The stage lights dim. The club is full. Band members take their positions, their guitars, piano, bass and drum ready. I’m the bandleader. My group is called the ious.
Everything seems to point to a good show, but the first eight bars are so important. Will the musicians all meet on the count? Will everyone remember the arrangements, the placement of their solos? I count off for the opening tune. One-two-three-four.
This is the tension of the live gig, one of the challenges of being a “club musician.” But it’s not the biggest challenge club musicians face in Seattle. Not by a long shot.
No matter what type of music you play, the local music scene is a marketplace of Darwinian values: 60 clubs, 6,000 musicians. This sets up a feeding frenzy where bands play for nothing, or close to it, lowering the bar for every other group. The fault for the low standard is shared between the bands and club owners. All of us could do a better job in coming up with a model that pays a living wage.
As it stands, club musicians have become underpaid workers. We’re exploited by club owners and promoters who want a great show but don’t want to pay the piper. We routinely play three- or four-hour gigs and most often only get paid what the club makes from door admission — or sometimes even less. This setup makes our lives and our careers unsustainable.
To us, one show means hours of preparation, rehearsals, equipment maintenance or rental, trying to get listeners to the gig, travel time to and from the gig, parking, demo taping, plus the initial telephone time trying to book the gig. The low wages, or getting paid only door receipts, brings our pay to about 50 cents an hour — way below minimum wage. Sometimes, we even have to pay the doorman. And many of us do it without signing a performing contract.
But still, hope reigns supreme. Maybe one show will bring us a record contract so we can move up the musical food chain. Maybe the band will have a good night when pay and atmosphere melt together. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Hope is not so easy to maintain given that many club owners provide venues that are not intuitively designed for listening to music. They put the band in a corner, without a stage or good house sound system, with large screen tvs, computerized poker and pool tables. Wandering wait staff and eating customers create even more distractions. Sometimes the pay-scale bar descends like a never-ending limbo dance. Once, my band was offered only a tape recording at the end of a four-hour gig. Nice idea, but a tape doesn’t pay the rent.
Not every club is guilty of these transgressions, and we appreciate that. But the majority of Seattle clubs fall into this category. This inequity forces club musicians into poverty. Many leave the profession before reaching their creative potential. Younger bands are especially vulnerable to exploitation. The craving for exposure and the experience of playing live, “to be heard,” has enabled the market to exploit.
We know local musicians can help sustain the lifeblood of a city. Unlike nationally known groups who come for a night and leave, and who are expensive to see, local musician live here. Now we’re asking for the city to help sustain us.
Seattle’s music scene can do much better. Club owners can offer a written contract with a guaranteed minimum. The city already exempts live venues from paying a 5 percent admissions tax. That savings can be shared with musicians.
As for those who play the gigs, we’re holding the Fair Trade Music Meeting on Monday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m. at Labor Temple, 2800 First Ave., Hall 1. There, we’ll talk with other club musicians, listen to their stories and offer solutions so that we can help each other raise our standard of living. The meeting is sponsored by the Musicians Association of Seattle, Local 76-493 afm. Musicians of all types and all skill levels are invited to attend if you want to help fix the Seattle club scene.
Club musicians are out there almost every night, playing gigs. We play because we love it. We play because good music can change the way you see the world. Now it’s time to change the way local club musicians are treated, before the stage lights dim on our careers for good.