Is it okay to not pay musicians?

This question has come up in a few separate conversations recently. And I find it interesting in that it reveals a number of camps of belief. There are those who believe that all musicians should always be paid, and to ask them to do otherwise is a serious insult. “I don’t ask you if you’d come round and do your professional job for free, or for ‘the exposure’, or for maybe a free drink…” There are the equally passionate camp who believe that all music should be for free. And anyone who charges for it is an artistically bankrupt sellout who is no better than one of the major record labels.

I also find it interesting, because when I was at school I had it drilled into me by my guitar teacher that no musician ever really makes money out of music. You’ll get ripped off by the industry, or just waste your time for pennies. We had a joke: “What’s the difference between a professional guitarist and a 12 inch deep-pan pizza? Answer: the deep-pan pizza can feed a family of four.” So I resigned myself to music just being a hobby. Then it occurred to me that it might be a part-time income. And now I’m really taking the idea seriously that it might be a full-time income.

But I still do work for free, provided it is (a) fun and (b) not a huge drain on my time. It can be a good way to meet new people, try new things, and I feel there’s no pressure because, hey, you’re not paying me! Music is like any other job: it has its quirks, and it’s less easy to rigidly compartmentalise as you might think. A mechanic, for example, might well fix a friend’s car for free, because that car is an original Shelby AC Cobra, and it is a pleasure just to touch it. But they’re not going to help you out with your Ford Fiesta.

To not clearly indicate that no money will be paid is wrong. To not offer anything – free drinks etc – is just a bit rude. Charity events… these tend to piss musicians off most, because you may be asked to perform for free, but the sound engineer is getting paid, the bar staff are getting paid, and sometimes even the person asking you is taking an ‘administration’ cut (whether they should do or not).

But the truth of the matter is… there will always be musicians who will be willing to work for free.

And I’m fine with that. That’s part of how the supply and demand of the musicians-for-hire works. Musicians who are amateur — both in the sense that they haven’t been doing it long, or that they do it ‘for the love of it’ (from the Latin) — need experience, and plenty are happy to earn it for free. And this system works. I played a lot of gigs for free when I didn’t know how to play live, and it was great experience. ‘Exposure’? No, I think exposure is bollocks as a supposed form of payment. Any gig you’re offered for just the ‘exposure’ is nearly always exposure that is no use to you whatsoever (although if the gig looks fun anyway then it might still be worth doing). But ‘experience’ is a valid reason.

And the reason why I’ll still play free gigs from time to time is because I am still, at heart, an amateur. I’ll still do it for the love of it. If, for example, it’s a gig on a steamboat, or in a prison, or on an oil rig, or in a location and in front of an audience that I’ve never played before.

But for me it all comes down to the fact that you can always say no. Which is why I have no problem with people asking me to play a gig for free that will be inconvenient for me to get to and maybe even perfom at. Because there will almost certainly be someone out there who’ll be prepared to do it. That person may be less suited to that gig, but hey, if that’s a problem then you should pay, and pay a good rate.

In fact, just a few weeks ago I did exactly that: I asked one of the most talented musicains I know if his band would be prepared to pay for the folk festival in return for just festival tickets. And I got the diplomatic answer I’ve made myself so many times: I’d be happy to do it solo, but the band, unfortunately, costs £xxx. Which, as soon as I read it, make me think “Oh yeah, of course they do! I already knew that.”  That said, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And some bands (like the dear-departed Half Moon All Stars) are perfectly happy to play a weird free gig, just for the craic.

Now, you might see from my current gig calendar that… I’m saying no quite a lot. Or rather, I’ve been saying no long enough for people to stop asking. I’m fine with that too. I was coasting with my solo gigs for a long time, and even though it is taking me an insaaaaaanely long time to get it together, I’m hoping I’ll soon be out gigging again. And probably starting at the bottom again. Playing free gigs. Letting the new material settle, in an environment where there’s no pressure.

But then there’ll come a point, once again, where I’ll just start saying no, I’m only gigging for money at the moment. Because there’s no longer a reason for me to do it for free.

Unless someone offers me a gig in Stonehenge or something. And then hey, maybe.

Photo by Maaria Lohiya on Unsplash

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