Tallahassee, FL

Opinion: The arts can’t afford to live here

Lydia Bell

”Why do all the good musicians leave Tallahassee?“ Yes, that age old question.

Let’s go ahead and acknowledge that I will undoubtedly take some heat from a lot people for voicing my opinions in this article. Bar and restaurant owners, you’ll probably hate me the most. Please know that it’s not personal and coming from a very specific view. Even some local musicians will likely not appreciate everything I have decided to publicly write. However, I will tell you that my decision to publish this was after several months of walking into the same frustrating situation and conversation many times a day. My partner, (a well established local musician whom also works as an intelligence analyst for a public agency,) finally said to me, “I wish you’d write about this and communicate it with the public.” So, here we go.

Circa 2016, I had established my own creative based business in Tallahassee and felt pretty confident in my ability to sell the arts. While photography was what I sold, my passion and love had always been in music. Sadly, I can no longer sing and it’s been too many years to count since I sat in front of a piano. I found myself stumbling into more of a promotional and management role after meeting an incredibly talented musician. I’m still not quite sure how I ended up managing a band, I do know that I fell in love with this job. I am proud of those I get a chance to work with. Helping other artists get to the next level in their careers is a very rewarding experience for me.

What plagues me is that our community doesn’t seem to have the same level of appreciation for artists. While I know that we occasionally celebrate great visual works and spotlight artists when they have moments of achievement, this town simply just hasn’t made an acceptance for art as a paying career. Whether it’s a photographer, writer, sculptor, actor, painter, musician or other creator providing a service based on their talent, it’s as if this title, “artist,” warrants a reason to negotiate their fees or worse, not pay at all. This dismissal of art as a way to make a paycheck is not the American norm. It’s seemingly considered more of a hobby to the general public in Tallahassee. In every other major U.S. city, the artistic industries are a massive part of their cultural development. In the country as a whole, these careers contribute to the rapidly growing entrepreneurial and gig economies.

Nearing the end of 2017, the lead in the band I was managing was preparing for his move to Nashville. We had few locals gigs left to play and they each paid the standard, reasonable amount we asked for as payment, $1500.00. This covered 3 band members: the lead on vocals and guitar, (whom also wrote a good deal of the very well received music they played,) a drummer and bass player. The usual amount of time they asked the band to play was 2 hours. All of us also had full time jobs and met no less than once a week to practice for several hours. We brought all the equipment to every gig including sound, since nowhere was equipped with what was needed. We had to transport all the equipment and that also cost money. Most of the time, the venue offered a $50 total bar tab that included food and drinks. This barely put a dent in the guys’ tab at the end of the night. And we never put a tip jar out. At the end of the gig, we had about $400 for each band member. I volunteered my time.

After the first big gig, we didn’t ever go looking for bookings. We did some social media marketing for the band in general and a bit of networking. However, every gig we landed was a call made to us. Only on a couple occasions when asked what our fee was did we hear, “Oh, that’s out of our budget.” But even those folks called back and booked anyhow within a few days. We produced a product. We set our market standard pricing. We advertised. We served our customers the best product we could give them. We succeeded.

Oh boy, have things changed! I’ve recently been recruited to manage a musician based in Quincy. When I began this adventure with him, he had been playing the local venues and events for about a year. I started looking over the upcoming gigs and their payouts and questioning these. It prompted me to also poll other musicians who play the local scene regularly. What I have found is appalling.

It seems that Tallahassee has a mix of places that both reach out to musicians for bookings as well as some established as regularly played venue and musicians reach out to them. Across the board, however, the pay is shameful. Top tier pay caps at $600 but some establishments paying as low as $100. I’ve asked these venues paying on the low end, “Do you realize that they’ll actually lose money playing for you at this rate?” The responses I have received have been rude, combative, unprofessional and downright disrespectful. One manager told me upon cancelling a gig on behalf of the musician I manage, (the pay was $200 for 4 hours in the middle of a hot sunny day,) that I was a flake and would be black listed for costing him thousands of dollars. I challenged him by asking if he were making thousands off a musician playing at his club, why is he only paying the musician $200? I was not given a response. Either way, the hard truth was that he filled that spot immediately with another band willing to play for that amount. Herein lies another obvious, contributing factor.

