There you are, the original artist, tuning into MTV Cribs on a Saturday afternoon. The guy giving the tour to the voyeuristic camera crew is a one-hit wonder. You think he sings badly, you think he plays badly. Having not only read about but lived the life of an artist who's never paid, you think this idiot, wearing a fur coat by his in-ground pool, has gotta be leasing this mansion. If he doesn't get any money from this MTV show, then he'll be broke before dawn. You savor that thought.
Making Money Making Music: The Musician's Guide to Cover Gigs
Quint Randle and Bill Evans
180 pages pp.
Available from Powell's Books.
And there you are, with TV now turned off: the bitter, original artist. Your song cycle about cantaloupe hasn't yet hit it big...but maybe it will. And so you begin to plug away again in your bedroom, performing before a bowl of dried fruit. Yeah, there is a certain romance to being broke, a certain pleasure from being ignored by the same folks who ignored the Vaselines, Big Star or the latest strange thing by Crispin Glover. Who can deny the energy that comes from self-expression, or the joy from feeling like you're a genuine artist, a monster of imagination descended from the same genes as Picasso, Godard or Hootie?
Well, your body can deny that "imaginary" energy, and that fleeting joy. Your body needs protein from something besides peanut butter, and you're sick and tired of not making money, and of failing to ever justify yourself before your parents, your peers, or those strangers who mock your gold sequined jacket. Without ever getting any positive feedback from people in an audience, or a studio, or a fruit stand, how can you not begin to doubt your talents, to question the visceral power of your antelope songs?
Artists are doomed to moments of doubt and misery. That's why your antelope song cycle is depressing as hell. But before you sink so far as to lose total faith in yourself and your music, do what so many brilliant kids do before their SAT tests: give in to the system and read books on how to succeed at your craft. The publishers at Backbeat have put out many great books for successful and struggling musicians, but Making Money Making Music might be their most informative. Subtitled "The Musician's Guide to Cover Gigs", the book focuses on the "more likely" route to financial sustenance for a working musician (104). This allows the writers to work in more, not less material -- like discussions on set lists, how to perform before a church, or how to procure a nursing home gig -- and it produces a book which is extremely helpful and extremely sobering.
I say "sobering" because I share at least one characteristic with most musicians: I hate forms. If you come into this book without the confidence that you will ever make any money with your art, I am sure you will leave it thinking a regular day job will be less of a headache. Case in point: the chapter on tax season. If you are the leader of a six-member band who each made more than 600 dollars throughout the year, then you are required to give every one of them a 1099-Misc. Form. You are also required to provide copies of the 1099 to the IRS, and to the states where you made the money. And if a player has made more than 600 dollars in a number of states -- and if you tour, that will happen -- then expect to get carpal tunnel syndrome. You will have to fill out a form for every damn state that likes your music. The tax season will be an absolute headache unless you keep every form and receipt (which might well be the hardest thing in the world), so expect to have to get your taxes professionally done. You will still need to keep every receipt, but at least you can pass on the headache. It's at a cost, though, and a cost that most day job workers do not have to share. I have never went to a professional to do my taxes, so this chapter alone makes me see musicians as 300 dollars in the hole. The system works against you.
Another unique situation that musicians must face is the fact it's often impossible to get the most lucrative gigs by yourself. Here, you basically have to ignore the Dischord story, because they're media darlings -- and that obsessive fascination with a band's ideology is as rare as any band who gets to top of the charts. Instead, you must again play the system, because the most money can often be made playing for the business convention, or church bonanza -- and they frequently work only through agents. These agents generally get 15 percent of your cut. Perhaps that's not awful, but realize that agent will end up making more money from the show than any band of six or more players. Lord knows how bands like the Olivia Tremor Control ever managed.
If you want these gigs badly enough, you will also have to be more "professional" than most people who have day jobs. Now that I'm employed, I've grown my hair long, I wear jeans with rips, and I try to make my work speak loudly for itself. Sadly, it does not, but I'm not at risk to lose my job. A successful working musician, in contrast, will always have to prove to the bookers of good-paying gigs at "corporate affairs and private parties" that they are serious, responsible people who will fulfill their obligations. You have to realize the booker gets paid enough by these people that they can't risk taking chances on dopeheads. As one booker puts it:
"The bands I choose will be totally professional, great musicians, and not troublesome at all. Yes, I will have seen the selected band perform more than once, and will know them and trust them with all my heart! They will be on time, they will act professionally, and they will do everything they are supposed to according to the contract I draw up" (84)
If you are a person who always hated the constraints an English teacher put on you, and if you just cannot stand selling yourself, then the music business is most likely not for you. It seems to be either a business for people who won the lottery (i.e. original artists who write crap and star on MTV Cribs), or for people whose love for music lives alongside a willingness to be a Zelig -- a person who can do whatever it takes to be loved by whomever holds the keys to their next gig.
As this book succeeds at covering damn near everything -- what equipment to buy, how to fire people, how to choose a band name, when to play your filler songs, how to write your bio and create your demo CD -- it can only be the most helpful book for any young musician just starting out. The writers (each of whom are successful musicians) also inject enough humor into their pages to make it interesting to anyone:
"If your mother loves it... then you've chosen a lousy name" (52)
However, if you are not a musician, and simply a music fan, you do not read this book for the humor. You read Making Money Making Music to realize you're not missing nearly as much as you always believed. By deglamorizing what has always seemed to me the most glamorous profession, they make me happy with my own day job. They also give me a heaping helping of admiration for all those eighties cover bands who play night after night to parachute-panted audiences simply because they love to perform. I wouldn't want to be in their shoes, but I envy their passion. To love a job so much that you are willing to fill out form after form, and read contract after contract -- that must really be precious.
-- Theodore Defosse
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About the Publisher:
Backbeat lives by their slogan: "if you're passionate about music, Backbeat have the books for you". Whether you're looking for books about instruments, performers, the making of music, or the history of artists and genres, this publisher provides some of the fairest, most evenhanded assessments in the world of music literature.