That NEW Adage

A pressure-relief valve about God, and just about everything else.

…Just another office job.


Some of you may know that I play at BB King’s club here in Memphis on Monday nights. I used to be in the house band, and I will soon tell you how I came to not be. Playing in clubs is a treacherous endeavor. Here is one example of why:

The current house band has been on staff since we, Ty Brown, were replaced back in September of ’03. They back up the highly paid headliners and are required to know all the headliners’ material, as well as perform the last set during the week alone. They are an excellent group of players who tour with nationally-known acts on a regular basis. They have done great work for the four-plus years there, having to be proficient in various music styles such as blues (of course), pop, R&B, jazz, country, reggae, and soul. The guys would rehearse early in the mornings despite getting off late at night.

The year for a working local musician goes like this, generally; busy in the spring and summer, not so busy in the early fall, booked solid during the Christmas season, and hibernating in January and February!

At BB’s in Memphis, the year is about the same, except that Memphis in May is a BOOMING time for them. Beale Street is the main tourist attraction in Memphis — Elvis notwithstanding — and BB King’s club is the premier spot on the street.

I’m no business expert, but I know that a club like that establishes its budget around the busy season and lives off the fat in the slow time. I’ve been told that that is how they do it. Landscapers operate the same way. It is (usually) understood that musicians in a house band are employees just like the rest of the staff, and as such, have a set salary. The pay doesn’t fluctuate like gas prices or my blood pressure. It has never been my experience that this has been the case. Until now.

A new general manager was hired last year, and when she came in, she met with the leaders of the bands who played there and assured them that, unlike the past regimes, she understood the musicians and would work on their behalf to make the environment fair, respectful, and enjoyable for all of us. People have been getting fired left and right since then. (see the film, “I Come in Peace.”)

Last week brought the coupe de grass. She informed the band that due to the fact that the club was doing less business after Christmas, their pay during the week would be cut by twenty-five percent, and that if they didn’t like it, they could walk and that another band could be brought in at less than what she was offering them! Point blank. Cold blooded! Happy New Year! (Our band had its pay cut as well, but our bandleader took the hit and pays us the same as before, which is decidedly less than what we would normally make elsewhere.)

Now, these guys had done nothing to warrant this pay cut, and they should have quit. The hard fact is that the GM was telling the truth. She could bring in some hacks to play five hours for fifty dollars a man or less(!) and the average tourist would not know the difference because they would have no other point of reference and would be so caught up in the whole “Beale Street Experience” that they wouldn’t notice the poor musical quality. Musicians around here don’t stick together, and the union is feckless. There is some bad music on that street sometimes.

I was told that she said that the pay would go back up in the summer, but who’s to say? If they went for this — taking less money and liking it — they will go for anything. If the GM has shown no conscience or loyalty to the band up to this point, why would she be expected to when times “get good” again? All she is concerned with is the bottom line. It is the classic corporate model. Quality suffers while the bosses get richer. Look at all the plastic they put on cars now… But they are ten times more costly to own.

I’ll bet the managers didn’t take a pay cut!

This club can probably go the whole year from what they make from May until Labor Day. I was told by a lower-level manager once when I was in the house band that on a particular Saturday night while we were playing, the club was so packed, the band was so good, that they made 10,000 dollars on food and alcohol in one hour!!

It is funny: The musicians are the reason why these clubs even exist. The musicians are the ones who take thoughts and make them into art. Yet when there is “fat” to be trimmed, the musicians always get cut. Beale Street, BB Kings Club, would be just a restaurant were it not for the live music, and good musicians. But we always get the snotty end of the stick at these times.

I, personally, would have told the GM to go ahead and get some hacks to take the stage. My abilities don’t depend on HER, they depend on those who care to enjoy the ART of good musicianship. Another gig can be found without being insulted in this way. See how long the club would remain the premier spot with some crusty old dude in a orange suit sittin’ on a bucket playing an out-of-tune guitar with four strings on it. If jazz has only a niche audience, in all its elegance, think how small an audience there would be for gutbucket blues 24/7. 

The Bible says that for a time the injustices of man seem to go unpunished. The wicked seem to prosper. This may be one of those times, and I must fight to accept it. But I’m not wired like that! I had to at least say something! I can’t stand unfairness. Before you say it, No, BB isn’t involved with the running of these clubs that bear his name.

And here I thought I was out of the thorny corporate loop…

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January 15, 2008 - Posted by | Christian Life, Employment, Life, Life Lessons, Music, On the Job, Rant, Work

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