Pay Musicians More For Gigging! A Open Letter To Event Organizers

Pay Musicians More For Gigging - A Open Letter To Event OrganizersBy event organizer Thom Milson.

I grew up heavily involved in my local music scene: I knew the bands, and the promoters well enough that I called them my friends. As soon as I was old enough I started organizing shows so my favorite local bands could be heard and seen more. I had a fair crack at it, but as the years went on other things took over, and I moved into other realms. I remember that time fondly, especially because I helped many bands get going, both fan base wise, as well as financially. Now, for many reasons I’m being drawn back into the world of promotion, and I’m noticing quite a few differences in the way the local promoters now operate: they don’t pay the bands.

This isn’t everyone, I just want to make that clear, but it is a lot. Saying that, I really don’t understand why this would be the case: social websites such as Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook suggest that music is more alive than ever, so why is this the case?

I met rock band Pianos Become The Teeth after a show once, and they told me how they still have full time table waiting jobs back home to make a living. Okay, they’re not exactly a household name, but they are a hugely respected band who tour globally, and their media exposure, as well as the way people talk about them online would suggest they’ve somewhat “made it”. If they can’t make being in a band financially viable, how can local bands?

Well, I feel this is not just the band’s responsibility but largely the responsibility of the promoters that hire the bands to play as well.

There a whole range of cost involved in organizing a show, and right now some promoters see covering the cost of flyer printing more important than paying the bands. This shouldn’t be the case. Promotion is very important yes, but never ever as important as paying the band, or as I like to think of them as: the reason people are at your show.

I understand that ticket prices need to be kept as low as possible, but if cuts need to be made, this should always come from what the promoter pockets, and not the bands’. The bands involved are the artistic commodity: they are the things you are trying to sell, and they should be justly rewarded. You shouldn’t ask a band to play for “stage time”. A band asks for stage time, a promoter never offers it as payment. The completion of a job is always paid for in money, nothing else.

Some times a promoter does pay, but they don’t pay enough. From my experience this comes as a result of there always being someone who will work for less. As a way to save costs, some promoters will choose the act that wants less money. Over time this has forced bands to accept less and less to remain competitive. This has seriously devalued the Art form. It seems expected now that many bands should just play for free. This isn’t how a promoter should choose their acts: they should choose them on who is best, and then pay them a fee that reflects how much they trust them in doing a job…

How Much Should Musicians Get Paid For Gigs
A good friend of mine is a band with four other people. The last time they played they were given £50 (That’s about $75) to open a show. That works out at £10 per person. To play the gig they had to make a 200 mile round trip in a van, and be there for 7.30pm. This meant that they had to take the afternoon off work, losing out on any pay from that. On top of that, the promoter wouldn’t pay them until the end of the night, so they had to stick around until 11.30pm. This meant they couldn’t double up or anything, to try and make a little money at another venue across town.

Apart from the travel I would say they technically did 4 hours of work by being at the show, for £10 each! They were supporting a globally touring band (I won’t say who) and the whole thing was supposed to be a big deal.

If you were to work for 4 hours in the UK, you would make a minimum of £25 (about $38) because of minimum wage. For the five of them to make minimum wage, they would need to be paid £125 ($187.50). They didn’t receive half of that. If they had asked for that much, the “opportunity” would have been given to somebody else.

Due to the financial toll taken by being in a band, and trying to take as many “opportunities” as possible, they ended up calling it a day. They could have been the next big thing, but now we’ll never know.

Things could have been different if promoters had valued them more, and I imagine the same could be said for many bands the world over.

How Much Should Musicians Get Paid For Gigs?

It’s really not that difficult to pay your bands properly. When I would organize shows this is how my payments would break down:

  • Venue: 200
  • Bands: 800 (200 x 4)
  • Promotion: 100
  • Total: 1100

You would need 100 People to pay 11 each to break even. Any money I made would be the extra. If you don’t think people will pay that sort of money for your show, you need better bands, not cheaper ones.

10 thoughts on “Pay Musicians More For Gigging! A Open Letter To Event Organizers”

  1. Wow, you hit the nail on the head here. I couldn’t agree more. My Band (Normann) and I have been at this for 4 solid years now and still have to work full time jobs, never make any money at it, travel, tour, etc…. And we are ranked #18 in all of Canada, #1 in our local market. We merch, we promote, we have a killer well defined live show and still never into the green, always putting our own resources in to keep going. Had a promoter ask us to “pay” to open the show for a well known major label sponsored artist. We turned it down of course simply on principal. We continue because we have something to share and are absolutely passionate about our craft. Have about 2 full LP’s worth of new music we play live, just can’t afford to lay it down in the studio, because we either choose to play live, or do the studio thing, we choose to play live. Thanks for the article, Cheers….

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences Dan, it’s always good to hear how people are doing. Your situation is the same as that of many musicians; it’s hard to get out of the red initially, but once you find a way it gets a lot easier.

    I’d say that if you’ve got a load of songs under your belt, maybe hold back with investing in recording new ones. Instead, market your current music more to those that haven’t heard it yet. It’ll be cheaper to do, and it’d build up more of a fanbase who you can make money off in future.

