The price of gas rose 31.5 percent in 2007, which means that the average consumer (driving 10,000 miles a year) will spend between $5,510 and $9,095 to operate a 2008 model car. This figure is based on gas, oil, tires, and maintenance–parking or tolls are not included in these calculations.
As a full-time freelancer, I drove around 50,000 miles per year between 2000 and 2007 (when I “saw the light” and realized that doing all this driving was complete insanity). At these aforementioned rates, I would have been spending somewhere between $27,550 and $45,475 for vehicle operating expenses in 2008 if I had kept up this pace of gigging.
No wonder I never had any money!
The cost of operating various common vehicles
How much are you really spending on getting to that gig? Let’s see! Here is a list of operating costs per mile for a variety of common vehicles:
|Vehicle Model||Operating Cost Per Mile|
|Small Cars: Chevrolet Cobalt, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla||55.1 cents per mile|
|Mid-Size Cars: Chevy Impala, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry||71.9 cents per mile|
|Full-Size Cars: Buick Lucerne, Chrysler 300, Ford Five Hundred, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon||85.8 cents per mile|
|Minivans: Chevy Uplander, Dodge Grand Caravan, Kia Sedona, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna||74.9 cents per mile|
|Mid-Size SUVs: Chevy Trailblazer, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner||91 cents per mile|
Imagine if you kept a little jar on the passenger seat next to you, tossing in 55, 75, or 91 cents every time a mile ticked by on the odometer. Would it make you think about whether you really needed to get into the car for that particular trip?
What these costs mean for the freelance musician
This topic really gets interesting for me when I think of the implications it has for the freelance musician While these vehicle operating costs obviously affect all of us, even if we don’t drive at all (most goods in the United States are delivered by truck, and these costs have a huge impact on the overall economy), freelance musicians live and die by their cars, and the cost of commuting (usually either under-reimbursed or not reimbursed at all by employers) to various locations has a major impact of the livelihood of these road warriors.
Real commuting costs to various locations by vehicle type
Let’s take a few examples of common gig destinations for Chicago freelancers and the real cost associated with commuting to these various venues:
|Destination (and round-trip distance from Chicago)||Mid-Size Car Per-Trip Cost||Full-Size Car Per-Trip Cost||Mid-Size SUV Per-Trip Cost|
|Chicago Philharmonic Evanston, IL (28 miles)||$20.13||$24.02||$25.48|
|Elgin Symphony Elgin, IL (84 miles)||$60.40||$72.07||$76.44|
|Milwaukee Ballet Milwaukee, WI(168 miles)||$120.79||$144.14||$152.88|
|Madison Symphony Madison, WI(320 miles)||$230.08||$274.56||$291.20|
|Illinois Symphony Springfield, IL (480 miles)||$345.12||$411.84||$436.80|
What are you actually making?
Because I don’t want to appear mean or vindictive toward any particular group (I’ve been accused of this with these table analyses in the past!), I will substitute real names and pay scales with imaginary ones for the following examples. Keep in mind, however, that these examples are right in line with what freelance groups actually pay, so feel free to substitute the group of your choice into the following table to determine if you should really be taking that gig.
|Gig and per-service pay (including mileage)||Profit After Mid-Size Car Commute||Profit After Full-Size Car Commute||Profit After Mid-Size SUV Commute|
|$100 gig in town (3 mi/RT)||$97.84||$97.43||$97.27|
|$100 gig in nearby suburb (20 mi/RT)||$85.62||$82.84||$81.80|
|$100 regional orchestra gig (80 mi/RT)||$42.48||$31.36||$27.20|
|$100 moderate distance gig (180 mi/RT)||-$29.42||-$54.44||-$63.80|
|$100 long-distance gig (320 mi/RT)||-$130.08||-$174.56||-$191.20|
|$100 very long-distance gig (480 mi/RT)||-$245.12||-$311.84||-$336.80|
Choose your gigs wisely!
I like quoting these statistics to my fellow freelancers (especially now that I’m not doing all the long-haul driving that I used to do!), and I frequently get defensive replies, with claims that it doesn’t cost them that much to commute. Call me foolish, but I don’t see how you can find a way to make these trips cost less… besides not making them! A trip to Springfield, Illinois in a certain car costs a certain amount of money to undertake, and if you’re only getting paid $100 a service (this gig actually pays less than that, though there is a little mileage that bumps it up to around the $100 per-service mark), you’re actually losing between $245 and $336 per trip.
Think about that for a moment.
In what alternate universe do people pay tens of thousands of dollars (hundreds of thousands in many cases) to go to music school only to fight for a job that pays -$336 a service? Has the world gone crazy?
I was recently called to play a gig in southern Wisconsin that pays $55 per service (with no mileage or cartage).
If I’d accepted that, I would have made -$39.64 per service, or -$198.20 for the week. Not finding many reasons to pay (both up front in gas and later in maintenance) almost $200 for the “privilege” of playing with this ensemble, I said no.
Add in the hours spent driving to long-haul gigs, and you’ve got a whopper of an equation staring you in the face.
A typical service for an orchestra I belong to in Milwaukee averages around $90 per service, with no cartage or mileage. Let’s break this little bugger down… as if I’m not depressed enough already!
|Distance to gig (round-trip):||150 miles|
|Operating cost of vehicle for each service:||$136.50|
|Tolls per trip:||$5|
|Total profit per-service:||-$59.50|
|Hours spent on road (could be greater if traffic is heavy):||3.5 hours|
|Hours spent at gig:||3 hours|
|Total hours devoted to gig (1/2 hour cushion built in to allow enough time to park & get inside venue):||7 hours|
|Services per week:||7 services|
|Trips to Milwaukee per week:||6 trips|
|Hours devoted to gig per week:||45.5 hours|
|Profit per week:||-$267|
You know, it really is like some eerie alternate universe, isn’t it? Working for 45.5 hours at a minimum wage job would garner a person around $267 profit for that week. In the world of music, however, that money is in negative dollars!
The loss per week would actually be greater that -$267, but thankfully there’s one double built into the schedule, which actually allows for a little profit that day! This is a valuable lesson–if one’s doing out-of-town commutes, the more doubles the better!
Drawing Conclusions from this Study
If I can find one lesson to take away from this analysis, it would be this:
Work close to home!
Unless you’re being compensated accordingly, try your utmost to build something up in your community. If opportunities don’t exist, create them for yourself (see my article Musical Entrepreneurship for my suggestions and a more elaborate discussion of this topic).
While there’s something to be said for getting opportunity and cutting your teeth (remember, I’ve driven all over Creation for the past seven years, so I’m speaking from personal experience), there’s also something to be said for not committing your time, money, heart, and spirit to something that actually costs you money, sucks away your life expectancy (through icy commutes and hair-raising overnight drives) while resulting in a negative income stream. After all, freelancers are independent contractors, small businesses unto themselves, and what small business would continue to operate in the red week after week and year after year without re-evaluating their business practices?
Why not just pull your checkbook out, write out a donation of a few hundred bucks to your state highway commission, and hunker down in the practice room to try to win a gig that is in one location? Either that, or use all the contacts you’ve built up in music school and the professional circuit to start your own organization and enrich your own community in the process?