February 2024
Stepping Up To, and For, the Mic
Thoughts from a working musician

Jews and Christians believe that creation began when God said “let there be light,” so that the word — or the organization of sonic frequencies into intelligible patterns — is the gateway to the rest of everything. Speaking more scientifically, the study of fetal brainwaves proves that hearing is first among the senses, chronologically speaking. So music hits people on a more primal level than the other arts. I want to share a few sometimes unsettling realities about the politics and economics of our local music scene, while not forgetting that music is at least primal, if not sacred.

Music is not my main job, at least not till very recently. I’m a philosopher of law, a political historian, and a translator. In the last eight months or so I’ve decided to dedicate myself more fully to music, mostly because I can’t find much work in my chosen professions in town. Be that as it may, I’ve worked off and on as a musician since the age of 11, and my musical work has helped me survive in our nation’s capital, New York City, Europe and South America. From that experience I’ve learned some important lessons.

Benjamin Lehman

Being a working musician is just that: work. Some gigs are roaring good fun, most gigs are forgettable, and some are just nasty. It’s a day at the office in the gig economy. Not to put too fine a point on it, the pay is almost always crap. Bars, houses of worship and bands don’t pay for rehearsals, so musicians work many more hours than we’re paid for. There are no employment benefits unless you count free beer, self-employment taxes are high, and good luck with workers comp if you’re injured on a gig. Most annoyingly for me, there’s a lot of night work around drunk people. Unwanted romantic propositions from patrons and colleagues are regular occurrences, at least for me. Most annoying of all, that means loads of gossip exacerbated by drink — we tend to play bars, after all.

The small size of our local scene aggravates these issues. Most musicians in town attend each other’s gigs, which can understandably lead outsiders to think there are no problems or tensions. This lack of visible friction papers over the important factor that musicians have few choices in terms of bands to work with and places to play. There is no quicker way of getting kicked out of a band, or never booked again at a local bar, than being open about your problems with bandmates or working arrangements.

Keeping politely quiet about the challenges doesn’t make them go away. In Prescott in 2023 local bars canceled six gigs on me, four by the same venue. I’ve had several instances in the last few months where I’ve been told I’m going to be hired on a show, and practice the music based on that understanding, only to hear two days before showtime that someone different is actually hired for the work. That kind of behavior doesn’t often happen in the real world (outside Prescott), because musicians in the real world expect a higher degree of professionalism from their colleagues and workplaces than our local scene generally provides.

This leads me to a couple of related questions. How can the local community help musicians, and how can musicians help the community and ourselves?

I think the community can help by realizing that we are working people, with workers’ worries. We have bills to pay, and any local musician will tell you that they have clubs they love to play and other clubs that are a real slog. Support the musicians you enjoy by voting with your feet and your pocketbook.

Musicians can help themselves and our local scene by stepping up our game professionally. That means being open about misunderstandings rather than papering things over, whether that's with patrons, bookers or colleagues. If we can have more respect for ourselves and what we do, we have a chance of earning it from others.

If we get better at speaking up for ourselves, and if the people who enjoy and show up for our gigs are more willing to speak up for us, playing in town would be more enjoyable, more reliable, and musically better, which is most important of all.

Music is sacred, or close enough to sacred that the difference doesn’t matter much. I hope we can come to treat it that way.

Prescott native Paul Ruffner is a working musician, translator, writer and historian.

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