Will sing for food

Regular reader Montana Man brings up a good point about personnel changes that is worth bearing down a little harder on:

Speaking of money … How much are we speaking about? $400 a week is $20,800 a year … $500 a week is $26,000 annually, $600 a week is $31,200. And how many groups are paying more than that? Somebody mentioned “benefits” such as health insurance, retirement. How common are such benefits? Do non-owners get any share of CD sales? Are singers treated as independent contractors who pay their own social security? The poverty level for a family of four is somewhere around $29,000, I think (haven’t checked that recently), so you might be on the road with a gospel group and qualifying for food stamps. So much for stardom.

Just so. When you’re making this kind of money, the fantasy of stardom, however paltry it may be, is sometimes the only benefits package available. It also makes what most of us might consider fairly modest differences in earning potential between one group and another seem too good to pass up.

So now put yourself in Jeremy Lile’s place: you’re sticking it out with a group you may very well believe in but with whom the magic of those first exciting, “getting by on White Castles and a prayer” days have given way to the ordinary work of everyday travel. Clearly, the dreamed-off success that helped launch the quartet to begin with will take years to achieve. On top of impinging realities like this, you’re making a barely livable wage. And though a single 24-year-old guy can live on far less than most and still be quite happy, the $100 a week more that BFA offered Lile (I’m not just speculating here) – combined with the visions of sugarplums and grand acclaim that were no doubt dangled before eyes that had not sparkled quite that expectantly since Crystal River’s hopeful debut – obviously was one too many enticements to be resisted.

One might speculate that Lile will burn up a lot of that raise fueling his car for the 3-hour drive he’ll now have to make to catch the BFA bus in Atlanta. But the fact that young, talented people like Lile are willing to do this in the first place – and consider it a promotion – suggests that to talk of “loyalty” in southern gospel misses the point entirely.

As with any bidness, in southern gospel music you get pretty much what you pay for or are willing to be paid, and you agree to pay or earn pretty much what it takes to get what you want. In gospel music, it just so happens that the going rates are pretty crappy and the fringe benefits pretty illusory for all but the most starry eyed, lazy, committed, or powerful.

When people say that gospel music “gets in your blood,” one thing they could be said to mean is that there will always be a new crop of kids willing to work for less (or at least no more) than the last guy.

Update: a comment worth promoting from the discussion thread:

I sing with a well known sg group and I’m making less than 450/week. I’m an independent contractor and have NO benefits. If it wasn’t for my spouse’s job I couldn’t afford insurance nor could I afford to cover my taxes.

So why’s he do it? Read the rest here.

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  1. Ben Harris wrote:

    In 1972 I was offered a job singing lead for what could be considered one of the best groups of the era. They offered me $275 per week. That amounted to about 3 times what I was then making. Fast forward to 2007, if SG groups of today were even keeping pace, 3 times the average salary would amount to about $150,000 per year that would be offered for a tier position. No one is doing that. ask yourself why.

  2. bassman wrote:

    One thing I do know that no one is considering is this: Does BFA pay for road expenses? Crystal River was at my church this past year and Zack told me that Crystal River paid for all the road expenses. So if what you are speculating is true, and that he is making $100 more dollars a week with BFA, and having to drive to Atlanta, is it worth it? Other than the fact of a bigger spotlight.
    It brings up a point that southern gospel music is the only genre of gospel music that uses their industry like Major League Baseball players. I know this sounds strange, but hear me out. Name another genre that trade members like southern gospel. The singers are like free agents and if their is a void and a trade can’t be made, the owners and mangers will call up someone from the minor leagues, like someone singing part time. Am I the only one that finds this similarity? Singers have come to the point that loyalty doesn’t exist. If they are ever unhappy, they can always arrange a trade.

  3. Montana Man wrote:

    In a quick search, I couldn’t find what I really wanted, except that in last govt fiscal year, ending Sept 30, 2006, if you had a family of four and your gross income was $2,097 a month ($25,174 annually, or about $485 a week), you were eligible for food stamps, with the max of food stamps at about $500 per month. There’s another test for net income after deductioins, that comes out arouind $1,600 net per month. And how much am I making on that CD project?

  4. SGSinger wrote:

    I sing with a well known sg group and I’m making less than 450/week. I’m an independent contractor and have NO benefits. If it wasn’t for my spouse’s job I couldn’t afford insurance nor could I afford to cover my taxes. Anyone that tells you they’re in this for the money is either lying, or just ignorant! I could be making alot more money in just about any other job on the face of the planet but God has not released me from this calling. So, until then I have to rest in His arms and trust that He will provide. So far so good! He will not fail me!

