I just finished Week 1 of my Super Busy Period™ and survived. It’s been so busy I haven’t had time to quite stress about any of it, and now that I have a minute to breathe, I’ve done a little math so I can quantify my relationship to it, the numbers tell stories. On top of the 500+ miles I drove this weekend, I walked my daughter a couple miles to the park and back, bought, moved and installed a new pellet stove, removed the old one (and they’re like 250 pounds, kind of a big deal to move around with one person), did a video interview for my friend Shunnae’s upcoming gospel album release, filled my tank 3 times (!!!), and finished 2 books. The books were pretty easy, actually, since I can’t sleep for a couple hours after I get home from a gig, but that’s also bad because those late night 75 mile drives get kind of, uh, funny, when you haven’t slept much…

By the time it’s done, I’ll have made something like 13 round trips of 140-180 miles each ranging from 60-90 minutes each way. 

13 trips x 150 or so miles = 1950 miles
1950 miles @ $3.70 a gallon assuming 28mpg = $260 (this is generous; I don’t always get 28mpg)
13 trips * 2 hours of driving for the round trip (guessing low) = 26 hours of driving

An average trip is for about 3 hours; shorter ones are maybe closer to 2 hours – a 1 hour gig, arrive at least 30 minutes early, hang out for at least 20-30 minutes afterwards. A longer one is much longer; I got to Albuquerque at 2:00 on Saturday and got home at 12:30am. So let’s call it an average of 3 hours just to be conservative.

3 hours average * 13 trips = 39 hours.

26 hours of driving + 39 hours of sound checking and playing and hauling equipment and rehearsing = 45 hours.

Federal minimum wage as of July 2007 was $5.85.

$5.85 * 45 hours = $263.

So if I want to cover my gas cost AND make minumum wage, I have to make

$263 + $260 = $523 dollars.

Take a theoretical $100 gig. Do 3 rehearsals (25 bucks or so of gas for each one) and the gig itself, and you’re at plus or minus $1 already, plus you’ve probably got at least 20 hours into it. A hundred bucks is decent pay for a gig, too, especially in these times. I would need an awful lot of gigs where I clear a dollar in order to replace any important part of my living. And I have to think that there are more profitable ways to spend 20 hours. Music’s its own thing, it’s partly out of love, but 20 hours for a buck in your pocket or a buck in the hole is almost beyond love if you do it all the time.

Thanks to one good paying gig, I’m actually a little ahead of the curve. So I’m scoring a little over minumum wage for squeezing in an extra week (40 or so hours) of worth of work over a couple weeks. Depending on how you slice and dice it (which gig for which artist, for example), I’m either making a couple cents an hour or losing $25-40 bucks (and up) for each gig if you don’t factor in that one higher paying gig.

Negative $40 is not a great return on my time investment, and a cynical person might say that paying $40 to spend time away from a home that I love and a family I adore seems a little steep. I’ve done all the gigs voluntarily, and there’s been no gun to my head in any way, so I’m not actually complaining. I’m just evaluating how I spend my sparse “extra” time going forward, and it’s pretty hard to justify losing money to be away from my family. I have hobbies, books to read, a daughter and dogs to play with, neglected wives (wife, actually), home improvements to do, and so on. If I absolutely loved every second of every gig, there’d be nothing to consider. But that’s a stretch. And it’s a dangerous notion that “since you love music, you should always be willing to do it or free or less.” I know people who love the law, but their pro bono time is completely voluntary. I’m doing a benefit at the end of the month for free, but the caterers are getting paid; I know the realities of trying to live off something creative and I’m not salty about it, but I’m aware that it’s not cut and dry. Some people love installing car stereos or painting motorcycles or working outside with plants or healing animals, and there’s not a lot of pressure on them to do it for free most of the time. But for music, there’s almost a weird jealousy, an expectation that since you’ve evidenced 30 years of involvement with something that you must LOVE it, and since you LOVE it, “I’ve got you where I want you.” Your love must mean you NEED to play, so if you NEED to play, you’d probably do it whether or not you got paid, so why bother paying? Or paying fairly. (Whatever that means.)

