Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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Musical Grub Street, or the Life of a Struggling Musician in Paris

June 13, 2013

PARIS – The first thing I want to make clear is that I am not a struggling musician. I play music and have countless music-related projects going on simultaneously simply because I love to play music and find this to be a super cool lifestyle, and I love all my musical side projects. I earn my as a journalist covering Formula One racing for a major world newspaper. So music for me, while I take it very seriously, is just an amateur passion. Who knows, maybe some day it will be more for me than that. But at the moment, that’s it. And this post is just meant to talk about what it can be like for someone who IS a struggling musician.

It is also not going to be a very in-depth post, since I have to rush out in a few minutes for meeting involving another musical project – my documentary on open mics – so I don’t have the time for depth. Instead, I want to write very quickly about the little experience I had last night when I was asked to run an open mic in Paris for one exceptional appearance as MC, host, organizer, whatever. This is the sort of work a budding and struggling and journeyman musician can often be asked to do.

Coming from the newspaper business where I work in an institution that, while far, far, far from perfect, actually does produce a newspaper every day, it is sometimes surprising to see that the same professional qualities required to do that are not applied elsewhere, like in the bar life, musical lowlife, world of the struggling musician. So here is what I found last night and would never have to depend on for my livelihood:

I was invited weeks ago to host this open mic, and last night, an hour before I went, I asked if I should show up at 8:15:

– an hour beforehand I was told I should show up at 8:15 for an open mic that started at 8:30, upon arrival I found some musicians waiting, as they had signed on my facebook invite, but the barman told me the open mic usually starts at 9:00 or after. At least one of my musicians present had another appointment for playing at just after 9, so that was a problem right there, but no big, big deal.
– an hour beforehand I was told that I would get a meal and two drinks as payment for the gig, so I rushed out of my home without eating dinner, pleased I’d eat there. The man behind the bar told me that in fact I would not be given a meal. So I ordered a meat and cheese plate, since there was nothing else, and I paid 9.50 euros, and 2 euros tip. 11.50
– I drank the two beers, and through the evening, I ordered two more, so my total donation to the bar for the work I did for them was 23.50 euros, including tip. I took a cab home and that cost 22 euros, so the total evening’s cost was 45.50.
– From 15 to 17 people I invited on facebook showed up, so if count what I donated to the bar and what they bought in drinks, we’re at a minimum of a couple of hundred euros coming into the bar for my work.
– I waited for the guy who hired me to do the hosting to show up, but he did not come and it was after 9. He had been there in the past with other replacement hosts, and he had not told me he was not coming. And I did not have his phone number and neither did the guy behind the bar, and I did not know where the mic and other equipment was, as I had not been told and expected the guy to show up.
– So finally I got the help of the guy behind the bar to find the mic and set up. It turned out there was no mic clip to hold the mic to the mic stand. So I scrounged about the bar and found bits of half-dead tape here and there and I managed to tape the mic to the stand.
– We set everything up and then within 15 seconds of me starting to play my opening songs to start the night, the sound system died. It cut out.
– Thanks to the help of a couple of the performers, who knew something about sound systems, we got the sound working again…for another 15 seconds.
– For the first hour, at least, we played with the sound system, which cut out every 15 seconds. The first three performers, therefore, including me, played with no mic or amplified acoustic guitar, and this was in a loud bar with the front terrace open to the street. IE, no good.
– Finally the owner of the bar showed up and HE had the number of the guy who hired me. That guy soon showed up, but by then the owner of the bar had played with the sound system and got it to work – he said he had known that the sound system had a problem, and he knew how to make it work….

Well, after that, the whole evening just took off, the performers were great, I got the job done, and all was well. But there were people whom I had invited from my facebook who found me in charge of a chaotic evening of ridiculousness for an hour, and looking like I did not know what to do. One of them actually said when he left, “I’m never coming back to this place again.” None of it would have happened had the evening been handled professionally from all sides, and I will know in future to ask anyone who hires me every single detail about the setup and when they are going to arrive, etc. But can you imagine depending on this sort of thing for a living as a struggling musician? While I worked, sweated things out and felt like a fool, the bar made a profit off my earnings as a journalist and my contacts that I invited.

Hmmm, I think I should write a modern novel about this world, and maybe call it something like Musical Grub Street….

Anyway, my thanks to all the musicians and spectators who came, and especially to those who helped me with the sound. The night, in the end, as I said, turned out to be a very fun one – after the crap. Sure, it cost me 45 euros, but it was kind of interesting, yes!!!

PS, I forgot to mention that after an evening like that I had to go to another bar to decompress, to come down, and there I spent another 4 euros on a half pint of beer, bringing the total cost of the evening up to like 50 euros. Oh, that second bar, by the way, was the Highlander, where there is a very, very professional run and well organized open mic, with Thomas Brun as the MC….

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