  5. GC wrote:

    I understand ministry and understand that money is not the most important aspect of ministry. There are many financial opportunites for full time singers and it has been my experience that most of them do not want to put the work in to make them successful. I have an education degree and never put that to use, but it really bothers me when a teacher complains about pay. Did they not know the pay scale when they took the job? Do SG singers not know the pay scale when they take the job? Do they think that the pay will increase quickly? Alot of guys in SG have side jobs and do very well and I respect them for the hard work. They are the one’s who usually have a stable home situation and have a great group.I contend that not having the constant financial strain helps both of those situations.

  6. Trent wrote:

    In regards to singers who have a side job, but still sing SG music…wouldn’t that make them part-time singers? If the Singing News gets ahold of that information, they’ll boot them out of awards eligibility. The NQC awards show rules that all singers who are eligible for awards have to be “full-time”. If ever a part-time group rises up that can get it done vocally, they will not be eligible for SN Fan Awards. Yet, we have plenty of gospel groups that call themselves full-time where group members have side jobs.

  7. Joshua Cottrell wrote:

    Certainly the best quartet jobs would be with groups like Triumphant and/or Kingdom Heirs. I would guess that having a guaranteed part-time place to sing has its benefits. Anyway, if we think that singers are only making $450 a week shouldn’t that be a reason to make sure we support them every chance we get. We as Southern Gospel fans have a vote to a certain degree as to who is successful and who isn’t.

  8. GC wrote:

    We are not thinking that singers make $450 a week, that is the norm.There are many singers at pecieved top-tier status that have front line guys making $400-$600 a week. It would surprise many people the non-mainstream groups who make consistently good money. You can name some group owners who do very well. Table sales can increase pay greatly…
    What always humors me are the people who are in shock over SG poverty but gripe about a $15 ticket and must buy 5 CD’s for
    $20…And why I am on my soap box, the promoters who always cut the groups pay and spend 20 minutes selling junk before the concert starts and cutting into the groups profits.That is great support!

  9. Ron wrote:

    What do the Singers who travel with Bill Gaither make ? And what about all of these At Home Articles in the Singingnews, Beautiful Homes, Nice cars. Somebody is making money in this business. Ron

  10. Tony Watson wrote:

    I understand the comment about promoters selling stuff and cutting into the group’s sales, but think of it from this angle. I’m one of those promoters who struggles to make ends meet in the concerts. I don’t have stuff to sell but maybe if I did I would, I don’t know. My main concern is getting the money for the group and all of the other expenses covered and it’s getting harder and harder to do that. While some groups may be overpriced, I think for the most part most groups are somewhere between one cancellation away from losing the bus to just making a living.

    While some promoters I’m sure are making money at what they do, I haven’t figured out that secret yet. In our now 17th year, we started the year with about $200 in the bank in the promotion account and three major concerts this year. I’m charging $13 and $15 a ticket for most concerts and if past experience is an indicator we will do well to make more than $100 on perhaps one of them.

    It’s a chain reaction. The promoters aren’t getting enough money to pay the bills so they are doing what they can to pay the group owners and the building owners and the newspapers and radio stations and such. The cost of advertising has skyrocketed over the past 17 years. The cost of fuel has more than doubled in the past 17 years. The cost of building rental in this area has gone up at least 50% and sometimes as much as 100%. The cost of flats for the groups has gone up with the cost of living and fuel and everything else. It’s just a fact of life. We don’t need people paying more necessarily, what we need is more people, period.

    Part of the problem is there are SO many groups trying to make it full-time that there are many more concerts available, at least in my area and people can miss one and catch another pretty soon. It didn’t use to be that way. There is just more competition for the dollars, and the income has not increased at the rate of the expenses.

  11. GC wrote:

    I agree with Tony on a lot of issues. The most important being that SG has to many groups working to many dates to get gas money. Some groups have started flying, working fewer dates to minimize the fill in dates and finding ways to stay out of an area but once a year.On the largest scale, Gaither and Ernie are doing that.On a smaller scale but still very succesful,are groups that are doing things in a new way with great results. I appreciate promoters and the effort they put forth to help SG. I pray that each of them will have banner promotions in 2007.

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