That being said, I have to say that I’ve been very fortunate in my small little circle. I’ve found people that I share mutual respect for as artists and as people, and (as I will likely repeat more than once), the weird thing about those positive associations is that they’re also the ones where money’s not a consideration. i.e. I’d do those things for free, but never have to.

So I’ll plan on backing away from a lot of it going forward. In truth, I may not even need the plan; next month might be almost totally empty, and the month after, absolutely blank, so this “I’m not going to take many gigs” thing could just be ego-driven theory that I never even get a chance to execute. But I do have to prioritize. The weird thing is that even people close to me say things like “You just CAN’T QUIT music! You love it! It’s too important.” My reaction is usually unspoken, but something like, “Really?” I can’t quit? Ever? Because people can’t quit what they love, and I MUST love music? And if I stopped doing many gigs (again) then I couldn’t possibly be doing anything else with music that I enjoy? There are a lot of assumptions and subtleties in there that can’t be untangled in a sentence or two, but I can say this: I don’t think I could be happy in totally eliminating music from my life, but I already know that I can be pretty OK without playing live much. Not being public and not being involved whatsoever are totally separate notions.

In a perfect world, I would LOVE the people I’m working with, and I’d take home at least a little money. In a less perfect world, I’d LOVE the people I’m with and maybe break even or at least not lose too much. In one world I don’t live in any longer, I’d just make money regardless of who was involved, but I never take gigs for money alone any more. (In reality, I haven’t enountered many gigs out there where the artist is purely painful, but it’s nice to know that if I stumbled across one I would feel no pressure to take it.) One worst case for me is involvement in music I don’t like and with people I don’t like AND not making money at it. Blessedly, it doesn’t happen much; the rare few people I really haven’t gotten along with have usually at least compensated me OK. Whatever.

It’s actually pretty simple when I think about it; all these hypothetical combinations don’t really happen. In real life, I’ve been very lucky about finding people I love being around and making music with and getting fairly compensated for spending time with them feels like a gift. I keep rambling about it because I love those times so much that I wish I could do it more often, and in order to do it more often, I’d have to make some part of my living off of it, realistically speaking, and I’m not there right now. In where the chemistry is not quite there, it’s not a big deal; it’s nobody’s fault, it’s not personal, and there’s not much to do about it – just move on. Gigs with Larry Mitchell and Joy Harjo, for example, or anything involving my man Howard Cloud or my new friend Chris Cushman, are a joy, and I’ll cancel things to make them work out. They nourish me and I’d do them for free, but I never actually need to. Other stuff I’ll have to examine case by case; I’ll try almost anything once, but I’ve been doing it too long to do things just to do them, so if they don’t have something tangibly positive associated with them, I’ll have to back away.

And I’ve already tried a lot of things once, so at the risk of sounded jaded (because I am, at least a little), I can bypass the courtship sometimes and skip right to the breakup. No big deal. (I’m not confrontational by nature, but as soon as I hear one of those “I sure wish I could pay you what you’re worth, but it’ll definitely happen in the future” lines, I just smile and nod and wait to see exactly how they define what I am or am not worth in the form of my pay for their gig.) I’m not driven by money as far as my relationship to music, actually to the point of being a detriment, but there’s only one of me and only 24 hours in a day and an awful lot of life to live, so I have to prioritize things. If something is fun AND I get paid AND my daughter can come see it and have fun too, that’s one thing. If something’s not fun AND I don’t get paid AND I miss a weekend with my family, it gives me tools to make “business decisions” with for muller.com. A lot of music stuff is more fun to tell people about than to actually do, anyway. I’ll just continue to focus on the stuff that’s at least as much fun to do as it is to “complain” about…

I’ve been fortunate to be busy for again for a minute, it’s a nice way to stay honest and try some new things and be around some new people. And it’s actually been really fun, it’s even fun to have a chance to complain about “being so busy.” But if the next month happened to be anything like this one, I simply can’t afford the time and money to do it the same way again, so I probably won’t be this busy again for a while. And I’m looking forward to it. I’m young enough to still be open to trying out the things that fall in front of me, and I’m old enough to recognize (for myself) the difference between “just busy” and “good-busy,” and I’ll continue working towards “good-busy” and save a little of myself for my nuclear family.

Balance. Just an idea still…