I'm With the Band
There’s been much talk lately about the issue of pay inequity. And yes, most people who discuss the matter are focused on the disparity between what men and women are paid for the exact same job. But there are other imbalances of which I'm not sure everyone is aware. For example, some workers are equally compensated in spite of the fact that the work they do is not equal. As one who writes a brilliant weekly blog for free while someone else gets paid substantially to write those annoying Geico commercials, I can attest as well as anyone to the fact that pay rates don’t necessarily correlate to the quality of work or the amount of effort involved. Nowhere is this truer than in the music business.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this: It’s high time we talked about tambourine players. While I've never reviewed a band's payroll records, I’ve always imagined that tambourine players were probably overpaid. I’m not saying they aren’t proper musicians, or that there isn’t some talent or expertise involved in banging that miniature drum encircled with corrugated tin discs. (Sometimes there isn’t even a drum, just a circle of wood with the jingly things). I’m only saying that if tambourinists are being paid the same as other musicians, then they’re definitely gaming the system. I don’t care how much they flail around or make faces suggesting it takes great concentration to hit their little noisemaker at just the right time, there’s no way their musical job is anywhere near as challenging as the others’.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of the tambourine. Many famous recordings wouldn’t be the same without it: Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets,” “Heard it Through the Grapevine” (both the Marvin Gaye recording and the lesser-known-but-superior one by Gladys Knight and the Pips), and of course, The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Without the tambourine, we’d also never have that roof-raising gospel sound. And poor Tracy Partridge would have been without a function, forced to stay home with a sitter while the family went off to gigs in their funky school bus. Without the tambourine, where would Stevie Nicks keep her ribbons? What would Davey Jones do with his hands?
Still, I contend that even the most virtuosic tambourinist requires neither the skills nor the training of a better-than-average trombonist. The same is true for guys who just stand there hitting a cowbell, or shaking something that rattles, or blowing across the mouth of a jug. I love those sounds. I do. I just think the compensation should be proportionate.
Another group I wonder about is the guys who perform behind hard-working hip-hop artists—guys whose main jobs seem to be waving their hands in the air, commanding people to respond, and chanting along with the occasional lyric. Most of the time, they don’t even bother taking their hats and coats off for the performance. This is the easiest job in showbusiness. It requires little skill and even less effort. While the dancers are knocking themselves out executing some of the most strenuous and complex choreography ever, the musicians are showing off skills that took them years to perfect, and the star is spitting out rapid-fire rhymes and riffs, these guys skulk around tugging at their beltless pants and yelling. I’m not saying they shouldn’t get paid. I’m just questioning whether it’s fair for their rates to match that of people with talent.
You know which other musicians are getting away with murder? Bass players. Now let me finish. Bass players are obviously true musicians who call upon both training and skill. Without question, bassists work a lot harder than those slackers on the tambourine. Still, they mostly play one note at a time, often the same ones over and over. Guitarists play up to six notes at a time and stay much busier. And harpists? They’re all over the place. I just don’t see how they can pay bass players and harpists the same thing.
I’ll tell you who deserves to be the most highly paid musicians of all: pipe organists. Think about it. They’re using not only both hands, but their feet as well. They play on several keyboards while also operating the stops, all while turning pages of music which (unlike some people) they have to be able to read. If there were any justice in the musical world, all organists would be rich. Then again, that might encourage more people to take up the organ, and that’s something I couldn’t abide. I loathe the organ. Come to think of it, I loathe certain other highly challenging musical instruments as well, such as the bagpipe and the accordion. Just the thought of listening to them for more than ten seconds makes me shudder in horror.
Maybe that’s how the whole system got so skewed. Though it may be easier to play, a lot more people enjoy the cowbell than do the bagpipe. The world is a confusing place.