Jazz Musicians Sing the Blues 

Local jazz musicians continue battling for higher wages.

Jazz bassist Caroline Chung has been e-mailing San Francisco politicians nonstop for the past several months. She tried Supervisors Jane Kim and Ross Mirkarimi, and former supervisor and mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez. So far, Gonzalez was the only one who responded. They met last Saturday at his home in the Western Edition, to discuss Chung's cause: A fair wage for Bay Area musicians.

Right now the going rate for an instrumentalist playing at a bar or lounge is around $40 for a three-hour gig, which averages about $13 an hour. That's the weeknight pay at Rassela's Jazz Club & Restaurant and Sheba Piano Lounge, both part of San Francisco's newly-revitalized Fillmore Jazz District. According to Chung, the pay at other clubs is less: $30 on weeknights, and $40 on weekends at Zingari Ristorante (the owner disputed that figure, but wouldn't correct it), and $30 for three and a half hours of jazz at Les Joulins Jazz Bistro. Wages hover in that same range at East Bay venues, but some pay significantly higher. Jupiter and Albatross Pub pay $300 to $400 per band for a three-hour gig (or $100 per musician). Some clubs, such as Disco Volante, offer musicians the option of either charging a cover at the door and recouping all proceeds, or taking 10 percent of the bar from the time they go on. According to Chung, the returns usually aren't that great.

To anyone who's paid rent in Oakland or San Francisco, $13 an hour doesn't go very far. What's worse, Chung says, is that few patrons have any idea of how little musicians are paid. "People who dine at these places have no idea how much we're making because these are nice places and they have grand pianos, and when I play there on the weekends it's usually very packed," Chung said. "People assume that we're making good money, so they don't tip. On a weekend night we might make five bucks each in tips, or something."

And then there's the problem of constant scuffling with club owners, who don't necessarily want their patrons being hassled. Chung said she stopped accepting gigs at one particular San Francisco venue after the owner yelled at her for standing in front of someone for too long with a tip jar. Other club owners get snitty when musicians take long breaks between sets. Many require their hired entertainers to pay for food and drinks. That wouldn't be so bad if they were paying well, said bassist Ollie Dudek, but it's certainly no picnic to make $30 for a night's work, and then spend your whole paycheck at the bar.

Consequently, many local musicians have started taking matters into their own hands. They've argued. They've groused. They've left scurrilous commentary on Yelp. They've launched spirited discussions on Facebook. They've circulated petitions, such as the one that Dudek wrote to a better wage standard in the Fillmore Jazz District. (He sent it to Mirkarimi a few weeks ago, but hasn't heard back, yet.) Some musicians have even discussed the possibility of a boycott, just to see what would happen if large swaths of the Jazz District were suddenly void of jazz. "I know businesses within the district get low-interest loans and loan packages from the city's redevelopment agency, all in the name of having a 'jazz district,'" Dudek said. "But when there's no real standard in regards to paying the musicians, they're doing it under a false name."

From a club owner's perspective, though, the current pay scale is entirely justified. Sheba Lounge proprietor Netsanet Alemayehu said that on an average weeknight she might pull between $400 and $500 in total revenue, which means that the entertainment budget already consumes roughly a third of her gross earnings. "That $500 goes to the bartender, the waiter, the rent, the PG&E," Alemayehu said. She sighed. "I love jazz, and I want it to survive, but right now I'm thinking of cutting back some of the days."

Rassella's owner Agonafer Shiferaw concurred. "Like the night before last, we had a jam session," he said, during a phone interview last Wednesday. "We made two hundred dollars. You know how much I paid the band? One hundred sixty dollars." He continued: "People come in and don't drink, but they jam. I say, 'Put yourself in my position, and tell me how I can pay you more.'"

While some club owners get bailout money and loans from the city, they still aren't drawing enough clientele to pay rent, recoup construction costs, and also give their musicians a princely sum. Shiferaw said that in addition to all the usual business expenses, he's being hit with licensing fees from The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), which clamps down on any live entertainment venue that doesn't play all original material. The cost of running his business has grown precipitously, and in the meantime, customers are getting tighter with their purse strings. Both Shiferaw and Alemayehu complained the jazz fans will come hang out for four hours, and only purchase a soda or a glass of wine during the interim. Some people come in and don't buy anything at all. "I would be more than happy to show any musician my books," Shiferaw said, insisting that the idea greedy club owners exploiting musicians is just a canard.

Or not. One of the biggest problems that Bay Area jazz musicians face right now is that they're highly exploitable. The glut of talented musicians, and paucity of places to play, means that club owners will always find someone willing to play for $40 a night — perhaps less. Even Dudek admitted that he'll take a low-paying gig, if he gets to work with other talented musicians.

Shiferaw said that given the laws of supply and demand he sees no reason to pay musicians a higher wage. "My challenge to them is this: You be an artist first, and we'll pay you what we can afford," Shiferaw said. "You can't think clubs can subsidize your life. This is an expensive town."

Clearly, a big part of the quandary is that club owners see themselves first as small business owners, not patrons of the arts. And musicians see themselves as working professionals, whose value should at least be equal to that of a teacher, or a doctor, or someone who manages an office. But that worker-manager relationship gets fuzzy in a "jazz" or "entertainment" district, where both roles are inextricably wrapped up in revitalization efforts and city boostership. The very name "Fillmore Jazz District" places a certain premium on musicians who work there.

So there's a certain disconnect between the idea of the Fillmore and the reality of the Fillmore, where most musicians are paid about the same as a line cook or janitor. It's become an ongoing point of contention — last year the Express reported on a similar wage dispute involving the Fillmore Jazz Festival — and Chung says that unless the city steps in and sets some kind of reasonable standard for jazz gigs, it will continue to get worse. She thinks a proper "living wage" should be $50 for the first hour per musician, and $25 for each additional hour. "I think that's not asking too much," Chung said, "especially when the venues rely on those musicians for business."

Where Chung doesn't see equality, she'll keep trying to impose it. About eight months ago she had a meeting with the booker at Yoshi's San Francisco, and members of the nonprofit Jazz Heritage Center, which is located in the same building at 1300 Fillmore Street. They discussed ways to promote local musicians, generate more music programs for kids, and perhaps create a more symbiotic artist-venue relationship. "Of course they were interested at first," Chung wrote via e-mail. "Then [they] flaked out."

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