I didn’t get into music because of the money, but after 10 years, the money is chasing me out.
I'll never forget the first time i hung out after the show.
The lights were up, smoke had cleared, the band leader was paying the band. I loved how he slipped the bills into each musician's hand like a Mafia handshake. A secret sign. They were members of a club. I burned to join it.
For two years I paid my dues and then became a band leader myself. I schlepped my guitar on the bus in snowstorms or on my bike after TTC hours, intent on saving cab fare.
Over those first two years, going twice a week to open stages, I figure I spent some $500 on TTC fares, another $1,000 on cabs and some $5,000 on pints! And I'm a light drinker! And then there were the guitars, keyboard, cables, tuners, music books, metronome, strings and repairs.
I cut my first CD, which got stalled at the $1,000 mark. Without a steady job, I had trouble paying rent. But after spending a few hundred on making promo packs, I got my first gigs.
I held down odd jobs in those days. I did the door at shows. I saw how much came in, who got paid what at the end of the night. I kept track of how many people came through, how many drinks they had, how much the bar was making.
Most nights, three bands brought in a hundred people. People could be counted on to drink an average of three drinks - $1,500 to the bar, minus staff, electricity, weekly advertising for live music.
To the bands, the door brought $400. Headliners might get $150; the other two bands split the rest. Bottom line, each player walked home with two "free" beers and about 30 bucks per musician.
With bigger gigs came more stuff and the need for transportation. As a singer/songwriter, I had to get my drummer and his equipment to the show on my coin. I tried for years to perfect a system of lugging my 88- key board and guitar on the subway, and I discovered that saving taxi fares wasn't worth the hassle.
Average budget for one gig: cabs $50, drummer $50, strings $6, photocopying flyers $40, beer (self and bandmates) $40.
Income from show $80 (shared equally between four bandmates); income from CD sales $20.
Net loss: $150 per show.
I was playing six shows a week, which added up to an impoverished lifestyle.
I recorded a few more CDs, got some airplay on CBC, even got placed in a few TV shows. Suffice it to say, the debt owed on my Visa is still in the high four digits. Revenue trickles in, to be sure, from SOCAN and from Indie Pool. The last check from Indie Pool, reflecting Internet sales, was for $4.53.
My last tax return claims over $13,000 in music expenses: recording, publicity, duplication, printing, posters, instruments, research, repairs, piano tuning and promo. None of this puts a value on the 40 hours a week that went into all the promo work, writing, recording, planning, rehearsing and increasingly fretting that all this paying out was starting to outweigh the fun of grabbing my guitar and playing solo.
I'm amazed thinking about the sheer effort people out there are making: on any given night in Toronto, some 30 establishments are offering live music at nominal or no cost to enhance the drinking experience. And some three bands or so will take the stage at each of these venues, chasing dragons of their own.
I kept that tradition of paying my band with the Mafia handshake. Fans who stuck around after the gig got a kick out of it. The truth was, I'd learned to do what others had before me: don't let the audience see how much I pay. The trick is to make it look like we're getting big whacks of cash to follow our bliss.
I didn't get into music because of the money. But looking back over 10 years of living the dream, I admit I'm getting out because of the money.
Emily Weedon is a writer and soon to be ex-singer/songwriter. Listen for her upcoming documentary on Outfront, CBC Radio One.