So, last night’s Filthy Spectacula debut gig was pretty darn good performance-wise, though I say so myself. We certainly did a decent job of getting the crowd – previously fairly reserved, though energetic for the act immediately after us – jigging, cossack dancing, toasting and generally making almost as big and sweaty fools of themselves as us. And I think there was only one point where it was obvious I’d got a couple of bars out with the rest of the band …
We also managed to make £120 out of it, which if you’re not familiar with this world is a lot to get out of one set as an originals band. However, the fact that it also happens to be about the going rate for one orchestral pro musician for a concert set me thinking about contrasting income rates in different kinds of music, and some of the likely conclusions look fairly bizarre.
So, sticking to gigging bands for a minute. The higher pay is generally around for covers, function/party bands and tribute acts. Granted they probably play longer sets, but they certainly put in less creative effort than originals-focussed groups. Whether it’s actually easier, or more difficult, to write your own material or learn someone else’s more or less note-for-note is a decidedly equivocal area and I think it must depend on the musician(s) concerned; either way I’ll leave it on one side. What’s evident is that unless you rise very high in the profession, beyond the jobbing musician level entirely, there is effectively a premium on non-creativity. If you write your own stuff, you largely play for the fun of it. If you need or want money out of music, you’re going to have to do stuff that’s popular in a fairly slavish way and obey the whims of the audience.
So far, so reasonably clear, and perhaps not surprising. (Few covers or function bands would be realistically likely to write better songs than Chuck Berry or the Stones, and would presumably not play them quite as well if they had to give more practice time over to writing and arranging.) But where it gets really interesting is if you throw in classical music work.
At almost the bottom end of the orchestral scale, I can get a fee for a concert that is similar to what a good-ish function band might be getting per head for a couple of hours’ entertainment – on New Year’s Eve when prices are up by something like 50%. But it’s not so much that that is striking. Classical concerts are long compared to a lot of band gigs, 90 minutes to two hours of music because (a) there’s only ever one orchestra on the bill and (b) there isn’t backchat between items in the same way – or as much time spent getting on and off and changing things around.
The more important thing is how much unseen work is involved. A gigging band, whether function or originals, is likely to be rehearsing once a week, for a couple of hours or so, to play maybe once a week but for an originals band more likely once or twice a month. If you’re gigging much more than that you’re probably rehearsing more often too. And there will have been an initial build-up period, quite possibly months, of learning repertoire, gelling, getting things ready for the off. So whichever way you cut it, you’re looking at non-classical musicians doing maybe 4 or 6 hours’ rehearsal per hour of gigging, on an ongoing basis, which certainly changes the apparent pay scales.
Most of the classical one-off / dep jobs I do (or even see advertised) have rehearsal on the day only. Probably about 3 hours, though I’ve done less. In other words, at most twice the amount of performance time spent in rehearsal. Admittedly, it’s advisable to have some familiarity with the music before showing up, but it’s fairly rare for practice parts to actually be sent out, and conversely most gigging musicians will spend time away from practices learning songs and parts or tying down what they’re going to do in a new original.
I’m not for a moment suggesting classical musicians are overpaid. I would be willing to suggest that non-classical ones (always thinking of the ‘blue collar’ level, not U2) are generally underpaid. But the whole situation smacks more of being a bad example of free-market economics. There are a lot more competent gigging vocalists and drummers out there than there are competent orchestral bassoonists and violists. Scarcity keeps classical freelance pay high while so many bands have come to accept barely covering their costs that it can be extremely difficult to get any more. Most organisers, in a still-slow economy and a particularly grim period for getting people out of their homes to events of any sort, will probably hire a mediocre band for half the price rather than a really good one for double. It may be a false economy, but it’s an understandable one. The real oddity, of course, is that most people who get paid anything for classical music have taken some form of it up by the age of 12 – and not given up entirely in between, though it’s by no means a given that they’ve pursued academic music, conservatoire training, etc. Guitarists who started at 16 or 20 are fairly common, but seemingly by their teens most people have developed a horror of both the sound of classical music and the idea of reading dots (which is very odd when you think about it). The result is a selection for people with more self-discipline, richer or pushier parents, and quite possibly less adequate social lives, during the ages about 8-21, to be probably able to monetise their musical ability rather more lucratively.
I’m playing devil’s advocate to some extent of course. Classical musicians are partly paid good wages for one rehearsal and a concert because they are expected to be at performance standard after a couple of hours rehearsing. There is a technique to sight-reading and performing well at little more than second reading, and I don’t think it’s inherently inferior to playing confidently and reliably from memory, though video evidence of myself shows removing the ever-present music stand can make a musician much more engaging to watch and hear and I passively accept the prevalent gigging prejudice against having written prompts of any kind on stage as a result. Nonetheless there’s more to this whole situation than original creative people getting paid better than derivative guitar-thumpers.