copyright 1999 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue#58 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Apr '99

The politics of playing music for money in bars is something that I've wanted to discuss in this column for some time now. The majority of professional musicians get their public exposure playing in bars, pubs, lounges, cabarets, restaurants and nightclubs. It's a "dog-eat-dog" world out there, and this article deals with some concepts that could make it a little better.

There are other ways to make money by performing music. Many musicians concentrate on playing events such as hall dances, weddings, festivals, house concerts, coffee-houses and for folk clubs or other such organizations. Other musicians are trained to occupy positions in orchestras and some are working out of the public eye in recording studios. Often musicians have backgrounds in several of these realms. This article does not apply directly to these latter areas but I'm sure some parallels can be drawn to life on the bar scene.

There needs to be a Code of ethics for the working 'bar' musician. Sure, there is common sense and most people are fairly considerate to their fellow players, but sometimes things get weird out there and it can be hard to know just how to handle different situations without stepping on someone else's toes.

In recent years it's become apparent to me that few bar players know what the word "solidarity" means. "Yeah man, it's a hot drink made from really bad smog". I found out about solidarity when I first joined the musicians union in 1974.

At the time I had a release on a major label and was facing the possibility of having a career that would involve a lot of touring as well as further recording studio and television work. The union was a necessary component to being a professional musician.

As it happened, not a lot of the things I wanted to accomplish followed, but this was due to my lack of experience and direction. In those days you couldn't go to college to learn the music biz and magazines and such did little to inform the individual how to make a career in music. It was "who you know" combined with a lot of luck and "being in the right place at the right time."

Being a member of the union gave access to their trade publication and a uniform body to contact for support when things went wrong. I'm surprised that in B.C., a province with so many militant unionists, that a lot of people don't relate the tenets of unionism to the bar scene.

I recall being sent to Alberta by a major agency based in Vancouver. They had just opened an office in Calgary & were sending every musician that they could out to Alberta where they described "streets paved with gold" with "lineups around the block at every bar". It sounded good, so I loaded up my old station wagon with PA gear and drove out to embark on a "six week tour".

I played one week in Bow Island at a sad little pub and the rest of the so-called "tour" fell apart. I was broke and a long way from home. Limping into Calgary I went directly to the agent's office where I met with the creators of this disastrous tour. They told me not to worry, something would turn up eventually. They admitted that, "things aren't as good as they used to be".

On the other hand, I overheard them talking on the phone to some Vancouver based players, telling them to "come out right away, there's work everywhere". They were stockpiling musicians and giving them whatever garbage gigs were available. I stayed with my friend Jeremy Sagar in a "band house" full of musicians "on hold". They were grabbing whatever gig came along. It was pretty depressing.

I followed up with a visit to the union office to register a complaint. The upshot was that this agency was "blackballed" and subsequently lost their license in Alberta. Due to my inexperience and the agency's flagrant disregard for propriety, I had no proper contracts so I returned home from my tour a sadder but wiser musician. But I saw firsthand the benefits of being in the union. There are some scummy operators out there and an individual needs some kind of backup.

Over the years of residing on Vancouver Island I allowed my membership in the AF of M to lapse. I felt that there just wasn't a lot of call for it at the time. I wasn't "touring" off the Island much or doing any serious studio work in Vancouver. Most of the musicians on the scene were non-union and many of the casual gigs in the region were fairly 'user friendly'. The bar scene was just starting to open up and it seemed that a musician could make a go of it individually.

There was lots of money being infused into the bar scene from the resource industries. Forestry, mining and fishing were going great and tourism was opening up. There was money to be made and there was a lot of work for the musicians who went out to get it. An acceptable level of musical income was established by these hardworking professional performers and their agents.

A code was in effect for both union and non-union players. Let's hope that all the hard won advances made by professional musicians over the past 25 years don't go out the window because of inexperience or indifference by today's performing artists, young and old.

"Fast forward" to the late nineties. Vancouver Island now has a burgeoning live music scene with hundreds of bands vying for dozens of gigs. It doesn't take too much imagination to see that there will be conflicts between performing artists in this kind of market. With club owners & talent bookers being able to turn away groups because of their abundant availability there is an imbalance in the equation for professional artists trying to make a living from their talents.

The result is that many bar managers are dropping their entertainment budgets as the cost of being in business gets more & more regulated by government and costs of being in business continue to rise. "Cost of Living" is a term that applies to musicians too. Unfortunately this is where the main problems arise for the artists.

Money allotted for live music continues to be eroded and rather than seeing musicians sticking together to maintain a fair payment for services, we are seeing the opposite. Underbidding and playing for a percentage of sales with no guarantee are two of the main problems. Some of the people doing this are simply inexperi-enced, but others should know better. What it comes down to is attitude and a sense of pride.

For example, a bar that paid a solo performer a flat rate of $350-$400 only 5 years ago, now has trios and quartets working the same hours for a percentage of the bar receipts. The quartet walked away with less than $300 between them for two night's work and were looking forward to booking a return gig! This is pathetic! We have to re-establish a sense of self-worth. If it doesn't pay properly, don't do it.

In the early days it was possible to do gigs with a fairly affordable stack of equipment. "Inflation" is another factor that affects not only the bar owners but musicians as well. With the technology available today, it is not unusual to see a solo artist working with $4000-$10,000 worth of gear. Young bands & established bands alike, are now carrying a terrifically expensive back-line around with them, let alone their front of house requirements and lighting.

Yet we continue to see the rate of pay for live music in bars go down. It's time to get reorganized & establish some basic parameters before it becomes a "pay-to-play" situation. I suggest that if you haven't already checked out the Musicians Union that you go to your local association to see what services they have to offer. It may just be the thing that keeps our rapidly growing music scene from imploding into a state of total disarray. Get with the program before it's too late.

Contact: Richard Payne, Musician's Association of Victoria & the Islands, Local 247 AFM, 202-732 Princess Ave, Victoria, BC. (250) 385-3954 or:

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at:

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