying bands through such straightforward arrangements anymore? “Part of it is that they don’t really need to,” says Sweet. “There’s a steady supply of bands willing to play for cover or free beer or whatever they can get. But I think that’s part of the problem. It sort of blocks out the musicians who do this for a living.”

He also has some clearcut opinions about exactly how that equation should work: Sweet pushes for pre-arranged fees and contracts, something that’s harder and harder to come by. It largely keeps him out of local venues. “I don’t even try to book local gigs anymore,” he says. “I don’t even try to book in Worcester or Hartford. It’s like pulling teeth to get them to commit. None of the local venues will put it in writing. You get contracts from institutions.”

Plenty of musicians, of course, play gigs under non-contract terms. Though Sweet would like to see such arrangements die, he says his goal is chiefly to raise awareness among Valley fans of live music. “I just want the customers to know the musicians aren’t being paid, and they can take their money elsewhere if they want. If they know that the jazz band [they saw] wasn’t paid and they had a really good time, and they’re okay with that, well, they should have the choice to be okay with that,” Sweet says. “Most people—if you did a man-on-the-street kind of interview—if they knew that bands are not being paid, that would change things. They can offer to pay the band a tip, talk to the manager and ask them to pay the band. Especially restaurants—they really listen to their regular customers.

“I’m not in this to make a lot of money or to promote myself as somebody important,” says Sweet. “If you left my name out of the article, that would be fine. This is not about me—this is about the community.

“Is music just not valuable in our community any more? That’s the question,” says Sweet. “If you think that it is, shouldn’t you be a part of the solution? Shouldn’t you be voting with your feet and your dollars and your stomach? If you don’t, then okay, but you should be aware that it’s happening.”

In the recent past, Sweet got so fed up with fighting to get paid via contract that he took his battle public.It’s a bold step. “A lot of people don’t want to touch [the pay issue] because it’s politically pretty dangerous,” he says.

Sweet took the booking database he’d been using and he posted in on the Internet, inviting other musicians to help out by posting the pay schemes they encounter. The database—readily viewable at bit.ly/1j7jqKf—is heavy on local and regional venues, but is slowly expanding to include places nationwide.

Sweet went public because he would love to see the elimination of less-than-ideal pay schemes, especially the most extreme variant, often dubbed “pay to play.” At its most severe, that means renting a club instead of booking a gig through more traditional means. Bands often stand to lose money, to truly pay to play. It’s seldom a long-term winning equation for them.

 

One of the largest players in the Valley’s entertainment scene is the Northampton-based Iron Horse Entertainment Group, and for many Valley musicians, IHEG is a favored go-to institution to complain about. IHEG’s payment policies have long been the subject of hearsay and anecdote among musicians, and for years the prevailing story was of policies that smacked of pay-to-play and/or variants thereof. For Sweet and many others, that’s made it the target of particular ire.

“At the Iron Horse, if you’re a local band, relatively unheard of, you can buy the room, buy all the tickets, then sell them to your friends and family and play a gig at the Iron Horse,” says Sweet. He says that a minimum number of ticket sales is required there before a band gets any pay at all.

Former talent buyer for the Iron Horse Jordi Herold, though seldom willing to talk about specific arrangements, was never apologetic about the need to fill seats at the Iron Horse. In his days as talent buyer, he said, “For Christ’s sake, put a couple of hundred people in the room or don’t come talk to me again. I actually do earnestly feel that the bands could step up, could roll up their sleeves and could make that happen.”

These days, John Sanders is IHEG’s talent buyer. He says the reality of current payment policies is not so stark. In response to accusations of “pay to play,” Sanders says, “No, IHEG does not have a ‘pay to play’ policy. Sometimes we will rent the Iron Horse out to a local group or organization to put on a performance in the same way they might rent the World War II club or another local venue. But the notion that a local band must buy tickets is false. When a local band is opening for a national headliner, there is often an incentive built in for them to consign and sell tickets directly to their fans, but there is never a requirement to buy a certain number of tickets. They don’t need to pay in advance for these tickets—they can return any that they were not able to sell.”

