Economics and Jazz

The economics of music is something that fascinates me- partly because of all of the stories of when musicians could earn a full time wage just from performing, something that is infrequent these days, and partly because it’s interesting to see how much musicians were ‘worth’ at any given time. I wrote about this a little in my thesis, but the interest has returned in force since I have started teaching (with my friend and colleague Nick Tipping) the stage one jazz history course at the University of Auckland, and started re-reading general jazz histories, which include these matters.

In focusing just on the 1920s and solely on live performance opportunities there are some interesting comparisons to be made on the economic state of jazz musicians in New Zealand and the United States. In both New Zealand and the United States musicians frequently needed day-jobs to make ends meet (some if not all of the time), and it really depended on where a musician was working (what city as well as the specific venue) as to how much he or she might make per gig or over the course of a week.

Please note that all of the figures mentioned in here are sourced from period information about wages- I have made no adjustments for inflation or changes in currency. Nor had I attempted to calibrate the two very different currencies here- New Zealand Pounds and United States Dollars (I’m just not that good with numbers!). The average wages mentioned would be wages on which a person or family could live comfortably within their means.

In 1924 the average income per annum for a worker in the United States was $1,303.00, or approximately $25.00 per week. For jazz (but perhaps all) musicians during this period how much money you earned depended on a number of factors. Musicians in the northern states appear to have earned more on average than those in the southern states. In one report that I gleaned from Alyn Shipton’s “A New History of Jazz” and Ted Gioa’s “The history of jazz” a New Orleans jazz musician noted that in Chicago or New York a sideman could earn between $40.00 and $50.00 per week at the top cabarets- considerably more than the average wage- however, if he was in New Orleans he could expect to earn between $1.25 and $2.50 per engagement. Even if a musician was working seven nights and days per week, that does not add up to much- at the most you could potentially earn the average wage. Perhaps this was as pressing a reason as less segregation to move to the northern states during the 1920s. This is not to say that all musicians were lucky enough to earn those top wages, and many had to support themselves with trades as well, but the difference is in the possibility. There were more possibilities to earn more in the north than the south. Obviously other factors play a role in the situation of a jazz musician in the United States- race being a primary issue that affected earning potential.  Also other status factors could play a role: could the musician in question fit in at all levels of society, or did he/she have traits that precluded him (or her) from being accepted as a performer in certain areas? However, it remains a fact that the possibilities of Chicago and New York (and likely San Francisco on the West Coast), proved enticing to musicians who wanted to be more financially appreciated.

Contrast this situation with New Zealand. The average minimum wage in 1925 was £220.0.0 per annum, or approximately £4.0.0 per week. Again, this was a wage that a family could live comfortably on in New Zealand during those years, but this is the minimum rather than the average. New Zealand did not have the same dichotomies that the United States did during these years, and so it was not so much a south to north migration, but rather a rural to urban migration that was beginning to occur among all types of workers and both Pakeha and Maori. For musicians, better roads (or actual roads) meant that it was easier to travel between towns for gigs. As for what musicians earned, as with American musicians it depended on the venue and situation. At the Dixieland Cabaret in Auckland- one of the top cabarets in New Zealand- the members of the house band in 1924 would earn £1.0.0 per night for a maximum of 6 nights per week. At the other end of the scale- one off dances organised by clubs and organisations might pay as little as 10 shillings per musician for the night. While musicians fortunate enough to be employed regularly at the top cabarets might be able to earn above the minimum wage, these opportunities were few and far between.

Compared to the United States there were fairly few opportunities and few venues in New Zealand for musicians to be employed on a steady and regular basis. Much of New Zealand musician’s performance income came from one-off gigs at dances, carnivals, roller skating rinks, cafés and cabarets rather than a long term residency at a venue. It would not be until the 1930s that there were enough competing venues that residency engagements (ranging from one month to a year or more) became an accepted means of employing musicians.

While theoretically a musician in either New Zealand or the United States could earn above minimum wage if they were either lucky enough to work at top cabaret or if they worked six nights per week for every week of the year, many do not appear to have chosen to take that risk. Many musicians appear to have had a day job of some description as a back up (either a permanent job or one that could be taken up to tie them over until the next gig). Many worked in the music industry in some other capacity, such as teaching, in retail, or in the technical side of recording or broadcasting. Other musicians, however, worked in all manner of other jobs- frequently labour focused- to provide a steady wage.

 

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