Jazz Musician: ‘I See the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots’

Jeremy Gantz

As a working musician, Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven says 'one day you're the guest of honor, the next day you're a peasant.' (Peter Holderness)

For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, I know the good fight — the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers — has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working’s40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More Working at 40” stories can be found here.

Bud Freeman, a tenor saxophone player for 47 years, spoke to Terkel for Working about the shock he frequently encountered when he told strangers he played music for a living. Though he admitted to frequently sleeping in until noon, he also told Terkel about the discipline required to foster musical creativity while surviving as a full-time musician — as he said, The dream of all jazz artists is to have enough time to think about their work and play and to develop.” 

As the son of an African-American jazz drummer and a Hungarian vocalist, from his earliest years Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven saw up close how hard professional musicians had to work. Because of this, he says, I’m not disillusioned about the life I’ve chosen.” 

McCraven, who moved to Chicago from Massachusetts in 2006, has played some of Chicago’s biggest stages, toured the United States and Europe, and recorded albums with various bands, including his own. He played his first paying gig at age 12; now 30, he has been a full-time musician for nearly a decade. Today, McCraven experiences the frustrating paradox facing all musicians trying to earn a living: though music is more ubiquitous than ever, consumers are less willing to pay for what they hear. Even so, he says, glamorous stereotypes persist. This interview has been abridged and edited.

People think we just jam out and get free drinks. Some people think we’re not working, because they don’t think about how much you have to practice, the amount of work it takes to play your instrument well.

People think music is just a gift and it’s born out of nothing — that it’s in your genes. No: Musicians work hard. You practice for hours and hours and hours. For me, with my parents being musicians, it wasn’t that they genetically bestowed on me the gift of music, but that they were willing to let me put many, many hours of my life into it.

Now, I can be working with 10 to 12 bands at a time, and it’s a lot of music to learn. You have to do your homework; you can’t just show up to the show without learning the music first. So there’s a lot of work that I do at home.

And then there’s business side: the scheduling of tour dates, the work to get more work, the emailing, the back-and-forth, travel arrangements, all the logistics that go behind it. You don’t have a team of assistants doing that for you unless you’re pulling in a good, considerable amount of money. And then those people end up making more money than the musicians!

My wife will sometimes say to me, You work all the time.” It’s a nighttime business, so I can get a text about a gig anytime from eight in the morning to two or three in the morning. You try to respond to people quickly because they might be calling a lot of people at once. There are a lot of ups and downs. Just because you have a great gig or you’re successful for a moment, that doesn’t mean you have any sort of security, because there’s no retirement or anything.

There are a lot of different ways of going about making a career in music. You can be in a band, which is risky because a lot of bands aren’t making much money — you’re working for money brought in at the door. You’re waiting for the big break.

Then there’s the working musician method, where you refuse to play for under a certain amount but you approach it as labor: You’re going to play a gig at a hotel and you’ll be in the corner, for example. When the gig’s over, you’re done. That’s very different from the idea of being in a band.

What I’ve learned during my time in the industry is to diversify my income and to be proactive. If you’re waiting for some big artist to give you a call with a life-changing opportunity, or if you’re the band waiting for the big break, you’ll keep on waiting.

But if you’re constantly trying to create opportunities for yourself, it’s very possible to have a career in music. You don’t even necessarily have to be that great, unfortunately, if you’ve got good business skills.

There are two sides to it, for me. One is, what am I doing as an artist? Am I creating my own product to sell, to become known and draw people to my shows? The other important side is becoming known by other musicians as someone who’s reliable, as someone who can play the music well and show up on time — you want to be professional and to not cause any rifts.

Has the record industry’s collapse impacted your career? 

I’ve never had a livelihood that was based off of record sales — the only people who made lots of money off of records were selling huge numbers. But one of the things I see in the music industry now is the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the disappearing middle class of musicians.

These days, big labels put a lot of money into promoting big-name artists whom they know will sell. In doing so, they’ve taken more and more money out of artist development. So you have fewer mid-level artists who are signed and making a living.

We’ve seen a lot of industries for working musicians disappear. The advertising industry once provided a lot of work for musicians. Now ad songs can be easily done by one person at a computer.

