Want to never reach your dreams of being a musician with a national (or international) profile who makes a living by touring and selling their music to legions of fans? Start being a $100-a-night musician for every bar in your town. The $100 part isn't the important factor here - it's kind of going rate where I live, but your own market may dictate something different. The crucial thing is the idea that you're hopping from bar to bar every night, not really playing a gig but being the band who happens to be playing while other people are going about their socializing.
They didn't come there to see you. They came there to hang out. They may have seen you before and thought you were pretty good. What they aren't going to do in great numbers is shell out money to come see you at your next "show" show - the kind of show that has posters and promotion and original music and all that jazz - because, well, they can see you for free any night of the week. I know, I know - the tipsy girls were up dancing while you were performing at the bar and they seemed to be loving it. It made you feel good. That's nice. It's not the same thing as building fans who love your original music. Your choice.
Now, I'm not saying that there's no place for playing the occasional bar show for some quick cash as a musician. It can be a good way to build up a little money to go on tour and such. But don't mistake it for a career goal. You may feel like you're supporting yourself as a musician by doing these shows, but in the long term, they're a trap. Believe me about two things:
- $100 a night may feel like you're supporting yourself really well when you're 22. It won't when you're 32. Doing the math? Don't forget to figure in how much of that $100 you give back to the bar for drinks, pay out for food, share with musicians who have helped you out, etc. By the way, given the length of the sets at most of these shows and the amount of work that goes into learning all of the inevitable covers you'll have to play, you're really getting exploited at that rate.
- These constant shows will come to feel like every bit of the drudgery any dead end day job feels like.
Listen, play these shows when you need to. Just don't get confused about what they are. If your goal is to move beyond your local circuit, then you need a separate strategy to legitimize your original music in front of local music fans and get them to love THAT stuff. In other words, get them to want to pay money to see you perform. That may involve playing for free at a great music venue instead of making $100 to play in some bar where no one is really listening some night. That's OK. That's how you prove yourself. If you need to make some more money, consider a day job that gives you some flexibility to get out on the road. Yes, I said it. Don't sell your musical future for a quick $100 just so you can say that you made it playing bass on Oasis covers instead of pulling a shift at Starbucks. It's what you might call a false economy.
And yes, truly valuing your own work might in some cases mean giving it away for free when you get started. You'll get much more out of playing for free as an opener for a big touring band than you will earning $100 being that guy/girl who is making it difficult for people to chat over their burgers. Nearly every industry these days requires people to enter the field via unpaid internships. It's not so different.
Want to learn more? Read up on the $100 Danger for Musicians.