Beyond the Music: The hard life — and boundless love — of a local musician

Scott Sechman is one of dozens of Outer Banks musicians who share their craft with audiences.

Our island — or to be accurate, our barrier island — is long and relatively thin. When Hurricane Dorian swept through, it left considerable damage on its wake.

The northern section, where I live fared fairly well, but the folks on Hatteras Island and Ocracoke were hit very hard.

The “tribe” of musicians we have on The Banks are a pretty resilient bunch. We stretch from northern Currituck County on the “mainland” and all the way south to Ocracoke. When storms like Dorian blow through, like all businesses in its path, your local entertainers take a big economic hit.

Our main moneymaking months are, generally, from early-June to mid-September. That’s when the tourists turn our relatively small community into a bustling metropolis that has traffic problems that, to me, rival Los Angeles or the D.C. beltway.

Some of us are lucky enough to get a regular weekly night gig at various restaurants, but many of us play one nighters all up and down the length of the beach. To complicate the situation, even when there isn’t a major storm, many of our employment opportunities are “outdoors only.”

Even if there’s a 20-minute sprinkling of rain, that means a cancelled job. Couple that with extremely high heat indexes, and there are plenty of gigs musicians could lose…and usually do.

Musicians, as a rule, are self-employed contractors. If you play full time and have no “straight job,” each and every lost gig is meaningful, economically speaking. Really, no different than the losses servers, chefs, real estate agents, and every other worker has to deal with during and after a major storm. Except, we cannot claim unemployment benefits, generally have little or no health care, no paid vacation or other benefits provided by some employers for full-time employees.

And living here in paradise is not a cheap proposition. Low-income housing? If it’s on this island, I have yet to see any.

Of course, just like I had to for decades in California, many of our local players and singers have the requisite “day job.”

Working as real estate agents, bartenders, carpenters, etc., that enables one to weather the fall, winter and spring months and get to the time of year when you may not have a night off for weeks. Yet, those people are also required to work their day jobs during “the season.”

That’s the price that you pay when you’re younger than I am.

Thank you, FDR.

I guess the whole point of this month’s column is when you see a musician “playing” at one of your local restaurants or bars, it’s not the kind of lifestyle you might be imagining: Fun, glamorous, lucrative. There are no longer venues that have the same band/musician every night, year-round that could support someone trying to raise a family. There’s very little chance that one might “make it big,” and the paradigm has changed since I was a young man. Liken it to the lottery…but harder.

In my case, for example, I have spent nearly 50 years honing what little “craft” I have. Learning songs, remembering chords and lyrics, (no…I don’t have an iPad attached to my mic stand), buying equipment, loading up the vehicle, driving to the job, unloading the equipment, hauling it to whatever “stage” is provided, setting up, performing what is usually a three-hour gig, tearing down, loading up the vehicle again, and then I get paid. If I’m lucky, I will get a meal included as part of my pay.

Consider this: In 1972, I was making $50 for a four-hour job. In 1992, I was making about $63.50. In 2002, I finally hit the $100 mark — and that was in California. Factor in inflation, expenses, and just everyday living, and you’ll see that none of the local folks who entertain you — anywhere in the U.S. — are doing this because the money is so good. If I was doing this for the money, I’d have quit in the 1980s, when I had a day job working in the defense industry.

So, next time you venture out to hear live music, I’d ask you to consider all of the time and effort that your musician has put into the performance. The unpaid hours of rehearsal. Humping gear in all kinds of adverse conditions. The expenses. The indifference shown by some members of the audience. The rate of pay that has never, ever kept up with the cost of living and inflation.

We call it “playing,” but it’s a physical, mental and emotional endeavor, and in the end, very hard work.

So, why do we do it?

Because, on a given night, we might connect with one person — touch them in some intangible way, make their day just a little bit better with a song, put a smile on their face or make them tap their foot. Or, just for a second, have them stop what they’re doing, or saying, and turn to look at you and recognize that you’re adding value to their life at that moment.

In a word: Love.

Transplanted to the Outer Banks from the wilds of the L.A. area, singer-songwriter Scott Sechman has shared stages with Bill Medley, Tom Rush, Al Wilson, and the Grass Roots during his ongoing music career. His column, Beyond the Music, appears Fridays in COAST.

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