My previous Blue Ear Books blog recounted my travails presenting a group of distinguished Mexican musicians at a very small music festival in Seattle during the reign of the rabidly xenophobic (particularly when it comes to Mexico) Donald Trump. Among the responses to my blog was one pointing out forcefully that any activity performed by a foreigner for payment in the U.S., no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is considered a crime in the absence of an explicit work visa.
I get that. But at the same time, I maintain that certain types of economic activity are marginal to the point of insignificance and hardly worth the cost of policing when countervailing factors such as the artists’ expenditures are taken into account. In the above case, the trifling sum the musicians received, apart from non-cash, in-kind donations to offset their considerable travel expenses, was far exceeded by the amount of money they spent during their stay here; that is, their investment in our local economy.
It struck me that the larger issue raised by this reader’s comment was the unrealistic view non-musicians hold of today’s musical economy. I’d wager that most people would be shocked to learn that only a microscopic fraction – likely less than one percent – of all serious performing and recording musicians can actually subsist on the earnings from their musical activities alone. The truth is that, like me, the vast majority depends on day jobs to stay afloat, but we are no less dedicated to the serious pursuit of our art.
The general listener’s ignorance of the average musician’s day-to-day reality is understandable in a world where most people’s only contact with working musicians is via the grossly distorted lens of the brightly lit mainstream media, where one could easily form the impression that we’re all living it up in a nonstop party like Beyoncé and Justin and Taylor. The fact is that those musicians represent the proverbial One Percent, while the rest of us scramble for our trivial share of an ever-shrinking pot, especially now that the free download-and-stream juggernaut has torn through the musical economy like a Kansas tornado. (I’m incredulous at how many people ask, upon being told that I’m a musician, whether it’s my sole source of income; my response is usually a wry laugh.)
Some personal perspective, by way of example: As a musician of four decades’ standing, I’ve built a respectable international reputation, appeared on roughly 40 albums, garnered hundreds of appreciative reviews worldwide, and played with some of the best in the business. That’s more than many other musicians can claim. But I have yet to turn a profit on a single one of my albums after factoring in my expenses, and I walked away from my two most recent gigs with a grand total of $15 in my pocket. Granted, I’m involved in niche genres that lie far outside the mainstream, but musicians in every genre outside the One Percent have taken a giant step backward in recent years.
Back to the topic of playing under-the-radar gigs in foreign countries, my experience has been that, pretty much anywhere I’ve played but the U.S., officials recognize that the amount of money earned by most small-time musicians is not worth the bother. This has been the case even for some of my higher-profile international excursions; indeed, I’ve entered countries such as China, Russia, Germany, and yes, Mexico numerous times with a full complement of performance gear with no questions asked, the (correct) assumption being that whatever amount of money might change hands was negligible in the overall scheme of things, and that the authorities had far more important things to attend to. In any case, the amount of my own money I spent to get there, and on in-country expenses, typically dwarfed whatever performance fee (if any) I received.
Once again our country reverses its priorities at the expense of those who can least afford it, harassing small-time visiting musicians over inconsequential amounts of income, when the positive benefits of intercultural artistic exchange are incalculable.
Dennis Rea is the author of the Blue Ear Books title Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan.