Playing for more than your supper: Part 1

Playing for more than your supper: Part 1

Posted by Paul Orridge on 23rd Mar 2020

“You’re a great band but I can’t afford to pay you”

Do these words sounds familiar to you? If you’re a musician for long enough, you are highly likely to be asked to play for free or even perhaps pay to play. Although we may consider ourselves to be artists, we are in fact part of the service sector because we produce intangible goods, i.e. music. Would anyone ask those working in other aspects of the service sector, such as transportation, technical and scientific services, and health care, to provide their services for free? Can you imagine asking a haulage company to deliver a parcel for free for the exposure it may give them or a dentist to fill a tooth for free in the hope that he or she would get more work sometime in the future?

It is not just within the world of rock and roll that musicians are often undervalued and ripped off. For example, I know of a highly accomplished classical musician, who was asked to play a solo spot in a restaurant for a specified fee. At the end of the evening, the owner told him that he couldn’t afford to pay him because there hadn’t been many customers, yet the kitchen staff and bar staff were still paid. This incident serves to exemplify the attitude of many people towards musicians and the value of the service we provide.

Some people may say that we should never play for free, while others take a less rigid view. For example, not charging for a charity gig or playing at friend or family member’s party would seem reasonable. However, playing charity gigs for free can back fire because once you have done one or two you seem to get inundated with requests to do others, and it can devalue the service you offer. People don’t tend to value things they get for free. For example, a very popular local covers band played a number of gigs for a charitable organisation for free. After one such gig, one of the organisers asked how much the band would charge to play at a wedding. They quoted a price, which was the going rate for a wedding in that area, to which the person enquiring replied that they are not going to pay that much when they get the band free for the charity gigs. The band in question now charges a reduced fee for charity gigs.

This raises the question of how much we should charge for a gig. The Musicians’ Union suggest that the minimum rate per musician for casual engagements such as performing in pubs and clubs for up to 3 hours should be £114.00. For casual engagements for groups performing at functions of up to 4 hours the fee should rise to £153.00

These rates would seem reasonable when you compare them to charges made by other professionals in the service sector. However, market forces tend to dictate how much a band can charge. For example, a young band playing original material may struggle to get gigs due to the limited number of venues promoting original material and may play for free just to get exposure in the hope that they will eventually achieve commercial success.

This has led to phenomenon of ‘pay to play’ gigs. These deals typically involve musicians being forced to buy large quantities of tickets for their own gig, which they would then have to try to sell. In effect, this transfers the role of promotion to the musicians, often leaving them out-of-pocket and playing to empty venues. The Musicians’ Union is categorically against such arrangements. In a similar vein, it is common practice for bands to pay thousands of pounds to secure the support slot on a major act’s tour in the hope that the exposure they receive will enhance their career.

The vast majority of musicians ply their trade in clubs and pubs playing covers, so it is this sector of the music business and how musicians can get a fair deal that will be the focus of the next part of this article.