Gig Economics

getting-paid-21You know that great feeling you get right after you’ve played a great gig at which everyone had a blast, the club owner was delighted, and you just got five crisp twenties counted into your hand for your efforts? That’s the feeling that can vanish faster than the Statue of Liberty for David Copperfield when the waitress brings your tab. So you fork over $25 for the tab, adding another $5 for the waitress because she works for tips, too, and because you’re not a schmuck.

Then, after you’re all loaded out and you start the car, you realize you need gas. Another $40.

Of course, if you’re gigging and don’t care about the money, that scenario might not seem like a big deal to you. But if you are an independent musician or a serious cover band, then you know it’s not much fun driving home in the wee hours of the morning while fuming that you’re only netting $30 from the night. Fortunately, there are a few things we musicians can do to wind up keeping more of what we earn.

  • Pack a cooler. Just because you’re playing for a club doesn’t mean you have to eat there. A cheeseburger, fries, and drink at a club can run about $10 – $15 before tip, and that’s excluding any alcohol you order. Add in a mixed drink or a couple of beers and you can count on spending about $30 on food alone. Getting fast food on the way might save a little, but you’ll come out way ahead here by packing sandwiches, snacks, and drinks in a cooler. Savings: $20 – $30*.
  • Negotiate discounts. Most club owners will offer discounted meals and drinks to band members as part of the compensation package, and sometimes your band can eat for free. Alcohol is rarely included, although soft drinks, tea, and water are. It never hurts to ask, though, and you should always ask. Savings: $10 – $15.
  • Drive slower. You can’t get around using gas to get to the gig, but you do have some control over how little you can use to get there. It’s no myth that you can increase your gas mileage by up to 25 percent just by driving slower, and performing regular maintenance. Trade for a more fuel-efficient car if possible. (About a month ago I went from a minivan to a Saturn. I now get 35 miles per gallon, and I can still fit in 3 keyboards, two powered speakers, stands, and gig bags!) You can also try leaving about fifteen minutes earlier for the gig and driving 5 – 10 miles an hour slower. Finally, download one of the many smartphone apps like Gas Buddy or Gas Guru (both available on iPhone and Android) to help you find the best gas price. Savings: variable (though by combining these strategies I’ve realized a 28 percent savings at the pump).
  • Know where the cheap hotels are along the way. A couple of the gigs my band plays are nearly 2 hours away from my home, which makes for a rough drive back at 3 AM. I’m able to stay the night with our drummer most of the time, but not everyone has that luxury. For those occasions when you’re just too tired to drive, or when you shouldn’t, an inexpensive hotel makes the best sense. It’s a smarter idea still to research them beforehand to avoid wasting time looking for one at 3 AM that fits your budget. You’re not really saving money here, unless by doing so you wind up avoiding a ticket or driving into a ditch.
  • gBagFromAboveKeep spares in your gig bag. We all keep spares of the obvious things: strings, picks, drumsticks, batteries, and so on. But it’s usually the want of that odd accessory that can ruin a gig. Once I left the house without packing the wall-wart power supply for my Yamaha CP 33 stage piano. I had about an hour before the gig, so I drove (okay, I raced) 15 miles to the nearest Radio Shack, bought a replacement, and got back with about 10 minutes to spare before downbeat. Alas, it was the wrong size! I got through, but I bought a backup power supply at the music store the next day. Savings: variable (but $20 over a year is probably realistic).
  • Charge more for gigs that are farther away. This is the biggest variable over which you have complete control. Your band should already have a good performance fee schedule in place that is both competitive in the marketplace and fair to the musicians. But sometimes good gigs are farther away than those you usually play, and you’ll need to adjust the cost of doing business if you want to take them. Likewise, club owners should expect to pay more if they want you. If you normally charge $500 for a five-piece, get at least an extra hundred to help cover gas and oil; get more if there’s an overnight stay involved. I put the extra $20 into my tank and consider it money saved. Savings: $20 – $35.

To find out just how quickly these savings add up, try this for a month or two: take out the money you would have spent at each night’s gig and set it aside. (Assume you earn $100 per gig.) Getting a comped meal or carrying food and drink each time will probably save about $60 per month ($15/meal * 4 gigs), and driving your well-maintained car slower could net you a $10 savings over the same month. And if you get an extra $30 in a month in tips, sock that away as gas money.

Congratulations! You’ve just saved $100 – a night’s pay!

Now go celebrate at the next gig with a chicken finger plate and a couple of beers.


*Savings are estimates only. Your mileage may vary, depending on location.

Image credits: Top photo – Bottom photo –

Updated 6/25/13


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