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Darden Smith Headshot

What Are You Worth? Artists and Self-Respect

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Making a living as an artist is difficult under the best of circumstances. Opportunities fall through. Good rides end. We do whatever's necessary to keep the wolves away from the door, while trying to stay creative. And when we get desperate, we start accepting lower and lower fees for our work. The problem is that slowly you begin to believe that the cards actually are stacked against you. It's a downward cycle that ends with getting paid, as my friend Sammy Merendino says, "just enough to keep us down."

If musicians and artists don't believe in the value of their work, why would anyone else? To get others to believe, first you have to believe in yourself.

When I first started singing my songs, I'd sing anywhere that would let me -- bars, restaurants, happy hours, weddings, any time, any place. And when I did those gigs, it was me against the chatter. Three out of four times the noise won. I would stand there with my guitar, playing my songs, no one listening, feeling like human furniture. I noticed that friends who played cover tunes could handle this kind of gig pretty well. But I wanted to sing my own songs, to people who would listen.

Every now and then, I would get a support slot for an artist at a serious venue with a cover charge. Sometimes it was a lot of money just to get in the door. That made all the difference. People paid attention. I would walk out of the club at the end of the night convinced that the artist's life, everything I had to put up with, might just be worth it. Because what I wanted to say -- through music -- had connected with an audience that wanted to listen.

Eventually, I quit playing free club shows. The truth is, audiences pay more attention if they've put down some cash for the opportunity to hear my songs. It's not an arrogance thing, just an acknowledgement that we're having an exchange. Humans have been exchanging things they value for centuries. What I have to offer is my art. You just have to pay the cover. I'll give you something, and you do the same. Seems fair to me.

A DJ friend of mine here in Austin brings a unique, Texas slant to the usual club approach. Along with spinning the current dance tracks, he comes in with super hip vintage country tracks, early rock and roll. He's an original. We were talking a while back about his work, about trying to pay the bills on the wages of a DJ, and about being treated like the hired help at some of his gigs. My advice was to double his rate, and (in his mind) set an absolute minimum that he would work for. Then start saying "No" to people who won't pay his new fee, and "No" to the gigs that treated him poorly. He took it to heart, raised his rate. And the result? He's working more than ever. Every now and then he comes down on his fee, but only on the shows that are valuable to him in other ways. The soul-crushers, he just passes by.

Of course, you can overshoot the market. A bit of common sense and understanding your audience are key to setting your price. It's a moving target. There's an art to it, an oscillation between discretion and absolute bravery. Just remember, you can always come down on a price to fit a situation, but you can never go up.

It's funny, but when artists put a price on their work and stick to their guns about it, pretty soon it becomes an accepted fact that they're actually worth that amount. So dream a little bigger. In the end, you, the artist, are the best and most important bulwark against getting undervalued.

If you want others to respect you, do what Aretha said. "RESPECT YOURSELF!"