March 31st, 2012

Why Musicians Shouldn’t Work For Peanuts

Music venues are paying less and expecting more from the ever-struggling musician. They want it all; brilliance, pa and lighting, posters, publicity, a ready crowd of family and friends to pack out their venue and what do they want it for? Peanuts. But can you blame them? After all, they’re only trying to get as much as they can for as little as possible and that sounds like standard business practice to me. And some musicians are only too willing to accept a poorly paid gig, or undercut the going rate; in a desperate climate, a £30 gig is better than no gig, right? Wrong. 

 

I think it’s time to stop blaming music venues and look a little closer to home. 

 

Musicians who accept poorly paid gigs often begrudge that fact that they’re working for peanuts. Don’t they realise that by doing the gig they’re allowing this to happen and to continue happening? It perpetuates the notion that musicians come cheap. And not only do musicians come cheap, they come fast. The professional musician relies on his music-making income, but there’s a never-ending supply of students, part-timers and hobbyists who’ll do your gig for half the price. As these pocket-money-players colonise UK music venues, the value of the full-time professional decreases; pocket-money-players are usually willing to perform for less be it £20 a head, free beer, experience or for love and by doing so, they are inadvertently making life very difficult for professionals. 

 

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“Please can we play at your venue?”

 

Student bands often ask venues if they can perform in return for experience but by doing so, they teach venues that music can be sourced for free. I recently witnessed the following conversation between two venue owners: 

 

Charlie: “I need a band but don’t wanna pay much in case they’re shit”. 

Linus: “I can find you one for free”. 

Charlie: “Really?”

Linus: “Well I can’t guarantee they’ll be any good but there’s this rock band from Kent College who have been asking for a gig. They don’t want paying because they need experience and they’ll bring a crowd”.

 

If a venue can’t afford a band, it shouldn’t expect one, but this doesn’t matter when there are plenty of student bands willing to fill a venues pocket. Some may even pay a venue to play or agree to sell a fixed number of tickets in advance. Is the music market about supply and demand or closer to demand and supply?  

 

The student musicians’ short term experience-gaining solution eventually becomes a long term problem as one day, they will want to be paid. But now, venues know there’s a steady stream of student bands who will play for peanuts, and there you have it; you have shot yourself in the foot…. What are you going to do now? Tell other students to charge for debut performances? Tell them they are making it difficult for themselves when they want to become a professional later on? For there will always be a newer and younger bands who need experience too. 

 

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“But I don’t want to be a professional. I just do it for fun and maybe a bit of pocket money”. 

 

If this is the case, why don’t you go to an open mic night or a jam session? They are designed for musicians from all levels of the profession and are crying out for people to become involved. You usually sign up for a few songs and there’s none of the pressure of a live gig either because you don’t have to take your own gear and you can perform what the hell you like without worrying about pleasing the audience. It’s also a great way to meet new musicians you might otherwise not have met and all in all have a great night out.

 

Whether you’re a beginner or part timer, by performing for peanuts you’re putting professional musicians out of work. It’s not good for the music industry and it is essentially putting to sleep a long standing and deserved line of work. 

 

As swathes of musicians inundate music venues - twice as many as available gigs - it is important to realise that sometimes they’re good and sometimes they aren’t. Unfortunately Joe public can’t differentiate between the two; it’s all the same to him. But I hear many professionals complaining about bad bands who are gigging and earning more money than them. Usually, I agree; it’s disappointing that charlatans exist who can put little work in and earn more than the ‘proper’ musician but this is life. And what is ‘proper’ anyway?

 

Anyone has the right to play music to earn cash, regardless of ability and experience as we are in a free market and music is subjective. But there is a responsibility that comes with charging a fee and all musicians should be aware that by undercutting the going-rate, or working for free, they are affecting the profession of music.