Local musician, Ben FlournoyLydia Bell

The problem of underpaid musicians begs the question, why are musicians creating the problem they complain about? “They need us more than we need them,” is a standard comment among venue owners. And this thought comes from the fact that musicians have increasingly accepted these pitiful rates out of what is thought by those paying, to be desperation. I’m not sure if it’s musicians’ frustration, lack of business knowledge, lack of confidence, fear of competition, boredom or what. What I do know is that if musicians don’t start holding themselves and their services and talents to a higher standard, things won’t change. If there’s one thing we know undoubtedly musicians want, it’s to play. This makes holding out for more pay very difficult, even if going on strike means proving their worth.

The venues say they can’t afford to pay more. Is that the truth? What happened to the money the SBA granted to restaurants and venues? It was millions! Musicians and artists weren’t given any of this. Even if there is no extra budget on hand, couldn’t venues have an open mind to work together with the musicians and build a better creatively cultural economy? On the evenings they offer live music, aren’t they bringing in more revenue because of the music? Are they even advertising it? Seems as if musicians are advertising themselves as the entertainment at the establishments, in turn adding to their value. As a manager, I’ve offered to do all the evening’s promotion in exchange for paying my musician just half the profits of a nominal cover charge. This is more than reasonable and a very standard practice. It puts the responsibility of income into my control. And this also drives the excitement of having good music in town.

Now, here’s the part I know is going to sound one sided. Please keep in mind that I’ve been a business owner. I’m not naïve nor insensitive to what it takes to keep a place open and running, especially postpandemic. Common sense tells us that at the very basic level, it costs a single musician these fees to show up to play a two hour set:

  1. Let’s use an average distance of 8 miles to travel to the venue, 16 round trip. The IRS mileage rate is currently 62.5 cents per mile. (Please double or triple this for trailering equipment or multiple musicians.) $10 in mileage
  2. Dinner and beverage $50 (Yes, we’re sympathetic to your increase in menu prices.)
  3. 4 hours minimum a week in practice time at the average Florida musician hourly non-performance rate of $35.46. That’s $141.84.
  4. Average liability insurance breaks down to approximately $14 per gig if you assume you’re playing once a week all year.
  5. Equipment and it’s upkeep if well cared for over it’s expected lifetime should average to $18 per gig assuming you’re playing every week of the year.
  6. Whether you spend your own time booking, drawing up contracts, promoting, marketing, etc. or you pay someone else to, it still costs money. Time is money. You can count on a minimum of 5 hours a week. $35 per hour is $175
  7. You’d definitely want some good photos and videos annually, (minimum $600. Broken down by week is $11.54) to use for your electronic press kit/website and social media, (hosting and domain without a developer $300. $5.77 per gig.)
  8. To perform you’re going to wear whatever your grandma gave you at Christmas because that’s what hipsters do. So what’s left? How about your talent? What’s that worth? It’s invaluable really. But we’ll be as fair as possible for the sake of argument and use the average hourly rate for a restaurant consultant. $120. So $240

Total: $666.15

A very conservative bare minimum fee for a single musician to play a two hour set.

I want to propose a thought to you. In the times we are living in, especially here locally where we’ve seen a very depressing increase in horrific, tragic crimes, there are very few things that our population doesn’t fight over. There’s only one thing I can come up with that actually brings people from all walks of life together. Music truly is the universal language. Can you imagine a world without music? All of life’s moments are set to a soundtrack that makes up your life.

Music elicits emotions. It makes you feel good. It makes you reminisce. It inspires you to do good, improve yourself and help others. Music gives hope. It ignites fun. It prompts good times with friends, family and even strangers. Music heals those hurting both physically and emotionally. Music helps raises funds and awareness in hard times.

Music is used in advertising to stir feelings associated with purchasing products. People spend money to go see their favorite artists perform. They bring extra money to buy merchandise to assure they never forget the experience. Patrons at bars, restaurants and clubs spend more on food and drinks when there’s good music to sing and dance to.

Musicians are responsible for all these wonderful music filled occasions. Why are they the most underrated, under appreciated and under paid? Why do they hear, “That’s all I have in the budget,” the most? Without musicians, we have no music. Without music, we have, well… nothing.

Next time you see a tip jar in front of a musician, remember that they are filled with talent and have decided to share it with you. Be thankful.

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Tallahassee Native, Career Photographer, Music & Travel Junkie, Advocate for Community & Equality

Tallahassee, FL

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