    Spending money recording etc without a fanbase with the potential to make money will keep you in the red for longer then you need to be, so give the marketing side a bit more of a push. Good luck. 🙂

  3. These unpaid/underpaid bands need to affiliate with the Musicians Union asap. What these promoters are doing borders on unfair labor practices and should not be tolerated!!

  4. Good call about joining the Musicians Union Rosanne. The problem comes when one person tells a event organizer they won’t play for free or a stupidly low price, there will always be another musician who will happily play for the amount on offer in exchange for exposure. Until all musicians get together and rally towards fairer performance wages, it’s going to be hard to get things to change on a wide scale.

  5. Promoters mostly are not paid themselves so how can they pay bands much. Ticket Prices have to be kept low to encourage people to attend gigs. Rock and a Hard Place…Yes!

  6. The article is more aimed at event organizers rather then promoters Nige. Promoters are usually paid on a commission basis, depending on the kind of event and what the deal is. A lot will be paid based on how many people they bring to the show, e.g. a cut of the door money they make. Other bigger promoters can get much more favorable deals.

    The event organizer on the other hand will make a lot more, regardless of who brings the people into the show. These are the people who make enough money to pay the acts a better wage (And who have the biggest say in how the show goes down), and who the article is aimed at.

  7. The entire music industry needs an overhaul. The old model will soon be replaced by a model in which users get access to music for free and musicians get paid by third party advertisers. That will drive some of the greed out of the industry, and hopefully trickle down to concerts as well.

  8. Greed in the industry in what way? I don’t personally think musicians wanting to get paid for their art falls under the category ‘greedy’ personally, it costs time and money to make music so musicians deserve to get paid for their art.

    A lot of people are predicting the same future you are, guess we’ll just have to wait and see if it gets there.

  9. An interesting read but I can see both sides of the story with this as I’ve been both event organiser and musician.

    When I put on bands, it was because in my area, it was predominately a pay-to-play set up. The overwhelming majority of gigs where Battle of the Bands where you had to pay an entry fee, sell tickets (at best getting back a tiny percentage of ticket money that wouldn’t even cover the entry fee) and the winners were always the band that brought the biggest crowd. I was so thoroughly fed up with not only having to pay to play but to also play in atmosphere’s where you were actively wanting the other bands on the bill to be terrible so you’d have a chance at winning that I decided (along with a friend) to start my own gig nights.

    The problem we encountered was that we lost money on pretty much every gig night we ran. The bands, on the whole, were good and after a short while we had a reputation for putting on good nights but we had to rely on ticket money to generate any income. Problem number one was that while the average punter would gladly hand over three pounds for a pint of lager they wouldn’t pay more than a fiver to see a gig night which included three or four bands and a DJ playing until 3am.

    We offered the bands a cut of the ticket sales. How much depended on the bands but usually it was something like an equal cut if all the bands were local and of similar standing or if a band was from out of town and/or a bit more established, they’d get a bit more. We tried our best to make sure the bands were looked after and supplied dinner and a few drinks for them too.

    In the end though, how much they were paid depended purely on how much the night made in ticket sales. As much as the idea of paying bands a proper wage appropriate to their talent appeals, the money has to come from somewhere.

    There’s also the running costs of organising events. We were lucky at the start and had people who would work for free but that only lasts for a few events and if you’re doing this as a regular thing as I was, staff have to be paid. The person in the ticket booth deserves compensation for their time and the sound engineer needs to get money for the hard work they put into the night too.

    I haven’t even mentioned the costs of making sure the equipment works! Replacement mics and leads have to be bought (if you’re in a band that thinks its cool to throw mics to the ground at the end of your set then stop it right now. It’s not cool, you’re being an arrogant ). PA equipment has to be maintained and upgraded if you’re serious about putting on the best show you can and then you also have to factor in promotion costs.

    So while musicians deserve fair pay, it should all be taken in context. If you’re on a support bill for a well supported act and are playing to medium or big venues then you should expect decent pay. If you’re a wedding band or playing covers in a pub then you should expect decent pay. If you’re playing originals for an independent organiser that’s covering all the costs, expect to get a fair share of what’s available even if it’s not much. As long as the organiser is transparent with how the money is distributed, of course.

    A final point in this longer-than-I-expected post. As a band member, I found that a good way to generate income that will allow you to play gigs and not be overly concerned with pay is to play paying cover gigs. Those gigs paid for our recording costs as well as not making us too resentful about doing the unpaid original gigs. It also brought us a few extra fans as people would stop and chat to us after the gigs so we could tell them about our ‘proper’ band.

    Payment of musicians isn’t fair but sadly it’s a situation that’s been around for a very long time and will probably continue to be the norm for a longer time to come. There are ways to make it work for you so it’s possible to make the best out of a bad situation.

  10. Wow, great comment Fraser, thanks for your incite. Fair point about event organizers not always making money themselves, but those that do have no excuse not to pay their bands a fair wage.

    I like the idea of paying the bands a % of any profits if it’s a new event where organizers aren’t sure how profitable the night is going to be, or putting a cap on wages if the night doesn’t draw in much money. Night’s a success and everyone wins, but if the event organizer doesn’t make a profit then they’re not too much out of pocket.

    That said, some times money will need to be invested in bands, even if profit’s not guaranteed. After all, any business venture is a ‘risk’, but you still need to invest to see if it can work in the first place. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes you end up losing money.

    Thanks again for your input.

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