You’ve been practicing those tunes and jamming for years. You know how to play nicely with others and you have enough tunes under your fingertips to play for a full hour without repeats. You have a reliable vehicle, proper clothing, and keep your fiddle and bow in good working order. Someone just offered you a job – a gig – to come play your fiddle. They offered you money. Will getting paid for what you’ve been doing for fun all these years take all the fun out of it?
This question recently came up in my corner of the woods when a club where a group of musicians and I sometimes jam, offered us money if we would set a date and play music. Up till now the compensation has been dinner and drinks for the players and their spouses.
Because of the band’s popularity when they did play there, the club offered to pay us. I said, “Great! How much?” (The rest of my thoughts to the bandleader’s words are added in parenthesis like this.)
The spokesman for the band said, “That’s not the point. We don’t want to take any money because that would take all the fun out it. (It’s always fun to play there.)
“For one thing once you start getting paid to play music you’re obligated to sound good.” (We must sound good already or they wouldn’t want us back.)
“What if we make a mistake?” (It happens. A professional learns to cover for the others in the group as well as himself. Never let them see you sweat.)
“We’d have to make sure we were there.” (If we say we’re going to be there- we should be there.)
“Most of us have day jobs and have to be professional all day. We get free drinks at this place – and we like to relax and have a good time.” (Aha! Demon Rum! Now I’m no goody two shoes when it comes to tipping a few but I don’t drink when I’m performing because it’s just too hard to play easily and for me that takes all the fun out of it. Drinking after that gig is out as well because I have a thirty mile drive home.)
So I guess what the band leader was saying was that if we were to all of a sudden get paid like a bona fide band we’d all of a sudden have to make sure we showed up sober for work, stayed that way, did what was expected of us, played well and didn’t slack off. What’s wrong with that? Paid or unpaid, that’s how I’ve always treated a gig.
There is sometimes the mistaken notion that money spoils the soul of the artist. It doesn’t. If anything it should help relieve some of the stress associated with being a musician or artist. It helps support the artist. Back in the old days the itinerant fiddler was supported by the community in which he traveled. Better he should be offered room and board and keep the music coming, than have to hang up fiddle and bow and get a day job. These days a musician’s pay helps pay for strings, equipment, gas for the car, health insurance, food, housing and all the other things that normal people (people who aren’t musicians) are able to get because they go to a day job. Musicians, who get paid, get to keep playing music as their “day job” and because of that they get better at it. They become “professional,” a word that carries a lot of weight in any other trade or discipline. Somehow musicians have gotten the mistaken identity of being happy to be paid in drink instead of cash while they’re on the job. This doesn’t make much sense when you substitute other trades for “musician.” Would you feel comfortable paying your electrician in alcohol while he was working on your house? How about your dentist?
Volunteer fiddling for a good cause or just to make folks happy is always in order. “Freebies” are also in order upon occasion and can be a lot of fun. The freebie without the set-list and the open jam session can be a good place to try out new material or a new technique without the pressure of having to perform perfectly. But turning down money just so you can get drunk and slack off instead of playing well? To me that makes no sense. The fun in music starts with good music and after all is said and done, that’s what it’s all about.
It’s very seldom that playing music for pay or for free is not fun for a musician. One is the same as the next and the quality of the playing should never fall into a direct proportion to the amount of cash connected with it. Given away or handsomely compensated, the music coming from the true musician’s soul is most likely the best they have to offer.
The fiddler who fiddles with this blog
- Beverley Conrad
- Selinsgrove, PA, United States
- Beverley Conrad is a writer, musician, and artist who lives in central Pennsylvania. She's played the fiddle most of her life and has published books and once went on a book tour with her dog. She's currently working on a series of one hundred works of art of a dead fly to see where it goes, how it progresses.