Hello, friends! As a teacher of over 10 years and a musician for 20 years, I feel like I’ve seen nearly all aspects of the business. Teaching, performing, record sales, composing, recording, music videos, YouTube blogs, you name it. As musicians, we can have many different goals for the present and the future. Some of us just want to strum a guitar on the front porch, some of us want to do this for a living and have it be financially successful. It’s the latter group that I want to address. To those of you that have the dedication, patience, talent, and drive to look at music as a possible career and not just a hobby or pastime.
Over the years I’ve discovered a very disturbing truth about being a musician, and it’s something that each of us must face and know how to deal with to be successful. That truth is that musicians are one of the most poorly treated occupations in the country. Don’t believe me? Let me ask you this:
As a musician, be it a teacher or performer, how many times have you been asked to play a show “for exposure” (a.k.a. for nothing)?
How many times have you been asked to play a show for a bar tab or a payment so small it barely covers the cost of gas to the venue?
How many times have you been in a “pay to play” situation, the worst of all? As a teacher how many times have you been asked for a free “trial lesson”?
My guess is you can answer yes to at least one of these questions and much more just like it, and it may have happened to you many times. I know I can answer yes to all the above. Now let me ask you this: Have you ever asked a plumber if they will fix your clogged sink for free and then if they do a good job you’ll pay them next time? Have you ever walked into a restaurant and asked for a free meal and then said if it’s good you’ll tell your friends and help them get exposure? Have you ever gone into a business that was struggling and offered to pay half price since you know they are desperate?
I feel confident you have never done any of these things, as a matter of fact, if you did the response would be anywhere from a smack in the face to a visit from the police! So why is it that musicians get this honor? Why are musicians looked down on in such low regard that the above treatment is common practice where the same treatment to any other profession would be considered incredibly rude? Well, I have a theory…
The stereotypical musician to a lot of people out there is someone barely getting by, desperate for work, etc. Or sometimes people view musicians as hobbyists only that want to have fun and have no real aspirations. These views are so common that I think people who are otherwise very friendly and caring will do business with musicians in a very denigrating way, and they may not even realize they are doing it! The other reason this happens is that musicians themselves can also fall into this mode of thinking and convince themselves that they aren’t worth very much, or that they should play free shows or charge next to nothing for lessons. It’s a vicious cycle that we need to break!
Allow me to share with you a couple short stories that illustrate both points (these are true stories):
A band is contacted to play a fund-raising show/charity auction for a few hundred people at a nice hotel ballroom. After a discussion about the show and the expectations the band gives a quote to the organizer at a discounted rate since it is a charity show. After a pause of silence, the organizer says that they were hoping the band would volunteer their time. The band’s representative then asked:
Are you paying for use of the ballroom? The answer: “yes”
Are you paying the wait staff that are serving the food? “yes”
Are you paying for the food and the cooks to prepare it? “yes”
Are you paying the auctioneer to run the auction? “yes”
The band then responded: “Ok now that we have established that you are paying for literally everyone and everything involved with this show, now let’s talk about what you are paying the band”.
The organizer was shocked, not because of the attitude of the band, but because they clearly hadn’t thought of it this way, they agreed to pay the band their original quote by the end of the call.
Another story about how this mentality can affect musicians as well:
A good friend of mine teaches piano, she is talented and a good teacher, and has played piano since she was a child. She told me one time that she was having a lot of trouble getting people to pay on time, people doing “no call no shows”, not taking their lessons seriously, showing up late or at the wrong time entirely, etc. I was very confused because I rarely run into these problems, and we live within a few miles of each other so I knew it wasn’t because of location. I thought: could it be that guitar students take things more seriously than piano students? That doesn’t make any sense, what could be the difference? Well, I figured it out: She was charging almost nothing for her lessons, about 1/3rd of what I charge. She was doing this because she felt like she couldn’t charge more, that somehow she isn’t worth it. She fell into this thinking that musicians are somehow not worth as much as other professions. By charging so little she attracted people that weren’t serious about their lessons, the casual students that are looking for a deal, not a great teacher. Since I charge what I know I’m worth, I get serious students that treat me with respect and I do the same in return. I love my students! They are my friends and customers, and I do everything I can to make them happy and satisfied with their lessons. However, I also know what my time is worth after 20 years of experience and education, and I feel it’s very important for a variety of reasons to charge that amount.
So what should you do? What is it that I’m suggesting? I’m suggesting that you, as a professional musician, start demanding what you are worth and stand by that decision. Now you may be thinking: if I charge a reasonable rate for teaching I’ll never get students because there are so many teachers out there charging so much less. Or you may be thinking: If my band starts asking to be paid for shows or a higher rate we’ll lose shows to other bands that are willing to play for free!
Sure, those things are possible, but let me ask you this: Do you think the people at Apple are afraid of losing business because they charge more for phones than other companies? Believe me, they aren’t afraid of that at all. They know they have a good product on their hands and they charge what they believe it’s worth, and they can barely keep their phones in stock. Millions of us are willing to pay more for it when we could have gotten a cheaper phone instead. The same goes for teachers, bands, and everyone else! So maybe you will lose a few students with increased prices, odds are high that you will be replacing them with students that are much more serious and dedicated. So maybe your band won’t be able to play the local dive bar anymore because they won’t pay your rate? The nicer resorts, restaurants, private parties, etc. will! So I say demand what you are worth and stop getting taken advantage of!
Now this doesn’t mean you just raise your rates and sit back and expect huge success! Make yourself the best! I don’t mean the most talented musician in town because honestly, that isn’t really necessary. What is necessary however is being the most professional! Have a nice, quiet, spacious, clean, welcoming lesson room. Offer your students an in-depth learning experience that they can’t get anywhere else. Be knowledgeable and able to answer any question, know your stuff! Be that band that is always on time, always dependable, always practiced up, and always a great show. Make yourself different than everyone else, go above and beyond and offer things that other bands or teachers don’t offer. Treat your customers with the utmost respect, treat them like family. Make your band or your business the best it can possibly be and people will come!
This also doesn’t mean you should NEVER take on a free show or a student at a discounted rate. I’ll play a free performance for a cause I truly believe in, but it would be of my own choosing not because I was made to feel like I must. I would be happy to give a discounted lesson rate to a young student without much money if I felt like they had a real passion for music, but again, this is my own choosing, not pressure from someone that doesn’t think I’m worth what I charge. Being a musician is an incredible gift that very few people have. If you are a good teacher on top of that, or a hard-working reliable band, then you are even rarer and valuable.
I hope this inspires you to rethink the structure of your business, band, teaching studio, etc. I can’t guarantee success of course, but it’s hard to imagine a negative outcome from all of us as musicians believing in ourselves and knowing that our profession deserves just as much respect as any other!
Marc Miller is the owner of Sound Theory Studio in Tucson, AZ with 20 years of experience composing and performing, and over 10 years experience teaching guitar. Educated at Berklee College of Music (Master Guitar Certification) with have several albums to his credit in many different genres.