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Dear Little Bobby,
Like most musicians, I have a day job and I’m struggling to pay bills. Music is my art, my hobby, and some day I wouldn’t mind making money at it. Till then, I’m trying to decide how much I can afford to spend on instruments, renting a practice space, going on tour, and the rest. Or maybe I’m trying to justify how much I already spend. Either way, sometimes it gives me anxiety and causes stress between me and my partner. How much is too much to spend on my art?
—Playing for Pennies
Dear Playing for Pennies,
Money causing stress between you and your partner is something you need to deal with immediately. And, dealing with it has very little to do with music. If you made a lot of money playing music (hello, Beyonce!) that is no guarantee that you would no longer have stress with your partner about this, or anything else for that matter. When it comes to your relationship with your partner, you need to be on the same page for the relationship to work and benefit both of you. If not, eventually someone will feel cheated and will want out.
This year we have decided to donate all of the money we make from music to groups on the front lines of fighting this orange asshole millionaire in the White House.
I will not take time in this column to explain how to balance a checkbook or how to not spend more than you earn. Obviously, your bills should be paid before buying a new guitar. Even though I find that obvious, I am constantly surprised that people I know will put a new amplifier on a credit card when they do not even have groceries in their cabinet—something that partners in a romantic relationship clearly will not appreciate, nor should they tolerate.
Like you, I would not mind making money for playing music. But let’s be realistic: It is 2017 and since I am not Taylor Swift or Beyonce, I am not planning on paying my bills with music. However, I do like playing shows which pay, whether it is only $15, or $200. Even if it just pays for gas and dinner, a small payout helps fuel the performance.
For many years I have put our band money right back in to the band, whether it was a couple hundred dollars a year or a few thousand, during our most successful years. But since our music is not exactly commercial, and many people now expect music to be free, any hope of making money is left up to our merchandising: T-shirts, maybe getting on a soundtrack, etc.
This year we have decided to donate all of the money we make from music (whether from performances or album/shirt sales) to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and other groups which are now on the front lines of fighting this orange asshole millionaire in the White House. I am not bringing this up to brag, because honestly it might only be a couple hundred dollars, or maybe a thousand dollars or more if we have a successful tour. I bring it up because it was a decision we had to make whether we (and I) could afford to do this. And yes, this year, as a band, we CAN afford it. It is a luxury.
In many ways, playing music with any electronic device, or even a nice acoustic guitar or drum, is a luxury, even though to us musicians it may FEEL like a necessity. In this very column I have said “I have to play music” and “it is not a choice.” That is still my truth, but I constantly have to decide how much of my income I can dedicate to a new keyboard, or a new vehicle for tour, or new band T-shirts and so much more. Last year we held a Kickstarter fundraiser because we put an album out and, for the first time, I did NOT personally want to go into debt to record and press the album. Thanks to our family, friends and fans, we raised enough to fund the album’s production.
Does this mean that you should start a Kickstarter? Only if you have enough fans, friends and/or a large enough family—AND a band/project that is worthy of their financial support. Aside from that you can try to play what I call the “restaurant/brewery” circuit in your town, if there is one. Here in Albuquerque several of my musician friends play at breweries and restaurants. Their sets are often quite long (three hours is typical) and filled with covers, something I am not really interested in doing. I like playing originals and freaking people out, not being background music to their happy hour conversation. But some of my friends do very well at it and make enough money to cover their bills, instruments, tours and more.
Is this the right path for you? Are you going to play that same old guitar for many years? Money can only be divided so many ways. How to spend it is a question for you and your partner to answer…together.
—Little Bobby Tucker
“The best things in life are free, But you can keep them for the birds and bees | Now give me money.” —“Money (That’s What I Want),” written in 1959 by Janie Bradford, Berry Gordy and a guy named Barrett Strong who sued Bradford and Gordy for removing his name from the copyright in 1962.