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Marketplace Morning Report

For musicians, holiday gigs provide critical income

Jim Burress Dec 8, 2015
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Hartsfield-­Jackson Atlanta International Airport sees more passengers than any other airport on the globe. This time of year is especially busy, but this year, the airport has already broken passenger volume records.

To make the trek home a bit easier, the airport is bringing in local musicians to play travelers’ stresses away. And for the musicians, it all starts at the Georgia International Convention Center with an “American Idol”-like audition.

Among the first in line to try out is retired firefighter Tavius Elder. He’s played countless bookings since he began strumming a guitar at age six. But as the 54-­year-­old waits for his number to be called, he admits he has a lot riding on these next few minutes.

“Sometimes it gets tough around this time of year. After the fall, around Thanksgiving, the work slows down,” Elder said. That’s why he counts on seasonal work to catch up on bills and help out his family.

When his number is called, Elder and bandmate make their way onto a small riser where seven judges are keeping auditions on ­task, and on ­time. They have up to five minutes to perform. 

The audition seems to go as smoothly as they play a jazz rendition of “My Favorite Things.” In the end, though, the judges don’t extend an offer. Tavius Elder says if nothing else comes through, he still has a plan.

“I’ll play on the corner. I’ll go back to that,” he said. “I find that works and I can go out and make $20, $50 a day. It adds up at the end of the week.”

Holiday gigs add up for all freelance musicians, said American Federation of Musicians International President Ray Hair.

“I think that we all depend, as freelance musicians, on the holiday income,” he said. On average, he guesses, freelance musicians should expect 20 percent, maybe 30 percent of their annual income to roll in between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

“I don’t know if it’s ‘make or break,’” Hair said. “I do know that freelancers depend on the holidays to put bread on the table and catch up.”

So how much bread can musicians that are hired for an airport gig this season put on their tables?

Hard to say, said Steve Mayers, Hartsfield­-Jackson International’s director of guest relations. “We’re going to have an open bid process where we invite those 35 to bid on the per ­hour charge.”

But divvying up his $25,000 budget is complex. Performers submit a “bid” for what they think they should earn. A computer crunches the bids from each musician, and voila, spits out a figure. Mayers estimates musicians will earn anywhere from $50 to $150 an hour, with different consideration given for individual musicians versus groups.

Back at the auditions, those waiting to try ­out have no idea what the job pays. But Jeremiah Turner and Kevin Grayson don’t seem too caught up on it. Grayson, a violinist, said it’s not always about the dollars. Sometimes it’s about the numbers.

Jeremiah Turner (on guitar) and Kevin Grayson (violin) compose the group “Unknown Lyric.”

“Atlanta’s airport is the busiest in the world,” he said. “So, with the traffic and volume of people who come through, our music is exposed to everybody.”

Known as “Unknown Lyric,” Turner and Grayson wow the judges from the first sounds their violin and acoustic guitar make. When their five minutes are up, the judges asked where they can learn more.

Out in the convention center hallway after the audition, the two men are calm and confident.

“It’s always cool at the end of these [when] you feel like they like your music,” Turner said. “This is what you put your heart into. So anytime you can be accepted and liked for what you do­­ and who you are, ­­it’s always an extra smile to your day.”

No surprise: they received an offer. 

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