Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

Since moving back to Phoenix, one phrase (besides “it’s better now”) has begun to permeate my consciousness—and weigh on my mind—more than it ever did while I was in California. I absolutely spoiled any chance at a surprise with my title, so yes, that phrase is “paying your dues.” Despite all the time I’ve spent wandering through various genres and fields of music, it’s never quite rung true to me. This is, I think, partly because of how intentionally nonspecific it is and partly because of the conditions under which I make music and move through the world at large. The depths of this issue are murky, and from here it’s difficult to see the bottom, but if I had to take a stab at a thesis, it’d be this: the gatekeeping, favoritism, and institutional bias that create the foundation of “paying your dues” stifle creativity, discourage participation, alienate newcomers, and serve the white patriarchy.

Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. So let’s take it a bite at a time, shall we?

Before we get into it, I’m not sure why this didn’t come up a lot while I was in Los Angeles, but the answer is probably partly regional and partly cultural. A wise jazz musician once pointed out to me that the prevalence and outward manifestation of misogyny varies drastically by location. Generally, New York and LA are noticeably different (though not necessarily less misogynist) than most of the rest of the country. And while this “paying your dues” thing can undoubtedly play into that, I think another part of the equation is that mindless playing-for-the-paycheck work isn’t as looked down on in LA as it sometimes is in some pockets of Phoenix—in part because gigs are a step up from the carousel of day jobs, plural, needed to pay Los Angeles rent.

The other part of this, I suppose, is that I wasn’t told to pay my dues in LA; I was told to put in the work. While both phrases carry similar weight, there’s a lot more flexibility to the latter. My friends and teachers saw me making angry assault music and counted that as “doing the work.” They saw me advocating for student life improvements and institutional change and counted that as “doing the work.” They see me blogging about the need for better treatment across the board and count that as “doing the work.” But regardless of the details, I didn’t hear or talk about or think about “paying my dues” much in California, and I do in Arizona, so it’s time to break down some concepts.

On a straightforward, basic level, Paying Your Dues is this idea that you have to do all the legwork your teachers did, learn all the same rep, and take the same shitty underpaid gigs—for a seemingly-indeterminate amount of time, mind—before you can Make It. Making It is also frequently not-super-defined; sometimes it’s making a successful or meaningful record, sometimes it’s touring the world and rolling in money. Your definition is probably different from mine, just as I know mine is different from my single friends’ definitions. Many factors influence this, but long-term partnerships and entrenched gender roles regarding household maintenance mean that for many women and childbearing folks, Making It in a fame or notoriety sense is pushed off the table or made nearly impossible. Though we all engage with our artistic journeys individually, it’s important that we understand there are structural, societal roadblocks that can severely disadvantage demographics besides our own.

Regardless of your definition, Making It frequently involves some combination of writing and/or playing original music, making enough that you can comfortably quit your day job, teaching, and just being able to take on the projects you want rather than scrambling to grab whatever’s available. (Obviously, your mileage may vary.) Making It, as a concept, usually comes with being happy and creatively fulfilled, but it’s also severely gendered.

Still, if we’re operating under the rules of this system, in which Paying Your Dues leads to Making It (however you define that), the former should at some point lead to the latter. This is why so many young musicians, students and non-students alike, put their hearts, souls, and energy into projects and goals (often stipulated by their mentors) that may not line up with who they want to be as musicians and creatives. A certain amount of this is expected as folks mature musically, particularly within an undergraduate curriculum, but I start to take issue when expected commitments are suddenly, repeatedly, and/or significantly extended. For instance, many folks on the classical side of the house believe students should learn classical solo rep and/or standard orchestral music before they’re allowed to explore new music and the avant-garde pieces that employ nontraditional techniques. This can be severely limiting and makes new music seem both impossible to learn and generally inaccessible. On the jazz side of things, the sentiment I’ve run into the most often at the university level is that students shouldn’t work on originals until they’re proficient at the tunes, styles, and skills most valuable to their roles in university ensembles. Both of these instances of institutional bias lead to another major component of this issue: gatekeeping.

Like some of the other terminology I break down on my blog, “gatekeeping” has become something of a social media buzzword. We hear it in a lot of contexts addressing a lot of different things. Fundamentally, gatekeeping is determining (sometimes arbitrarily, but frequently along the lines of expected biases) who has access to what resources, opportunities, and benefits. Sometimes both the benefit and the bias are obvious, like when the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra denied their principal trombone seat to Abbie Conant, a certified badass who won the seat via blind audition, because she was a woman. (If you don’t know that story, read it.) Other times, it’s subtler, like how some teachers only praise former students who conformed to their every expectation, regardless of how successful other alums of the program are. (I’ve written at more length about that before.)

Teachers are the most obvious advocates for students and new professionals, because in an industry so reliant on visibility and word of mouth, that positive reinforcement to the public and other professionals can have an incredible impact. By the same token, if we fail some unspoken test and that teacher stops calling us with gigs and opportunities (or stops recommending us to others), it makes a significant, immediate, and negative difference. In this way, teachers themselves are often the first gatekeepers in our musical lives, but because of our closer interpersonal relationships, some come across purely as advocates until we do something that disappoints them.

