Here’s the new gig, worse than the old gig?

I became a professional musician at the birth of the internet age- I got my first hotmail account as a senior in college, and only when I moved to New York in 1999 stopped sending postcards for gigs and started sending what we now call e-mail blasts.  I was a part of one of the first attempts at webcasts at the Knitting Factory in 2000 (it was fun, but the server gave out on us), and I remember long conversations about the pros and cons of putting an album on ITunes.  (we did, needless to say, and it’s still there, and here)  The internet, the thinking went, would be the great emancipator, allowing artists to get their work to the greater public, rewarding hard work and genius with widespread acclaim.

This came to mind this week in reading two blogs that basically said, hey, not so fast.  One written by Jim Teurk at my friend and hero Dave Douglas’ blog at Greenleaf Music about Spotify, (Jim does a lot of the back end work for Greenleaf) The other is a geekier but fantastic post on David Lowry’s music business blog called the Trichordist.  The bottom line of both is… oops, maybe not.  As the Trichordist lays out in painful detail, your average recording, touring musician is working harder for less money in just about every genre.  The biggest problem, according to Lowry, is that thanks to Napster, Bittorrent, and now Spotify, the consumer, encouraged by internet giants, has come to expect music to be free.  So they listen to or rip albums, go to less shows, and generally get the same product they always got, but without paying the artist.  And it’s hard for even the savviest of musicians to beat that.   In the old days of record labels, maybe, no almost definitely, the label took a bigger share than they deserved, but you usually got a share.

Now what does that have to do with yoga?  (In some ways, nothing, it’s just my way of encouraging you to consider using ITunes instead of Spotify.  But really…)  This article buzzed in my brain as I read a rather bitchy post on the Good blogs by a disgruntled yoga teacher, called “Making it as a Yoga Teacher: Not as Zen as You Think”. The author narrates her journey in and eventually out of life as an itinerant yoga teacher.  There’s a lively discussion over at Yogadork about this piece, but I think anyone approaching a yoga teaching career should read it several times before they quit their day job.

There are some strong parallels in what (now ex) yoga teacher Sue Smith relays in her relationships with clients and studios alike, and what Teurk and Lowry write.  Like musicians, Smith feels pressured to take work and hope it will pay later, or to cowtow to clients, and then finds out that it doesn’t work.

I find two takeaways from these pieces, especially from a yoga angle.  One, if you want to be a yoga professional, you have to demand to be treated like one.  I don’t think that teaching for free and expecting that that will somehow will eventually lead to paying gigs works.  Either teach for free, call it that, and let that be what it is (benefit classes or other seva, service work), or demand to be paid from the get go.  I remember when I took my first gym gig, I asked for what in hindsight was a very high rate, and I got it.  I still work there. Conversely, when I haven’t asked about money walking into a gig, I’ve gotten screwed; not always, certainly, but often.

This also extends to how clients, either studios or private clients, treat you.  If you allow yourself to be walked on, you’ll be walked on.  If you demand to be treated like a professional, people will treat you like one.  Maybe I’m just lucky, but I’ve never felt abused on by a private client as Ms. Smith did.  I try to be as accommodating and flexible as I can (most clients who can afford you on a regular basis have challenging schedules), but I’ve never felt put upon when it came to scheduling.  And since they are paying for my expertise, I don’t change my advice simply because they don’t like it.  (I can hear one of my clients cursing at me under his breath for calling dolphin as I write this.  But he keeps coming.)  You may lose work in the short run, but you’re more likely to get the right kind of work for you in the long run.

From the other side, as a consumer, I want to put my money in places that treat their people well.  It strikes me funny that yogis will spend an extra buck for their Fair Trade coffee and go out of their way to hit up the local farmer’s market, but then take their yoga at a studio that gives its teachers $50 when their class took in $500.  (This is an oversimplification, I know.  Owning a yoga studio is no picnic, and not necessarily any kind of cash cow.  But there have been days in the past when I’ve been teaching a 50 person classes and taking home a $50 paycheck and saying to myself “something’s waaay out of whack here”.)  And when I’ve brought it up to the management, I’ve gotten a long-winded spiel about patience, “manifesting”, or some other New-agy crap, trying to dance around the topic of money.  Beware anyone who hides injustice in flowery language, be they politician, priest, or yoga teacher.

And consumers know that it’s not like a teacher, even a good one, can hold their ground until a studio is convinced to treat me fairly; there are too many young hungry teachers ready to step in for me.  Just as with coffees and clothes, there are studios I now avoid because I know their business practices, and others who I’ll go out of my way to support.  (I’m very lucky to work for a couple now and have subbed at this other one from time to time. Hope to be there again.  And there are others, no doubt.  But sadly, not all.)

Ultimately, if you’re in the business of yoga for the money, you’re not going to last very long, as Ms. Smith found.  I do what I do primarily because I love it, and I feel like I get to share something powerful with all kinds of people.  But when they’re is money involved, I find if you treat it like business, everything works better.

Whole Foods, Starbucks and other boutique businesses have actually made money by advertising their ethics.  Should yoga studios follow?  Thoughts?


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