But musicians are always asked to play for free, aren’t they?
Two weeks after I published the article Why Musicians Shouldn’t Work For Peanuts it came to light that organisers of the London Olympics and Queen’s Jubilee celebrations had been contacting musicians and asking them to perform unpaid. How ironic when you consider that musicians were initially wetting their lips in anticipation of a summer packed with decently paid celebration gigs. But the general consensus from non-musicians is that we should be delighted for the opportunity and exposure these performances may provide.
To date an estimated £11billion has been spent on the Olympics including this £19million atrocity, set to ‘greet Olympic visitors’. Despite this, of the 7000 musicians engaged for the opening ceremonies, only 500 are to be paid.
For the Queen’s Jubilee, 30 horse shit picker-uppers have been gainfully employed whilst organisers are still asking musicians to accept ‘exposure’ in lieu of payment. Jubilee? Jubifree.
After reading Andrea Vicari’s response to the Evenings Standard’s most recent article on the matter, I thought “woe betide the organiser who phones me with such an offer”.
But can you believe it? It happened. This morning I received the call.
“We have two slots to fill for bands during torch relay celebrations. We’re looking for volunteers as we’re only in the position to pay expenses. Are you interested?”
“Well, I am free on those dates but I can’t provide my services free of charge”.
“I am aware that this is a tricky situation but it will be a great opportunity to showcase your music”.
“Will it?” I replied.
“Will it be a great opportunity to showcase my music?”
“Of course. It’s great publicity as well.”
“But I’m a professional musician and I have been earning my living as one for years. And I don’t need exposure because my goal isn’t fame. I’m sorry. No. I’m not sorry… Just out of interest, are you working for free you know… to showcase your organisational skills?”
“And are the technical staff working for free?” I asked.
“Technical staff will be paid”.
“Then why aren’t the musicians? You know, the only reason this situation is tricky is because of people like you!”
“I don’t understand why you’re being so antagonistic. There are other bands that have accepted our offer”.
“Well, you get what you pay for” I replied and hung up.
Musicians were asked to work for free way before the Olympics bought attention to the matter. Whether it’s a music festival organiser offering valuable exposure, a club owner who wants a free gig in audition for ‘more’ or the charity fundraiser who tugs at your heartstrings (whilst paying all other involved staff), most musicians agonise over whether to say yes, or no.
What is it about the musician that screams you can have me for free?
Perhaps people see the musician as a desperate dole-dosser who can’t earn enough to survive. Hazy images of my post-student days where the average day involved 6 hours of shredding, 20 cups of tea, a cheese and pickle sandwich and Neighbours at lunchtime springs to mind.
Some see musicians as living an enlightened life of priviledge. So enlightened is that life that it doesn’t involve paying bills. Or maybe we’re fame seekers who’ll do anything to perform anywhere. We don’t need paying. We just need exposure so we can get a major record deal and get famous!
For me, music is my job and I exist on a fine balance of performing, teaching and leading choirs. I value myself as a musician and do not accept badly paid gigs. But it is difficult and as my friend Brendan says:
“There are no amateur lawyers, or amateur surgeons, but plenty of amateur musicians who’ll do your gig”.
Amateurs charge less than me and a whole host of music students will perform at clubs for free. But they shoot themselves in the foot as one day, they will need to pay their mortgage. When the club owner moves on to the latest freebie, they realise it’s hard to go from FREE TO FEE.
As for exposure? That’s a commercial enterprise embodied by Simon Cowell, The X Factor and a steady stream of one-shit-wonders - a soulless enterprise that moves further away from musical reality with each year that passes.
The recently deceased Levon Helm reportedly said: “just because you play music, it ain’t supposed to make you rich or famous….if you get a shot, if you get on national television, or if you get a record out that somebody can remember, great. That ought to encourage you not to quit, but it don’t mean a whole lot.”
I strongly believe that it is not vendors that set the value of musicians but musicians themselves. If musicians - be it amateur, part time or student - are flaunting their wares for a nominal fee, vendors will expect them for the same. And if musicians accept badly paid or unpaid bookings, they perpetuate the notion that music comes cheap. As musicians, it is our responsibility to charge a fair fee. If we don’t value ourselves, who will?
“But what is the fair fee?”
This is the question many musicians who read my blogs have asked and it is a question I don’t know the answer to. The Musicians Union have a casual rates guide for musicians working the pubs and clubs of London but aside from this the general consensus is one of confusion. Unless you work for one the organisations the MU provides contracts and pay scales for, you’re out in the cold.
I feel the only way any musician can stay true to their value is to decide a minimum fee they won’t work for less than and to stick to it. And as for those free gigs? I have a simple mantra I’m not afraid to share with any vendor who asks: if the organisers, security, technical, catering and hospitality staff are going to be paid then so am I.
If you are a musician or hirer and wish to share your thoughts, please comment below. You can use a fake name and email address if you wish to protect your identity.
For more information about Musicians Rights, please contact (and join) the Musicians Union.