Friends, peers, and colleagues can be gatekeepers, too. If someone who runs a jam or a recurring show or is frequently hiring bands goes from a trusted friend to something less comfortable, those opportunities become far less actionable, even if you keep getting called. Sexual predation frequently operates on some of these principles, leveraging a person’s career aspirations or social relationships in an attempt to override their discomfort and get them to go along with the harassment, assault, rape, or abuse. We’ve seen this in many of the #MeToo moments in the music world—both the manipulation of “I want to help your career” and the threats or inherent knowledge of “if I cast you aside, you will not work again.”

Gatekeeping is further complicated by the fact that many folks in these positions of power also hold sway with or are personally invested in other arts institutions—venues, concert series, contractors, funders. These other forces can become tied up in this idea of Paying Your Dues, because we don’t often bother to differentiate between Paying Your Dues to the art form (learning about and working on your craft), Paying Your Dues to the community or scene (investing time and money into the work of people around you, often to everyone’s benefit but sometimes to your detriment), and Paying Your Dues to a specific person in power (playing certain gigs because someone else says you have to before you can have other opportunities, kissing the ringed fingers of People With Gigs To Give Out, and, in some communities, sitting back and being miserable while you wait through the process because you don’t have the opportunities or hours to make the art you want). This extra layer of people and organizations to keep happy is somewhat expected, but the waters get murky when standards change without clear communication (or aren’t clearly communicated in the first place). For instance, in Phoenix, there are some gigs and venues young adults and twentysomethings can only expect to reliably access by staying plugged into the ASU bubble (and I’m not talking about Katzin and Gammage). In LA, a lot of the studio gigs get locked down by USC alums, who then hire and recommend other USC alums. CalArts has a similar relationship with the new music concerts. It’s important (for me) to note that none of these situations are true monopolies, but they trend in that direction because of a unique, at times insidious blend of institutional reputation and flat-out cronyism.

Gatekeeping approaches its most devastating, though, when gatekeepers use their affiliations with many organizations to pull the rug out from under folks looking to work their way up. This is done by essentially making invitations to more coveted (usually more public) opportunities contingent on participation in other situations (frequently those that take up time or credit space critically needed elsewhere for little to no pay). You can see this on a smaller scale within institutions, too. Part of my frustration with my undergrad jazz experience was because whenever I got within reach of original tunes, a gatekeeper would invariably tell me I needed to spend more time on my bebop before I was ready to handle new charts of my peers’ that were decidedly not bebop (and, quite arguably, not rooted in a direct extension of that tradition). This mindset not only entirely dismissed my own composition background and ability to assimilate into new sonic frameworks, it discouraged me from engaging more deeply with the jazz program as a whole. I learned within a year that it was easier and better for my wellbeing to seek out those experiences outside of school—and when I dropped the ASU ensemble I wasn’t making musical improvement in, other opportunities at other venues dried up, too. The unpredictable nature of these unknowingly-transactional relationships can leave young musicians in the lurch, and if that becomes pervasive enough, it can destabilize an entire community.

Now that we’ve broken down gatekeeping as a concept, we can more clearly examine some of its far-reaching effects. For time’s sake, I’m going to mainly focus on its impact on communities of young musicians, because I speak most authentically from that perspective. Among the first side effects of irresponsible or unknowing gatekeeping—particularly in regard to Paying Your Dues—is a widespread stifling or limiting of personal creativity. This can appear to come and go in waves, especially when older alums (think late-twenties, early-thirties) and other community members start leading projects of their own. Right now, Phoenix looks more creative than it’s been in a long time! But next time you’re out, take a look around you and mentally chronicle the folks who aren’t able to lead their own projects, the community members we’re still leaving behind. You might find that a solid number of them are female, gender-diverse, queer, and/or folks of color. How many young musicians in your community are still waiting to record their first album or start bandleading—not because they aren’t ready to do so, but because they don’t have access to the resources they need despite their competence? How many folks can’t get gigs at a venue or with a presenter their teachers use often because that environment has such strict expectations that they’re no longer comfortable asking to play? Which organizations are profiting off the free labor of student musicians and then closing their calendars to those same artists looking for a place to launch their own projects? (Yes, the joys of late-stage capitalism also have a role to play here, which is why it’s critical music nonprofits and individual musicians prioritize their grantwriting and advocate for the NEA’s continued existence. But that’s a topic for another time.)

