How do you make money as a bandleader? Become a sideman! I kid, of course. But seriously, how much should a bandleader make compared to other musicians in the band? The same? 50% more? Double? My opinions on this have changed significantly over the years.
When I first started playing in Latin bands there was a common phrase I’d hear all the time:
“for the love of music.” I remember my first public show (twenty-four years ago) came after rehearsing in a basement twice a week for six months straight. We got a gig playing in the bar of a Mexican restaurant that had just recently opened. They said they couldn’t afford to pay us for the first gig but would eventually pay us down the road. Our only compensation would be a meal for the band, which we all agreed to, “for the love of music.”
Yes, I realize how silly that sounds; I now joke that I used to play for tacos. And it should come as no surprise that even though the bar was packed with a line out the door, they still couldn’t afford to pay us and wanted us to return for a second gig under the same terms. It’s a common mistake — musicians love to play and want to play so bad that they’ll take whatever they can get and make excuses like
“it won’t always be like this, we’re just starting out” or
“we need to get our name out there first” or even
“we’re doing it for the love of music”… It’s incredibly short-sighted and pretty stupid when you think about it. If you really loved music you’d make sure you could keep doing it for a long time.
So if it’s so ridiculous for musicians to start out this way, why should it be any different for bandleaders? Why should bandleaders offer leadership and take on more responsibility without fair compensation? For the love of music?
The second band I ever played in had a leader who went out of his way to make sure we saw that the pay was being split equally amongst all band members. At the time, I admired him for that and, being so young and inexperienced, I thought it was the way it should be. On the other extreme, I would later play for some very greedy bandleaders who would charge thousands of dollars for a corporate gig and pay the musicians peanuts. Two different extremes.
When I eventually started to lead my own projects, I quickly realized how true it is that
“you need to learn to follow before you will ever be a good leader.” I’m an effective leader today not only because of my meticulous organizational skills and natural inclination to lead, but more importantly because I’ve observed countless others lead and have experienced first-hand what works and what doesn’t. When it comes to leadership, experience is indispensable. And my experience has taught me that not only should bandleaders charge more than the other musicians in the band, but they should be charging more than double. Why? Because, to begin with, running a band requires a large up-front investment as well as ongoing expenses. And who pays for those expenses? The bandleader.
Until you’ve been a leader yourself, it’s very easy to overlook the most common day-to-day expenses in running a band. Things like rehearsal space cost money and many bandleaders at least provide bottled water if not snacks or drinks, which aren’t free either. What about charts? Many bands use charts in some form or another and those charts cost money. What about paper and printing costs? The binders/folders cost money too and they don’t last forever, they’ll eventually need to be replaced. And how is any band supposed to stay current if they’re not constantly updating or adding to their repertoire? New tunes cost more money.
Apart from day-to-day expenses though, there are occasionally other expenses that come up unexpectedly. In our personal lives, we’re told that we should be saving at least 10% of our income for a rainy day. Why should running a business or a band be any different? Bands need to have a savings fund too! What happens when the band has to travel to do a gig far from home? Who covers any emergency costs that come up along the way? What about when the bandleader wants to do a charity event or a gig that doesn’t pay well but offers tremendous promotional value? Having a savings fund for the band would allow the bandleader to still pay the musicians their normal fee, or at the very least, cover everyone’s expenses.
Notice that I said that bandleaders should charge more than double, not that they will necessarily always make more than double. In addition to a bandleader’s financial investment is their even more substantial investment of time. Booking gigs takes time, booking musicians, booking rehearsal space, distributing charts and audio tracks before rehearsals, directing the band, preparing set lists, creating and sending stage plots and technical riders, coordinating with stage crew and promoters, signing contracts, collecting deposits, distributing pay, promoting the band, the list goes on and on! Is that huge investment of time not worth at least double?
My perception of some of those “very greedy bandleaders” I mentioned changed a bit when I started leading my own projects and came face-to-face with all the costs involved. Sure, most of them were probably just greedy and dishonest, but perhaps some of them actually had good intentions and only got a negative image with the band as a result of their lack of transparency and openness. Trying to hide that you’re taking an extra cut is never a good idea. Be honest and open about it. Yes, you charge more than the other musicians on the gig, more than double actually, but here’s why and here’s where that money goes… Simple.
