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Same as it ever was: Musician pay for live shows in Austin hasn't changed in 40 years

The pay for a gig in Austin has been the same for the last 40 plus years
Michael Minasi
The pay for a gig in Austin has been the same for the last 40 plus years.

Austin musicians have known all along that they don't make much money, but the 2015 Austin Music Census confirmed just how little money they make.

“What I think surprised a lot of people when the census came out is that 20% of musicians are below the poverty line, and about another 30% hover just right above it,” says Nikki Rowling, who runs Titan Music Group, the firm that conducted the census.
At the time, the poverty line was just under $12,000 a year for an individual and around $24,000 for a family of four.

One reason musicians here make so little money is that the pay for a gig in Austin has been the same for the last 40-plus years, averaging between $50 and $100 per gig, per musician.

“I dug out a calendar from 1979,” musician Marcia Ball says, ”and we played 12 to 15 gigs a month, mostly in Texas and Louisiana. And many of those gigs paid $300 a night. Some paid 5- and sometimes even $600 a night.”

Assuming the pay was split evenly between her five-member band, each musician could expect to take home between $60 and $120 a night.

Marcia Ball in Studio 1A
Julia Reihs
Musician Marcia Ball says many of the gigs she played in 1979 paid $300 a night; some paid $600.

“I looked in another calendar from 1981,” Ball says. “And if you had worked for me for a full year as my sax player did, you would have made $15,475.”

Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $47,865 today.

But because the average pay for gigs has essentially stayed the same, many Austin musicians are still only making $15,475 a year.

“I have before me a record of what I made in 1994,” drummer David Sanger, who has lived in Austin since 1994, says.

He rattles numbers off: Jimmy LaFave at the Shady Grove Unplugged Series – $75. Mary Cutrufello at the Continental Club – $80. Sarah Brown at Central Market – $100.

Musician and producer Beto Martinez is pictured in his home studio in Austin.
Michael Minasi
Musician Beto Martinez says when he was 19 he was happy to make $50 for a gig, and Austin was a cheap place to live.

“You know, we were happy to make 50 bucks, but we were also like 19 years old, 20 years old and it was very cheap to live,” says Beto Martinez who was playing music in the early 2000s with bands like the Blimp Trio and Grupo Fantasma. “So we were making not a lot of money, but we didn't need a lot of money.”

When it was in the range of $100 per person per gig, it felt like he could actually consider making music as a job, he says. But that was 20 years ago.

Last month,Pause/Play asked musicians how much they were making per gig, and that’s the same figure many folks gave.

There’s no one answer as to why musician pay has stayed so stagnant through the years. But people have theories.

“I think it's that there's so many opportunities to see musicians,” says Jake Perlman, a drummer who has been working in Austin for 25 years. (He’s also the audio editor for Pause/Play.) “People will spend $12 on a cocktail, but don't want to spend $5 to come in and spend the evening watching some amazing music.”

“I think it's like a lack of leadership,” singer and guitar player Jackie Venson says. “You know, there's too many people that are willing to take the low [paying] gigs that keep the [pay] low. But then also, they're in a situation where they can't get any other gigs, and $100 sounds pretty freakin’ nice right now. And it's like this vicious cycle of like – I need a gig, but it doesn't pay, but I need to make money, and it's better than staying home and definitely not making money.”

“That seems to just be an arbitrary standard that people think is all right, whether it's from a venue standpoint or even like a band standpoint,” she continues. “There's a lot of people, I think, that just are like, ‘As long as I get 100 bucks.’”

Whatever the reason, it’s clear Austin’s music community will continue to struggle as long as their gig pay stays the same.

Elizabeth McQueen is an audio producer and podcast host at KUTX 98.9, Austin’s NPR music station.
Miles Bloxson is a producer and host for KUT 90.5 and KUTX 98.9.
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