I have been playing music out in public since May of 2005. Since then, I’ve played out 127 additional times, and I can count the number of times I’ve received money for those performances without taking off my shoes:
-$5 tip at open mic at Bentley’s
-$25 in tips at Rainbow Coffee House
-$5 tip at The Hut
-$1, a jar of honey, and a goose egg at a farmer’s market
-$7 in tips at open mic at the Canyon Crown
-$5 tip at a craft show
-$25 for Meet Me at Maynard’s anniversary
-$1 tips playing happy hour
$74 total over 8 years and 127 performances
I’ve had exactly one paid gig in all that time where I knew going in how much we’d make, but all of our earned money (and more) went into band expenses, primarily our fancy sandwich board sign we put up at gigs so people know who the hell we are, and sound equipment and cables.
I used to half-joke with Antiguo that with my music earnings I was going to buy him the Rickenbacker 360-12 he’d lusted after since the Byrds hit the scene–it was half a joke because I fully intended to, but at the rate I was going, he’d be dead before I’d manage it. (Curse my prescience! And damn him for not giving me a chance.) But the reality is, I couldn’t even take our trio out for a good dinner and drinks with what I’ve made over the years. This is pretty standard for amateur musicians; it really is a hobby that you spend your own money to do, rather than a vocation you get paid to do.
And it’s all fine with me, because I never got into music for the money. Up until last January, I had a job that paid my bills, and while I didn’t like my job all that much, it certainly funded my real life comfortably, and I consciously enjoyed the freedom of not having to worry about getting paid for gigs, or about how I was going to cover my bills, as so many working musicians do. If I was sick, I could cancel with little remorse, because it’s not like people were buying tickets to see me. There is no question that being able to be creative without having to consider the business side is a luxury, and an enjoyable one at that. I was thrilled when the venue provided free bottled water; I felt like a rock star.
That all changed when we recently got a gig playing for a university event. They want to pay us, well, and we were excited about that. Right up until today when the tax forms arrived, and now shit’s gettin’ real, and I’m sighing heavily. We either need to set up the band as a business, which seems like overkill considering that the band generates next to no income, and spends far more than that on gear and travel expenses. Or one of us has to step up and take the tax hit. Which ultimately will probably be what we do, because further income is by no means guaranteed, and I’m not paying an accountant next year to determine the tax liability on $17 in tips split between 3 people. So I find myself in the totally unexpected position of being sorry that someone wants to pay us to play, the validation that most artists are supposed to aspire to, because it just creates hassles and paperwork, and dammit, I’m retired. I don’t need either of those things. You want to fuck up a good thing, be it music, art, relationships, hobbies? Introduce money into it.