How many times have you heard the following? “It’s for a good cause, it’ll be great exposure, it’ll lead to more work”; or quite simply, “there’s no money in the budget?”
If you work in any creative field, these ploys are designed to put you in a difficult situation. And at the Musicians Union we believe not one of those excuses is viable. If it’s for a good cause, which your performance is helping to make a success, shouldn’t you be the one who decides how much you donate? Perhaps from the payment you receive from playing? Is it really a showcase event that will increase your exposure? It is highly unlikely there will be industry names in the audience to make that happen. The same can be said of the claim that “it will lead to more work”. If you play for nothing that is what people will think you are worth.
The last, and perhaps most common excuse that many use is just as unwelcome. An overly familiar line from promoters states: “There’s no money in the gig budget to pay musicians”. But is everyone else, from the bar staff, sound and lighting guys through to the caterers working for free? If they’re getting paid, why are you expected to work for free?
The latter point is one that lies at the heart of the issue. There is a prevailing attitude that, as a musician, your job is more enjoyable than the others at an event — meaning you would happily do it for nothing — whereas others will only do their jobs if they get paid.
Of course thankfully there are many venues in the area very happy to recognise the true value of music. At Aces & Eights in Tufnell Park, for example, just one look at the jukebox in this former bank building will tell you that they are serious about their music. Every Thursday there is live music but this is no open mic session: all the artists are paid. Piers Miller explains, “as a musician turned promoter I won’t be involved in a gig where there is no mechanism for musicians to be paid, respected and have a good night out. As a result established artists such as Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne and recent Frank Turner tour support act George Frakes are happy to return time after time; and new acts such as Max Runham or Jimmy Brewer feel valued and nurtured.”
As one artist told us, “people such as me are expected to give loads of time for no pay but also expected to pay our bills”. Another said, “I am all for helping people, but my family need to eat too”. A teacher recounts being asked, “If you won’t do the gig for free, can we have one of your students for free?”
Such attitudes have directly fuelled the creation of Work Not Play. There is a curious assumption that being a professional musician is somehow just a hobby. Work Not Play aims to raise awareness across the board that it’s a job like any other, from which you need to make a living.
Jo Laverty is Regional Official, London for Musicians’ Union