And then you see, with regular local gigs, that the pay scale hasn’t changed in 30 years. These older guys, they used to make good money playing a jingle in the studio before going to play a club gig that night. They got paid the same rate that I’m getting paid to play. So you can see how tough it can be — the cost of living has changed.

Part of it is younger musicians who are not as talented accepting less money for gigs. They just want to play to get their name out there. I understand that, but it hurts the industry.

But part of it also has to do with culture — people don’t really care about the music in a certain type of venue, or how high-quality it is. So lots of gig rates are too low.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about the working life of a musician? 

There are so many. Say I meet somebody in an airplane. First question I get is usually, Oh, do you play in a band? My nephew’s in a band.” I’m thought of as someone who practices in a garage and plays a show a few times a month or something. After I explain, they’re always surprised, like, Wow, you do that all the time, like, that’s your job? You don’t have any real work? What’s your day job?” So the big misconception is that being a musician is like a hobby.

And then there are a lot of people who think music is about being famous, or trying to get famous.

The truth is that there’s such a wide range of things that people do within the industry beyond club shows and concerts: teaching, performing as a session person, being an engineer, or working as a wedding band or a corporate group. In Chicago there are a lot of what are known as corporate bands” — a company has five or six bands that they run and hire out to perform for certain clientele, for conventions or corporations throwing parties. The company handles the business side. They can charge a lot of money and pay the musicians pretty well.

I sometimes tell people that if you’ve ever been somewhere that there’s been live music, I’ve done that. I’ve played in some very big shows: in small arenas, as an opener for big artists on several occasions or at large festivals. But I’ve also done weddings and restaurants; I’ve played on a movie set. I’ve been in the studio for commercials, for records and for recording classes with guys learning to engineer. I’ve also taught: I’ve done workshops at universities, high schools, elementary schools and performed for students. I’ve played at an airport before — that was a weird episode.

I played a funeral one time. It was definitely strange playing an emotional event for strangers. I had never been to an open-casket funeral before. And I wasn’t really aware it was a funeral before I took the gig: Sometimes you don’t ask enough questions when someone calls offering the gig and you need the work. And then you’re playing six feet behind a casket looking out at family and friends mourning. I definitely didn’t smile during that gig.

Are you still able to enter a creative zone” when you sit down and begin playing at most gigs? 

I make that a goal of mine. If you start doing too many straight work gigs, then you can lose the creative spirit. At corporate band gigs, for example, there can be a lot of extraneous noise to deal with, and people saying you’re playing too loud. Those gigs aren’t for being creative, they’re for being wallpaper. That’s why I really prefer not to do those kind of gigs. I only do them to fill my schedule, to keep me busy and bring in more money.

Luckily, because I invest so much time into creative projects and have created my own unique voice, I don’t necessarily get called as much for that stuff anymore.

Is it hard to juggle a mix of corporate gigs and your own bands playing original music? 

It can be surreal. I’ve had that: the experience of playing a big festival in Chicago in front of five or six thousand people — maybe more — with all the food you can eat and back massages backstage. Then I get off stage and gotta rush downtown for a gig that’s going to pay me just as much as the festival paid me. But the accommodations and perceptions are completely different: It will be a private residence for, like, the 65th birthday party of the brother of a news anchor or whatever, and you have to ask the doorman to let you unload equipment in the back. You play but can’t mingle. You’re heard but not seen.

So you have to code-switch a lot. One day you’re the guest of honor, the next day you’re a peasant.

What’s the key to making it on your terms?

You have got to work hard. It pays to have a creative outlook and entrepreneurial approach because nobody knows what’s going to happen with the music industry. Like I said, the middle class of musicians is shrinking. But at the same time, the Internet provides certain avenues for independent artists. Of course, it’s hard to compete with the major labels, because they have the Internet too! They have the Internet and they have the money, the marketing muscle — the capital.

So how do you create a decent life as a working musician? I really think it’s about being an original artist: create a body of work and be hired for being you, rather than just being a musician for hire.

You have to constantly create, collaborate with people and diversify the work. By doing that, I’ve been able to stay busy and avoid things I’d rather not do. Some musicians would rather have a day job and only do exactly what they want to do. But I look at it as a livelihood.

Jeremy Gantz is an In These Times contributing editor working at Time magazine.

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