Can a musician make a living playing bluegrass music?
Now, there’s a great question! Here’s my take on the answer, having looked into the issue as a performer and as a board member of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) where I served two terms from 2006-2013. Bottom line, “yes,” but it is a bit like asking: can my high school kid make it to the NBA? There is room at the top, but it’s very limited and competitive.
In the traditional bluegrass world Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver, Dailey and Vincent, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, and a few others command top dollar and take home an annual income in six figures. Then, there is a somewhat larger group, working hard and making a decent, but not extravagant, living. Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Blue Highway, the Lonesome River Band, the Gibson Brothers, and others fit this category.
Then, there is everybody else, which is probably 85% of the total number of bluegrass musicians. These folks are gigging, selling CDs at gigs and festivals, and perhaps selling some merchandise, but typically living at or close to the poverty line. Ironically, many local bands may take home more than the “bigger” band, trying to tour nationally. It costs a minimum of $100k-plus per year to support a tour bus, absorb travel costs and meals, and pay a manager and publicist. So, for members of a five-piece band to take home $50k each, they need to gross more than $600k. A local band, by contrast, has no bus, lives at home with no added lodging or meal expenses, doesn’t need a manager, etc. If that band earns $100k per year, they get to keep most of it, not to mention they get to sleep at home!
In the non-traditional, progressive, bluegrass world, the revenue is considerably better and there is a bit more room at the top. Alison Krauss, Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain String Band, the Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, the Punch Brothers, and others all do quite well and play to much larger crowds than traditional bands and command greater income.
Across all the above categories the revenue streams have changed dramatically over the last decade with the rise of the internet and online platforms. Record deals and sales used to be the bread and butter of bands. Now, many bands self-produce. CD and record sales are way down as online listening and downloading have increased. Online opportunities like CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon pay much less than the old record deals used to. There is internet radio, which pays royalties to bands, but again not much, and terrestrial radio doesn’t pay anything to bands, paying only record companies and songwriters. That weird anomaly is worth a separate column.
Given these realities, it is no surprise that most bluegrass band members, at all levels, also have day jobs, do teaching, hold workshops, buy and sell instruments, sell instructional material, and so on, to supplement their income. One would have to live pretty close to the ground to live off gig payments alone for all bluegrass bands except for the relatively small number at the top.
Mike Tatar, Sr. and his wife Yvonne “Vonnie” Tatar are moving to a new home just outside Nashville. The Tatars have fronted respected local band the Virtual Strangers since arriving in San Diego in 1996. Both Tatars have served on the San Diego Bluegrass Society Board of Directors for decades, and both have been key figures in the Summergrass Festival since its inception in 2003. They’ll be missed and the Troubadour wishes them well.
Chris Stuart and Janet Beazley are moving to a new home in Port Townsend, Washington. These two have performed for years, nationally and internationally (including in Oman!) in the acclaimed band Chris Stuart and Back Country; both are sought-after music teachers on a national and international level. They, too, will be missed and we wish them the best in their new home.
Finally, a sad farewell is noted to long-time local bluegrass standout Roger Gagos who passed away. Roger, too, was a key figure in the beginnings of the Summergrass Festival and was a long serving member of the North County Bluegrass and Folk Club Board. Roger played with Down the Road, a national award-winning band, and with the Tonewoods, a local band. Roger will be missed, and we send the Troubadour’s best to his widow, Gretchen and to his family.