Do You Work for Minimum Wage?

As we prepare for another union membership meeting about changes to the price list for this specific geographical region, I feel it necessary to ask this question.  Minimum wage is just that – the MINIMUM.  It is established for the least experienced with the lowest skill set (i.e. usually students and people who never tried to learn a trade or expand their education.)  As you earn skills and improve your education, you can demand more money for your time.  I know very few people making minimum wage as lawyers, doctors and other professions who must attend school more than the regular 13 years and 4+ years of college.  The more experience you have, the more money you should make.  Now translate this to musicians.

Minimum SCALE is the minimum wage based for the lowest skill set of musicians at the professional level.  It is the starting salary for those right out of college, not the salary for musicians who have been doing it for 10+ years.  Minimum wage scales should be marketed as the STARTING scale, not the only scale.  The problem is that minimum scale has become the acceptable standard to pay all professional musicians, regardless of experience and investment in degrees, instruments and equipment.

Professional Musicians (“PM”) usually start their training as a child.  These are not to be confused with “Hobby Musicians” (“HM”).  For the PM, hours turn into days that turn into years of dedication and practice with their craft.  They spend thousands upon thousands of dollars for lessons, instruction, instruments, equipment, and everything they need to ply their trade.  Once they start in the paying world for gigs, they can expect to make little money as they earn performance experience and improve their skills.  But unlike other professions that demand as much time, the pay usually does not increase for the PM unless THEY ask for it.  The public and paying clients have grown accustomed to increases in marketing, legal and accounting fees, but they are still in the 20th century when it comes to paying for live entertainment.  For this, I am ashamed to say that it is our own fellow musicians that are allowing this happen, and even encouraging it!  I know many musicians that are afraid to ask for what they want to be paid.  The fear of not getting the gig is more overwhelming than simply asking for what you’re worth and sticking to it.  We all know the agents/buyers/bookers will always say “Well, I can get … for half that!” with the hopes that you will reduce your price.  They are usually referring to the HM that say they can do an act like yours, but never really practiced or spent the time trying to do it right.  These scare tactics do work, and the clients know it.  My reply?  I politely say: “Well, this is my price.  Please let me know if you would like for me to send you a contract once you have made a decision.”  Sometimes I offer to send them more promo material so that they can make an educated decision.  And you know what?  I get my price.  I may work less often than the HM, but when I make more money, I don’t have to work as often.

Just as the US Government has established a minimum wage for workers, the musicians’ union in each geographical area has established a minimum scale for its musicians.  Like it or not, when you agree to be a member, you agree to abide by this scale.  This is for recipients and for the contractors who pay their musicians.  As a player and/or contractor, if you are not getting/paying at least minimum scale, you are violating the rules set by the same union to which you belong.

Other trade unions have actual varying scales for the “levels” that someone has attained based on apprenticeships, years of experience, training, etc.  This would be almost impossible to ascertain with musicians, as music is an ART that is highly subjective, as opposed to certain skills and training in other careers.  Also, since it is a supply/demand economy with live entertainment, it is difficult for a union to determine why a guitarist who may not read music and usually performs for general lounge/bar audience should be priced differently than a specialized classical guitarist who reads music and is needed for a symphonic show.  So why should the union set the scale YOU should charge?  They have set only the minimum wage.  It is up to YOU to determine what you actually want to make.