 

Unfortunately, many music venues don’t understand the hours of practise time involved or the expense of being a musician. All they do know is what they learn. If you ask a venue for opportunities to play, a venue learns that they are doing you a favour when they offer a gig. If you work for greatly reduced rates of say £30 per musician, a venue learns that £120 for a four-piece band is fair. It’s not uncommon for venues to offer bands unpaid gigs in return for exposure. But when did a venue get the idea that a gig provides great exposure? When desperate musicians started begging them for opportunities.

 

That’s when. If over the last 12 years I had worked in return for exposure at each of my 3 - 5 weekly gigs I’d be more famous than the Queen of England, and homeless. 

 

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“But I love the music so much, I just want to play”. 

 

Then play. But try where possible to not charge so little you devalue other musicians. The free and competitive market place is polluted by musicians who do this.

 

I once received a business card through my letterbox advertising 40-minute piano lessons for £5. I was so surprised I phoned the number on the card. 

 

Me: “Hi there. I’m enquiring about your lessons. Can I ask, what kind of experience do you have?”

Him: “Well, my Dad is xxx xxxx”.

Me: “But what experience do YOU have?”

Him: “Well my Dad toured a lot and is quite famous and he taught me everything I know.”

Me: “No offense, but you aren’t you Dad. What experience do you have?”

Him: “….”

Me: “The reason I ask is because I’m really surprised by the price you’re charging. I’m a professional musician and I teach piano. I’m very experienced and I charge £26 per hour because this is the going rate in Whitstable. You’re really undercutting me. People will think I’m overcharging when I’m not. You’re devaluing what I do. Why?”

Him: “I want to be competitive”. 

 

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Many musicians and non-musicians alike say the market decides your worth, it’s swings and roundabouts, supply and demand. Yes, there is a recession but if you ask any seasoned pro it has never been any different. Back in the 70’s things were the same only then - according to my sources - a good musician was valued more highly, paid better and working regularly. But music will always be seen as a luxury, is subjective and therefore difficult to quantify and, as I said before, there is always someone willing to do your gig for less.  

 

As a musician, have you ever stopped and asked: “who decides what musicians are worth?” If you did, you might be surprised to find that the answer is “musicians do”. But I don’t think musicians are really aware of this. If they were, they would perhaps think twice about charging too little or working in return for a beer.

 

If you have ever been to Denmark Street in London you will know that it is lined with music shop after music shop. You can go into the first and ask what they are charging for a guitar case. “It’s £200”, they answer. You decide to leave and enter the shop next door: “this case is £200 next door, can you do any better?” “How about £190?” they offer. You leave and enter the shop next door. “This case is £190 next door, can you do any better?” And the cycle continues with each shop offering less and less until once again, you enter the first. "I can’t offer less than £100", they say, "but I’ll throw in a free set of strings". 

 

Musicians undercut and undercut because they are desperate for a gig, desperate to play and passionate about their music be it original or functional. But if we continue in this manner, there will come a time where £10 a gig is average.

 

There is currently no fair-wage regulator for small-medium music venues to sign up to. The Musicians Union have made some attempts but they can only be enforced if you are a member and are mostly ignored by the musicians themselves. 

 

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Perhaps music students need a termly lesson in self worth to nip this in the bud? But how to we educate part-time musicians? This is a complex and difficult issue, but one thing I can be certain of is this: it is up to the musician to stop playing for peanuts. Whether you are a student, a part timer, a full timer or an amateur, do you really want to drive 60 miles to play Mustang Sally to an audience that doesn’t know the difference between good and bad at a pub that pays £30 each? Of course not. If a venue pays poorly, don’t play there. It’s time to get some pride and self respect and you can start by setting a minimum fee that you won’t work for less than and sticking to it. Musicians need to set the precedent for fair gig rates and they need do it now. Let’s hope that by doing so others will follow suit. 

 

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If you are a musician or hirer and wish to share your thoughts, please comment below. It will accept a fake name and email address if you wish to conserve your identity.

Em Peasgood is a freelance musician, musical director and writer. She blogs about lifestyle, relationships and working as a freelancer on www.publicemilie.com

For more information about Musicians Rights visit http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/