When music barely pays the bills
Once upon a time $75,000-$100,000 was considered an amazing living in America, but now in the big cities it barely gets you by.
I've been a part time musician for the last decade, and every year it gets tougher and tougher to make the time for for the art when bills keep getting higher not to mention the demands of the main money earning work I do. It is harder to do art for arts sake and not look for some money in return.
Condensed from the times :
When music barely pays the bills By Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 11, 2008
Tim Eckert's job requires a light touch and a measure of heavy lifting.
As a workaday classical musician, he lugs a 40-pound double bass from downtown Los Angeles to Century City to Azusa and points in between.
"In the most reductionist terms, I am paid to come in with my bass and play these notes," he said, minutes before descending, tuxedo-clad, into the orchestra pit at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "We are the laborers."
Eckert's routine illustrates how the business of producing beautiful sounds can play out as a dissonant mix of art and toil: major scales versus wage scales.
For all its intrinsic rewards -- Eckert loves what he does -- his vocation comes down to a fretful chase of elusive paydays, each demanding a level of excellence here that might be unsurpassed in the tuneful world.
Lately, the gigging has only gotten tougher.
Eckert and his colleagues say they must contend with an influx of talent from as far away as New York and Europe and Asia, a growing crop of younger competitors from L.A.'s ever-improving academies and increasing use of canned music onstage and in television.
"We have tremendous numbers of members who are absolutely struggling," said Leslie Lashinsky, a veteran bassoonist who is secretary-treasurer of the L.A. musicians union. "Even very prestigious musicians are hard-pressed to make ends meet."
Eckert, 39, counts himself among the fortunate. He holds one of the few "tenured" orchestra positions in the region, as the fifth-chair bassist for the Los Angeles Opera. That assures him a spot in the pit whenever the opera needs at least five basses.
But as prized as the posting is -- landing it took Eckert three years of subbing for regulars -- full-time employment it's not. Players are paid per rehearsal and performance.
"I couldn't survive on just this," said Eckert as he prepared for a weeknight presentation of "Tosca," for which he would collect about $300.
In the local classical realm, only the L.A. Philharmonic offers musicians a full-time salary.
The Phil starts its players at more than $100,000 a year, and openings draw hundreds of applicants. Winning candidates survive a gantlet of auditions, beginning with a "blind" tryout in which they play behind a screen.
The rest of the classical performers in town -- there is no official tally, but estimates range up to 1,500 -- piece together engagements with other civic orchestras and chorales, grab the odd church or school pageant, do weddings and teach.
Studio sessions can be a livelihood saver. A day of recording tracks for a CD, movie, TV show, commercial or video game can be more lucrative than weeks of live performing, especially because of residual payments.
Recording opportunities are limited, however. And there is no telling when the phone will ring with a booker on the line.
"The combination of studio work and residuals is more than a third of my income," said Eckert, who recently contributed to songs by pop star Dido and the soundtrack for the "X-Files" movie.
"But I can't make that happen," he said. "There is a pool of work out there, and it ebbs and flows."
Eckert's annual income fluctuates between $75,000 and $100,000. It's enough to enjoy the artist's life in L.A. and pay the theft and damage insurance premiums on his 19th century instrument, a rare guitar-shaped Baldantoni bass, but he has yet to achieve his goal of homeownership.
And despite a busy social calendar, he is single, which might make his erratic, mostly night-centric work regimen easier.
"We can go from zero to 80 in a minute in terms of our schedules," he said during a break in rehearsals for Puccini's "La Rondine." "Some weeks you might not have anything. Some weeks you are booked to the gills."
He typically performs less than 40 hours a week. Playing an instrument is physically taxing, and a grind is not conducive to perfection.
"Like in athletics, there is a point where you get a diminishing rate of return," Eckert said.
He noted that many musicians suffer from repetitive stress injury and that qualifying for medical leave and health insurance is no lock.
Gary Lasley, a union director, is a bassist for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra but also fights the freeways to sit in with the Santa Barbara Symphony and teach at La Sierra University in Riverside.
"The competition has gotten harder," said Lasley, who has played here for 32 years, 14 at the Bowl.
It's an inescapable irony that the competition forces so many musicians to supplement their income by training their future competitors.
"I can't think of any colleague who doesn't have private students," Lasley said. "
Expression in the arts be it full time or part time is part of human nature, it is something society needs to support and we as members in that society always need time to enjoy