Recently, I was having a discussion with a friend about the pay for artists’ and musicians’ services. My friend was perhaps half joking/half serious about having me perform at an event for her work. In a half joking response I said, “Sure, if the price is right.”
She proceeded to let me know that in the past they’ve had ‘volunteer’ musicians for such events. Then I seriously said, “I don’t do volunteer performances unless it’s a benefit concert for a cause I believe in.”
She was taken aback. She just wasn’t expecting my reaction. However, I explained my stance…
I told her that I used to take every gig I could get a hold of, when I was starting out to build my brand as a musician entrepreneur and to get experience, but that became a recipe for burnout. I had bills to pay so I couldn’t sustain that pace for too long.
At some point I realized that what I do as a musician — offering live performances, on college campuses, in small clubs, in coffee shops, or at corporate events — is a valuable service. I’m offering a service that enhances an event to entertain the audience with my brand of music.
By entertaining the audience, the audience gets activated and engaged enhancing the moment and event, and/or the audiences’ engagement leads to more food and drinks purchased, which is a big reason why a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, or similar establishment hires musicians.
The Similarities Between Musicians and Lawyers
I went on to use the analogy of a lawyer (I know it’s a far cry from being a musician, or is it?). I said an individual trains to become a lawyer for several years, first obtaining their bachelor’s degree, then passing the LSAT law school entrance exam, then they pursue their law degree, pass the bar around graduation time and are certified to practice law in a particular state.
Part of the reason lawyers are paid what they are is because of their specific training. In that respect it’s not much different for musicians. Musicians spend years learning their instrument, writing songs, recording their music to get it out to the public in a tangible and/or consumable way, overall, perfecting their craft. Unfortunately, some think it’s okay to devalue all that training and work by asking the musician to do pro-bono work. I don’t know too many lawyers who would be willing to do pro-bono work for the majority of their career.
The point is, I’m talking about the business side of being a professional musician. If being a professional musician (getting paid for your work as a musician) is not your goal then none of this applies, but if it is your goal then here’s my advice:
Take what you do as a musician seriously, treat booking gigs and other such activities that have an exchange in value, like a business, because that’s what it is. Musician entrepreneurship is a real thing, and you are a musician entrepreneur.
If you’re not getting paid what you are worth, or you’re not getting paid at all and that’s not the route you want to go with your music career then you need to stop taking those gigs. Determining what gigs you will take that will help you toward your career goals.
By choosing to take gigs that pay vs. simply offering your music service pro-bono you’re choosing to sustain your music business so you can stay in business. And any business, music-related or not, should be able to relate to the idea that if you have no income coming in and only expenses, you’re not in business.
Plus, by taking a stance to protect the viability of your musician business, it creates an opportunity for you to educate others about your service and what’s involved. I’ve found that as I talk with folks to help them understand what goes into being a professional musician they come away knowing something they didn’t know before. They begin to look at the same situation differently, like my friend did as I explained it to her.
Music has a beneficial emotional quality to it, and it takes a lot of effort for a good artist/musician to be able to provide that service well, and thus they should be paid for it.
Is it Ever Okay to Take Unpaid Gigs?
You can absolutely choose to take a gig on a pro-bono basis, but I would encourage that you fully understand why you’re taking the unpaid gig.
In other words, what other value, beyond money, are you getting out of taking an unpaid gig?
It could be to build in-roads with new music-business connections who can help you at a later time. It could be because you’re trying to get your foot in the door in a new geographic location and decide to open for a well-established act in that market. It could be because you believe in the cause of the benefit concert promoter who asked you to perform.
All are totally good reasons to take a gig without pay, but I would encourage that you understand the value you’re getting out of it before your say, “yes” to it. And if you can’t pinpoint that value, I wouldn’t take the gig. Beyond those exceptions, I don’t advise taking gigs without pay, and I would absolutely never advise that you pay to play anywhere, ever.
Why Other Local Businesses Should Want Musicians to be Paid
There is a positive local economic impact when locally based musician entrepreneurs are paid for their services and operate a successful business.
Those musicians build a local fan base that comes out to see them perform at various establishments (venues) purchasing food and drinks to support those establishments. Those establishments can then continue to offer live music and maybe even grow their business hiring more staff because they’re getting busier, which provides more local people employment.
Also, as those musician entrepreneurs have some better financial success they’re more likely to hire professional photographers to shoot their promo photos vs. utilizing someone in the group with an iPhone. The same thing happens with hiring local graphic designers to create the musician’s websites. There are several other such project workers and freelancers adjacent to the work of local musicians who may end up benefiting from the musician having more business success. This keeps more of those dollars in the local economy longer.