Author: Evans, Bill

What’s Bluegrass Worth?

My first paying gig was at the opening of a new McDonald’s restaurant in Virginia Beach, Virginia in 1972. With hardly any professional performing experience outside of singing solos in high school and church choirs and having never attended a bluegrass festival at that point in my young life, I still somehow realized that bluegrass and McDonald’s didn’t make for a totally appropriate match.

However, as we stood next to the customer order line playing the six songs that we knew over and over again, our trio still managed to have a good time and hopefully we entertained a few customers. A few days later, I was astonished to see a check for $50 arrive in the mail for my share of this performance. An inflation calculator that I just found on the Internet tells me that this would be worth $254.58 in 2008 money (that’s the most recent date that the calculator would compute, so it might be worth a bit less today…). Even back in 1972, I realized that this was a lot of money: this sum equaled about two weeks of working my afternoon paper route or cutting, raking and sweeping about fifteen lawns and translated into visions of many potential 8-track tape purchases.

Over the years, I’ve had many stimulating conversations with a variety of people on what bluegrass music is “worth.” This issue is a necessary part of negotiations with promoters, some of whom are totally aware of what bluegrass music is worth, but want to convince you that it’s not worth as much as you think it is. Equally interesting conversations involve the shock of telling someone, who might also be a promoter, what you think bluegrass music is worth, only to receive the response that they had no idea that this kind of music was so valuable and that they were looking for a kind of bluegrass that isn’t worth quite so much.

The reality is that bluegrass can be worth quite a lot in some instances, and in other cases, well…not so much. The who and the where are the factors which determine how much and these three are never fixed variables, even for the same musician. A full-time professional musician tries to match the who (which in many cases is the performer or his or her band) with as many wheres as possible in order to generate enough of the how much to stay on the road for another year. Amateur musicians often aim for the biggest wheres they can get, but in some cases might not be all that worried about the how muchs because day jobs pay their bills. Out here on the West Coast, many of the musicians I know fall somewhere in between these two extremes. For these folks, the how much becomes more important as they try to become a more well known who that performs at bigger and better wheres.

These three factors have to be in balance when an individual decides to ramp up a career by making a bigger commitment to performing. For the full-time professional musician, the expenses related to doing the business of music can eat up about 50% of gross income. This is true for most small businesses, not just for musicians. These expenses will include everything from travel, transportation and communication costs, to the production costs of a CD project, to publicity and agent expenses, to the costs of attending professional meetings such as IBMA and Folk Alliance, to paying state and federal taxes and Social Security on earned income. These expenses should also include the cost of medical insurance and something set aside for retirement and savings but there’s often not enough money left for these budgetary luxuries.

Therefore, out of that $50 for the McDonald’s gig, a professional musician might only be able to pocket $25 to help pay the bills at home, while the amateur musician might view this income as an extra $50 in his pocket. Playing at McDonald’s for $50 might be a great gig for a teenager but not of interest to a professional musician. However, a gig at McDonald’s that pays $254.58 would probably indeed be of interest to most professional musicians, if they were already in town.

So what’s bluegrass music worth? There’s never going to be just one answer to this question. However, it’s something that I have to think about just about every day as a professional musician. What do you think it’s worth?

Posted:  1/22/2010

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