At the same time, I remember that many of the bandleaders who would split pay equally amongst all the musicians were frequently accused of skimming a little off the top when no one was looking. Ironically, they were trying to appear fair and honest by splitting pay equally, but it’s not actually equal when the band’s expenses aren’t being accounted for or even acknowledged. So my perception of those bandleaders changed with greater experience too, not because I felt in retrospect like they were likely pulling the wool over my eyes, but more because I realized how foolish it was for them to run a band without ever putting aside any savings or covering even the most basic expenses upfront. Running a band costs money and that money has to come from somewhere. Needless to say, not a single one of those bandleaders still leads a band today. Of course not — they set themselves up to fail!
Let me say that I do empathize with artists fighting to make a name for themselves and I know perfectly well how challenging it can be to compete in this business; I’m not at all naïve to the struggles of starting a new band. I also recognize that success never comes without sacrifice. So I can understand the idea of a bandleader temporarily sacrificing profits today for a brighter future tomorrow. It’s another thing altogether however, to pay for band expenses out-of-pocket and actually lose money just to play a gig. Poor planning and poor execution are not great leadership.
Successful bands that are going to exist for more than just a couple of years need to have a strong, experienced, committed leader at the helm with a long-term plan for the band. A long-term vision is easy to come by — anyone can envision themselves on top of the world in five years — but a long-term plan less so. How are you going get there in five years? What sort of quantifiable goals will you commit to and on what schedule? What milestones will you identify along the way to know you’re on the right track? How will you guarantee the band’s success in meeting these goals? Wishing for it is not a plan. A great leader will have concrete goals and detailed plans extending well into the future. Making sure that you at least break even is only the start of a good plan.
Money-losing ventures, whether they be music-related or otherwise, have very short expiry dates. People are only willing to suffer through losses for a very short time until it’s time to quit. So as a bandleader, operating at a loss today, hoping to break even in the near future and someday maybe even making a profit is a recipe for inevitable failure. Not planning to break even is not only unsustainable, it shows poor planning and execution skills and puts in doubt your ability as a leader as well as your commitment to the long-term success of the band. Are you just looking to get rich quick or for a mere 15 minutes of fame? More than that? A bandleader that is truly in it for the long-haul doesn’t wing it and hope for the best, they plan and make sure that at a minimum, the band’s expenses are accounted for from day one.
Personally, I’ve created a lot of spreadsheets, tools and scripts to automate my workflow and generate quotes over the years so I can be much more sophisticated about how I price things than just charging double. For example, I have a spreadsheet that tells me the exact cost of printing charts including the cost of paper, toner, portfolios, business cards, etc. even electricity for the printer and also takes into the account the amount of masking tape I use (and waste) for a score in landscape vs. a single part in portrait orientation. And as a bandleader, I have a price generator that takes into account all my expected expenses and musician’s wages plus a 5-10% “management fee” for myself as the bandleader, depending on how much work I anticipate the gig will require. It may appear that I take this stuff very seriously and I definitely do — I love music so much that I want to make sure I can keep doing it for a long time!
So why do I say that bandleaders should charge more than double? Why double? Because whenever I accurately take all expenses for one gig into account and add my own wage as a performing musician plus a small 5% cut off the top, it always works out to at least double a musician’s wage. The math just works out that way every time. And keep in mind that 5% for all that extra work is woefully inadequate. So in the absence of any sophisticated tools like mine,
“more than double” is an easy place to start.
Before you think it’s very biased for me to advocate for bandleaders to charge more than double being a leader myself, you should know that these days I’m most often working as a sub or sideman, not as a leader. I always hope that every bandleader I play with has enough foresight and commitment to make sure they’re getting paid adequately for their leadership. Great bandleaders always charge more and do so while being honest and open about it. They don’t hide from it — they own it — because they’re working towards a much larger plan and are committed to ensuring the band’s longevity.