Making a Living as a Musician
It’s January third and many bluegrass musicians have been, more or less, on hiatus. Some notable festivals occur during the cold months, but, in a genre whose most popular manifestation has, historically at least, been outdoors at festivals and pickins, pickings have been slim. Working musicians, who often live from paycheck to paycheck, have had to subsist, rationalize their rest and home time, or cut back. The life of a working musician has never been easy or the income steady, but the holidays, instead of representing a time of great celebration, often lead to reflection on the long-term effects of the choices they’ve made.
The life of a working musician has never been 9-to-5, nor even 4-to-midnight. A musician simply can’t make a living solely by performing. Sing for your supper is more like it. Few working musicians of high quality live a balanced, or even healthy, life. Rather, those who live on and for the road face an unconventional schedule of working late into the night, sleeping during the early part of the day, and eating bad food on the road. They live out of hotels and motels on often uncomfortable beds in rooms where their bandmates may snore too loudly to allow a really good night’s sleep. They spend hours driving the interstate from venue to venue. Their work week runs from Thursday to Sunday with long drives between gigs. Things amp up even more during the busy festival season, which, despite having been expanded into arts centers and theaters, runs primarily from May through October. Musicians may travel hundreds of miles between gigs, over a thousand miles on a weekend. They do this week after week, if they’re lucky and have done their homework, for months on end.
Homework? Few bluegrass bands are so successful that they can afford the support team every musician needs. Booking agents, publicity people, managers, and personal sound engineers each come with a price, reducing the income for musicians themselves. The daily business life of many band leaders includes calling promoters all over the country trying to piece together a schedule and then fill it out. These days, many festivals do their booking as much as a year in advance, meaning that leaders are on the phone seeking near-term gigs even as they work to cobble together a calendar for next year. Meanwhile, side musicians during the off season often are being recruited, moving to other bands for reasons that may be economic or personal, while their former employers scramble to find replacements.
What about side musicians? The backbone of any bluegrass band is the four or five musicians who work to make the music stand out. Unlike country music, for instance, where a star system has dominated since the beginning, bluegrass is an ensemble form in which every song requires ensemble and solo performances. Many bands are composed of musicians who are nationally known for their instrumental ability. Bluegrass fans follow the moves of side musicians avidly as they move from band to band, seeking more work, better working conditions, greater opportunity. For instance, Kenny Ingram has been widely recognized since joining Lester Flatt with Nashville Grass back in the 1960s. He’s played with Jimmy Martin and Rhonda Vincent, and has been a mainstay with the Larry Stephenson band since 2009. He’s well recognized as one of the leading practitioners of Scruggs-style banjo, his hulking presence and solid baritone in trio and quartet singing an added plus. Here he is playing “Pike County Breakdown” with Stephenson:
Since most side musicians are paid a day rate for performing with bands, and rarely have health or retirement benefits, they must tour incessantly as well as supplement their income with work as session musicians, working in recording studios, or teaching. Fortunately, since the advent of the computer, lessons have become a huge contributor to musicians’ incomes. Wayne Benson, long-time mandolin player with IIIrd Tyme Out, for instance, often teaches on Skype during the week, from early morning until late into the night, his lessons following time zones. He has students not only in the US but in Japan and all over Europe.
However, many musicians must supplement their incomes by working “straight” jobs, either when they’re not performing, or by fitting their performances in between their job obligations. Johnny Staats, for instance, is a well-known mandolin player who, with his band, The Delivery Boys, has never left his full-time day job as a driver for UPS, despite having appeared on the Today show, been written about in People magazine, and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. Here Staats performs at a TED talk in 2015 called “A Mandolin Master’s Tribute to Keeping Your Day Job.”
The great J.D. Crowe, whose band J.D. Crowe & the New South revolutionized bluegrass music and who re-introduced bluegrass fans to the traditional bluegrass of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs through a recording band that was known as The Bluegrass Album Band, provided a training ground to a whole generation of top musicians while continuing to work throughout most of his active musical life as a mailman for the US Postal Service, until he earned an honorable government retirement. Below, J.D. Crowe and the New South, with Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Sloan, perform the classic “Old Home Place” in 1975.
So playing music professionally is, for most musicians, a hard and not particularly remunerative career. Fueled by passion, often generated by obsessions the young are most susceptible to, and carried into a career of striving, musicians are constantly seeking to develop while maintaining a reasonable lifestyle. Few achieve the wealth represented in the media by the top of a very broad pedestal on which their careers are based. But most soldier along as happy warriors in a world that loves what they do, yet can’t provide most with what they need.