Sanders says payment arrangements vary from the ticket-sale model to flat fees, and are based on things like history in the area and which night of the week a show is booked for. “Primarily,” Sanders says, “we try to predict the future: how many people are coming to this show?

“When we book a show with any artist, local or national, we make a deal. We are always trying to make deals that benefit both the venue and the band. Nothing goes forward unless both parties agree. We are partners for this show and, hopefully, more shows in the future.”

Sanders explains that IHEG does ask for a cut of a band’s merchandise sales, and points to an interesting aspect of the ticket-sales model with a threshold that must be achieved to get paid: “This deal structure does happen occasionally and is agreed upon by both parties in advance. If a band knows it can fill the room, this is often the deal that makes them the most money at the end of the day.”

 

IHEG’s variable structures and deal negotiation raise an inevitable question—what responsibilities do venue owners have toward bands? They are not, most of the time, charities, and payment deals have to make money for them, too, in part so they can continue offering bands a stage.

That side of the equation came up in conversation with local musicians Tony Vacca and Jamie Kent, both of whom stitch together an income with the music they make. Vacca and Kent point out that venue owners and musicians have to figure out a mutually beneficial way forward in a tough economic era. They’ve both applied particularly creative thinking to solving the problem of steady income.

Tony Vacca is widely known in the Valley, not only because he’s a busy and talented percussionist who thrives on international collaboration, but also because a large percentage of Valley kids get to learn about West African drumming when Vacca visits their schools. It’s an unusual but fairly reliable source of payment.

“The school thing was a really nice accidental discovery,” Vacca says. “If it’s your thing, if you’re someone like me who enjoys teaching and inspiring young players, it’s great. You will be getting up at 4 a.m. and traveling. I love the challenge, personally. Here are the next wave of young listeners and they have their own set of references that are very different from mine. I don’t play to them, but I play what I do, and see what happens.”

Despite that income source, putting together a living is, Vacca explains, a matter of working many angles at once. “I wish I could say I made a master plan and made it work. I tend to perservere and pursue what I want to do. By virtue of just hanging with it, the good opportunities seem to come up. It’s not often you have an idea and it just opens up and it’s beautiful.”

A large portion of Vacca’s playing happens outside the Valley. It’s a common thread among the most successful working musicians who live here, and underlines the claims made by Sweet. “I would readily jump at the chance to play at the local clubs,” Vacca says. “It’s home! We’re in a mix together—musicians and club owners. If there was more money, I’m sure they’d be, if not generous, fair enough. That’s part of why I don’t play clubs as much any more. I had to concentrate on the question, ‘What do I really want to do most?’ I try to find the way to make it pay well enough. I do a lot of recording with people, and I play a lot of festival gigs, sometimes on my own and sometimes with others. You can make it, but not if you only stay right here—it comes over time.”

That said, for Sweet, Vacca and Kent, the best gigs in the Valley are clear: colleges and other institutions. “They offer solid, good pay at a pay scale that allows you to do it right,” says Vacca. “I love that!”

A portion of Vacca’s equation is soundtrack work, another common thread with Kent. All those threads—school workshops, recording, gigs at home and far away, and soundtracks—have to be pursued and maintained, Vacca says. “If you don’t have it all working, it gets shaky in a minute,” he says. “It’s a challenge, and it really can be grinding and harsh, especially if you are a band that’s looking to open doors into the big range of popular music.”

When potential newcomers inquire about moving here, Vacca says he tells them two things. “The good news is you’re going to love it here. This is a great place to be a performer. But can you have the whole career here? I’m rooting for you, but I’m not betting on that.”

 

Though they have a lot in common in how they pursue making a living, Jamie Kent is, on paper, quite different from Vacca. Vacca’s seen the challenges of making a musical career here change over decades. Kent graduated from college just a few years ago, and is a relative newcomer. He is a dynamic, unusually self-possessed performer who plays original acoustic-based pop.

For older musicians, there has been an inevitable adjustment to new realities and new financial models. Kent has only experienced those harsher new realities. “I realize that bands aren’t getting paid what they were 30 years ago,” Kent says. “At the same time, there’s the issue of supply and demand—there are a ton more bands than there were before. If somebody doesn’t want to play, there are plenty of others lined up to do it, for better or worse. I had to let go of that bitterness a while back.”