Gatekeeping in the Paying Your Dues sector—especially when venue accessibility or organizational support is closely tied to a single influential person—also actively alienates newcomers and minorities. Anyone who’s moved regions or states can tell you among the worst parts of a transition is getting your foot in the door (or, put another way, starting the Paying Your Dues process for that scene). For women and other minorities, those first few months can be doubly difficult, as they usually involve hard personal decisions about how frequently you’re willing to let yourself be paraded around as a token minority. Many of us struggle to find any sort of a foothold for months or years, especially when we feel like our community only tolerates us because they feel obligated to our minority status. That’s part of why my circles of people I keep close remain small, even though my return to Phoenix has so far been generally well-received. It’s also a big part of why I left. (All of this is.) If no one lets you play anywhere, or you’re limited to once or twice a year, you won’t be part of that community for very long. If your gigs depend on putting up with being tokenized or hypersexualized against your will, you won’t be happy there. If you aren’t respected for your artistry, you will flounder, all in the name of Paying Your Dues. Even if you are treated exactly like everyone else in all other ways, if your participation in or exclusion from everyday groups is contingent on your marginalized skin color, gender presentation, or performative sexuality, you’re being gatekept. And you will sit and watch as those promoted around you are (consciously or not) a continuation of the old white boys’ club. Or just as bad (if not worse), you’ll watch the men in power lift up one woman/queer person/musician of color and use that act to invoke Paying Your Dues as an excuse to keep everyone else where they are.

So what do we do in the face of systemic exclusion? How do we maintain spaces not only for ourselves but for those around us whose identities mean they struggle more? I’ll be frank: I have no conclusive answers to this question, just some ideas and suggestions. However, they all revolve around one thing: we, the young musicians of scenes around the world, know the score. We know who’s presenting our peers with opportunities; we know who’s willing to advocate for us without strings attached to other institutions; we know who’s struggling to find their place in all this. Most importantly, we know what we need, and we know what we’re not getting. We need to start leveraging that information—and our own privilege—to make sure that we’re including our peers not just in jams and house shows but in our cultivation of new relationships with venues and presenters.

Or, put another way, we need to seek out and uplift the people and institutions we’re comfortable (and even happy) with Paying Our Dues to and alongside. There are several great organizations in Phoenix working to improve the music and arts scenes, but we probably don’t all get the same benefits from each of them. For instance, I’m absolutely in love with the good folks over at Oh My Ears!, and I’ve already started working with them, but not all of my friends are as integrated into that community. Part of my personal plans for contributing to the new music and improvisation communities at large this year involves a more active bridging of that gap—not only because I think it would lead to great opportunities and collaborations for everyone involved, but because it would spark a lot of growth and prompt questions about how we can make the transition between various styles of improvisation and new music smoother and more accessible for all of us.

This fluidity between genres, idioms, performance practices, and artistic environments is increasingly critical for musicians of this century, and many of my peers are well aware of that but don’t know how to get their foot in the door. Whether we like it or not, intentionally or otherwise, there’s gatekeeping there. And that means we’ve got work to do. We’re capable of creating and strengthening a cohesive, inter-genre musical community, and that starts with taking a look around us. Which hangs/scenes/groups are we part of? Who has skill sets and artistic aspirations that would work well within the practices and projects of people they haven’t met yet? Whose artistic goals go beyond the roles they’re allowed to play in their communities? Where are the clearest opportunities for collaboration and experimentation? And, the most difficult one: how do we get all those people in the same place at the same time?

The thing I’m trying to point toward here is that I see so many of my peers stuck in the slog of Paying Your Dues in pursuit of arbitrary goals that minimize many of their most compelling skill sets and talents. In some cases, I look at my friends and think, you’d be such a star in this other genre. In other words, they’ve already completed the Paying Dues process for other idioms. And, going beyond that, they can accomplish the things they dream about without being beholden to the politics of the genre label they’re operating under now. That’s very CalArts of me, but in that regard, I’ve learned from the best.

Beyond the basic, hone-your-music-and-your-people-skills part of things, though, we need to start realizing that the demands we make as gatekeepers and communities in the name and spirit of Paying Your Dues are a) ethically questionable, in some cases, and b) largely ensuring that the people who achieve success are straight, white, cis, and male. I’ve paid dues—I’ve given my body, both to the point of injury and in resignation to rampant hypersexualization; I’ve given my mind, in the ideas I push that are talked over and outright ignored; I’ve given my emotional wellbeing, both in keeping parts of my identity limited to a few close friends and in enduring near-constant criticism and outright harassment. I’ve made sacrifices in the name of my art forms that I know some of my teachers and superiors will never fully understand or acknowledge. I’ve had to redefine success because the version sold to my male peers was never attainable in its truest form for me—and maybe it wasn’t for them, either. And I only speak for myself, but every musician I’ve ever met with a minority qualifier carries their own tally of the sacrifices they made with the full and complete knowledge that they shouldn’t have had to make them.

So, with all due respect, stop telling us to Pay Our Dues. Stop telling me; stop telling my sisters and gender-diverse siblings; stop telling my friends of color; and yeah, stop telling the guys, too. I might give myself and my body to the wolves based on the circumstances of my identity, but despite everything, many of the men I put myself around are my brothers—my family. I know all too well the demons they face (and maybe, at some point, I’ll dive into those).

And damn it, I’ll fight for them, too. ♦

Thanks for reading! I blog a lot about the intersections of music, feminism, misogyny, and sexual assault. Blog uploads are every Saturday at 8pm MST. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram. Thanks again for being here!