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Frank—a PG reader from Portland, Oregon—emailed me shortly after the issue came out and suggested considering new musical possibilities according to the “opportunity cost” involved. The term sounded familiar— something out of my undergrad economics class way back when—but it was lost in the cobwebs of my mind. To recall the concept, I did a quick search and landed on About.com’s economics section, which offered this plain-language explanation:
Unlike most costs discussed in economics, an opportunity cost is not always a number. The opportunity cost of any action is simply the next best alternative to that action, or put more simply, “What you would have done if you didn’t make the choice that you did.”
And there you have it. Opportunity cost is a way of assessing potential gigs based on the musical, rather than monetary gains you might receive from choosing among them.
As a semi-pro player, pay is rarely at the top of my list of choice factors. If I took gigs based solely on pay, I’d be gigless. It’s a rare gig that pays enough to turn me into a bass mercenary, but when I do run across one of those unusual opportunities, I start wondering how the other factors will weigh in. A perfect example is a corporate gig that pays well, but involves a night of constantly being told to turn down, receiving painful requests, and getting the second-class treatment of eating dried-out sandwiches while standing in the kitchen. On the other hand, if the gig means playing with some really hot musicians, it might be a different story.
Personal growth is often one of my top choice factors. When I can play with musicians a step above me in their abilities, the adrenaline starts pumping and I’ll try my best to stay sharp the whole night. If the gig is a rousing success, I’ll temporarily bask in the glory. And if I hit some snags, it’s time for a large serving of humble pie and a new practice agenda to build up lagging skills. In any case, this is a time for putting on the poker face, learning not to wince when I hit a clunker, and turning mistakes into new ideas.
Safety may not always come to mind right away, but I’ve played a few gigs I’ve regretted— gigs where someone insisted on sitting in, people were falling-down drunk, or attendees getting a little combative when their repeated requests got overlooked. I once played a biker gig with a “Neutral Territory” sign posted, and I remember really hoping they meant it. Likewise, if it’s a rowdy, crowded bar with a tight band space, I have to hope my gear will survive without getting knocked over and busted up.
The longer I play, the more fun fits into my opportunity-cost evaluation. I’d rather play for low pay and high fun than vice-versa. Fun does not necessarily equate with audience size, either. If a small audience is really digging it, I go home happy. If the music really gels and I connect with the other band members, that equals fun. I remember one bar gig where a group of exotic dancers stopped in after work and showed off some of their talents. Now that was interesting and fun.
The older I get, the less patience I have for the hassle factor. I need more pay from a gig to drive a couple hours late at night than I used to. Likewise, I’m not that enthused about playing a gig with a big lineup of bands that requires waiting around for one, short set that hardly pays. Hauling heavy PA gear has lost the appeal it once had too—just another hassle. Loud gigs at crowded, noisy bars—ditto. Give me a club with good acoustics, an in-house PA with a pleasant, experienced sound tech, a roomy stage, and an appreciative audience. With all that, I might even think about paying to play!
Finally, there are the feel-good rewards. Sure, these gigs don’t pay well—or at all. But the audiences, such as they are, are happy you’ve come to help make their benefit a better event. For the band, there are the usual gear-hauling hassles and some inexperienced people running the show, but it’s also a chance to try out some new tunes—or work out the between-gig rust—in a low-risk setting. At the end of your set, you’ll feel that you’ve given back a little of what you’ve received over the years. It’s also possible that an audience member might talk to you about a future booking. If you go into a feel-good gig with a positive outlook, you’ll reap the rewards.
So there’s my system for deciding which gigs to take on and which ones to let pass. You might put together a somewhat different list and weigh the factors differently. But when you carefully consider the opportunity cost of potential gigs overall, you can take what your gut tells you and bring it to a well-reasoned conclusion.
Dan Berkowitz is a professor by day and a bassist when the sun goes down. He plays upright and electric bass for blues, jazz, orchestra, and musical theater. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.