“I see the venue owners’ standpoint as well—everybody needs it to work. A lot of people assume, ‘I’m gonna go out and play and people should pay me for that.’ To make money, you have to be creative,” he says. “Music is a passion career. People know that, and they play off that. If you really want to make a career out of what you love, you have to do things differently. I pride myself in doing that.”

For Kent, that involves playing around 200 shows per year, most of them outside the Valley. “The Valley is tough if you’re looking to get paid,” says Kent. “There aren’t many bar gigs around the Valley. There are more in the Springfield area—but there’s literally none in Northampton. They’re all door deals. I can do one show per quarter here and still make it. If you’re from this area, you have to be willing to travel.”

Kent also gets a fair portion of his income from licensing deals for things like TV shows. To aid his efforts as well as those of other young Valley musicians, Kent started the Collective Music Group. That group of performers is in the business of finding new ways to share fans and spread interest, all for the greater good of all its members and their careers.

It’s a startlingly innovative idea, and one which directly addresses the current realities without looking back. The Collective began as Kent’s own unusual undertaking, in which he empowered his fans to invest in and vote on aspects of his career. “My end goal is to have a record label that educates musicians on how to manage their own careers. I’d like to even have the label itself funded through the Collective. I need to get a lot bigger myself before that happens.”

He’s probably got a better shot than most, thanks to his unusually farsighted approach—instead of studying music at Berklee, Kent attended Babson College, where he studied entrepreneurship.

 

After the music dies down on a Friday night, the brass tacks part of the evening takes place. At The Elevens, it used to happen when the late night/early morning floor sweeping began. Bleary-eyed musicians, sometimes hours after their 45 minutes on the stage, would await the money-counting. Sometimes it was barely enough to justify the wait, and sometimes it was a pile of cash.

That reality still reigns. After the guitars are packed away and the cymbal stands broken down, the lot of musicians comes down to the hard question of dollars. For Adam Sweet and others, the dwindling of payment has meant staying home and relying on other employment. The musicians who persevere, like Vacca and Kent, face a tough and ever-changing business that only yields dividends with unusual thinking and endless pursuit of new ways to put money in the bank. Even in a Valley known for its love of the arts.•

Comments (4)
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This article doesn't mention the many Open Stage nights where musicians sign up to play a few tunes for no pay. The venue gets a night of free music and fills the room with eating and/or drinking money spending fans of those who come to play. The performer gets "exposure". You could die from exposure.

Posted by Diane Sanabria on 6.13.14 at 1:15

The overarching factor is the Napster-originated and Pandora/Spotify - engendered mentality that expects that music should be free. A whole generation is now in place that sees that as the norm. It was never easy around here but now it's pretty much impossible. Although I've lived in WMass my entire adult life, I've spent the majority of my performing career playing outside the area... it's never been worth it here - unfortunate for me because there's a lot of players I simply don't know, and who don't know me, because I was never part of the local scene....couldn't afford it.

Posted by Chris Devine on 6.13.14 at 13:30

The Iron Horse is pay-to-play for local musicians. Sweet's assessment is accurate. An act is required to buy and sell the tickets and the act gets paid out of that...and not as much as the act made in ticket sales. In other words, you lose money for the opportunity to play there - an opportunity that yields nothing because this isn't exactly L.A. where there are people scouting for talent in the audience. The audience is simply getting hammered on medicore brew on your dime. The end.

Posted by Mike Trenna on 6.17.14 at 8:50

One time I did a cofee house gig with a 14-piece Jazz orchestra and they stuck us in the back next to the can and as we were playing the Paul Anka arrangement of Summer In The City some dude dropped a deuce on the floor in front of us because he couldn't get the door to the can open fast enough. Kinda gnarly. So the owner gave us a free cup of coffee for the inconvenience, but just one cup for the whole band (one single cup). He made us share the cup while repeating his chant "no free rides, buddy...no free rides..." The oboeist was so pissed.

Posted by Roger Saloon on 6.17.14 at 14:32
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