The Musician’s Business Challenge

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll put on a businessman’s hat and look at a young musician’s career from that perspective.  What are the challenges facing this person as he or she steps into the profession?  One might say a musician’s challenge is to utilize and evolve the skills obtained in school in order to excel in a highly competitive market.  His or her goals will be to become financially stable and to remain relevant. Here are some possible barriers he or she may face:

  • It’s a commodity market.
  • There is changing demand.
  • There are price pressures.
  • There are reduced resources.
  • The field is highly competitive.
  • There is a large talent pool.

Looking at the barriers can make the future seem pretty grim, but when these challenges are recognized and acknowledged, we can take steps to put together a successful career.

It’s a Commodity Market

A commodity is a good or a service that is basically the same regardless of who produces it.  Oil is oil.  Rice is rice.  Gasoline is gasoline and chickens are chickens.  There is little differentiation between producers, and the price within a region will be about the same.  A classic case of a producer who was able to break from the commodity pack was Frank Perdue former CEO of Perdue Farms.  Through extensive and brilliant advertising and using a marigold-laden feed that imparted a yellow color to the skin of his chickens, he was able to convince the American consumer that his product was superior to others, and his birds were sold at a premium price.

Perdue was able to rise above the others because he demonstrated, at least in people’s minds, that his sunny-skinned chickens were superior.  Musicians must do the same thing because, in reality, we operate in a commodity market.  Each type of service that a musician performs has a price on it that is either mandated by the musician’s union (minimum scale wages) or (if it is non-union) by local custom.  The musicians who play wedding receptions or bar mitzvahs in Des Moines, Denver, Las Vegas, Atlanta, you name the city, will expect to be paid in a range that is unique to the area.  There will occasionally be a gig that pays considerably above the norm, but by and large there won’t be much variation in wages.

Below are some union scale wages for playing a show in four different cities in New York State. The three upstate cities are geographically close in proximity, which is exactly what their scales reflect.  New York City, which is widely considered a market unto itself is considerably above the others.

Rochester                        $105

Buffalo                        $100

Syracuse                           $97

New York City            $187.59

When a contractor puts together musicians for an event, regardless of the geographic region, he could hire the concertmaster of the local symphony or a high school student.  Either way the pay to play violin in a section will be the same.  That’s a commodity.  The market as a whole determines the price for the goods or service.  The musicians’ challenge is to differentiate themselves like Frank Perdue did, and create a reputation (read: brand) that because of its unique qualities will command a premium price over the others.  They can do this by becoming the in-demand player that everyone wants.  The person hiring such a person knows that he will get a certain level of performance that is above the norm and is well worth the extra money.  When the pay is less flexible, as in the case of a show, a first-call musician might benefit over others by getting literally all the work.

During the Vietnam War, I was a musician and stationed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  At that time we had more personnel on each instrument than was needed to adequately staff any event that had to be played.  This surplus of musicians on each instrument meant that for any given service there were always some musicians who were not playing and enjoyed some “off” time.  An interesting commodity market was created among the musicians, as we bought and sold our duties.  Let’s say that I was assigned to play a parade on Friday afternoon.  If, for some reason, I wanted to do something else, I would look at the roster, see who was off and ask that person if he wanted to play in my place.   There was no negotiating.  The price was fixed.  Parades went for five dollars and funerals for two.  (Funerals were much shorter.)  KP (kitchen police—working in the kitchen—it wasn’t fun) went for $25.

Looking back, it is evident to me that we created a very efficient market where everyone benefited.  The entire West Point band operation was housed in one building, and the majority of the musicians who were single lived right in the building.  The married personnel received a subsidy for the number of dependants that they had, and they lived either in Army supplied housing or off post in one of the neighboring small towns.  Because the bachelors (there were no women in the band at that time) lived in the same building as the rehearsal room, it was no problem for them to be ready to play a service on short notice.  The married men, on the other hand, had wives who often had jobs outside of the home.  This gave them discretionary income.  Consequently, it was usually the married guys selling their duty to the single guys.  Everyone won.  I understand that this buying and selling of duty is not so widespread nowadays.  It’s a leaner Army.

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Ramon Ricker

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  • Very helpful and informative post. I need to understand the business aspect more, so I’m looking forward to reading more of your business-related writings.

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