Why it matters: musicians getting paid

There’s a prevailing attitude that, as a musician, your job is more enjoyable than the others — meaning you would happily do it for nothing

Aces & Eights: "Just one look at the jukebox will tell you that they are serious about their music"
Aces & Eights: “Just one look at the jukebox will tell you that they are serious about their music”

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.


“There is a prevailing attitude that, as a musician, your job is more enjoyable than the others”
The MU was established in 1893 and represents over 30,000 musicians working in all genres of music. As well as negotiating on behalf of its members with all the major employers in the industry, we assist professional and student musicians of all ages. And at the moment we’re concerned about the trend of professional musicians not being paid for their work. In this era of illegal downloading, live revenue is important and musicians rely on it to survive. Most musicians are not well paid and therefore musicians and fans are being encouraged to join a MU campaign – which we’ve called Work Not Play – to end the expectation that professional musicians should play live for free.

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.

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For more on the campaign and to get involved, visit the website or tweet with the hashtag #WorkNotPlayMU

Jo Laverty is Regional Official, London for Musicians’ Union


  • Show Comments

  • siobhan

    If all musicians rallied together and boycotted venues that don’t pay them, those venues would lose a lot of customers and therefore have to rethink their policies……………

    • Andy

      Whilst I agree completely, the problem with this argument is that there are always new or young bands who don’t know any better, are desperate to play live and simply think ‘this is how it is’.

      • Annoyed

        You’re right. Victorious Festival in Portsmouth had a line up of 90% local bands. They had about 10 fairly well known bands and the rest were often multiple performances by the same local bands. I’m talking about 200/300 bands. Not one of those local bands got paid. They didn’t get plus ones, they didn’t get passes to both days of the festival (like every other festival in the entire world world) and those who are together enough to get their prs will get their performers rights money at some point in the near future but on the day not even a free drink. And yet all these local bands are going on about how great the festival was and how nice it was that all the bands got together to play for free to “keep the scene alive”. Meanwhile the festival sold out both days, 80,000 tickets at £20 each, millions of pints at a fiver each. All run by the same guy so he’s just got ALL the money in his pocket, because of all the acts that played for free, brought their friends and spent their own money.

        This should not be allowed. It was not an “opportunity” it was simply a 2 day back-slapping for local bands who are deluded into thinking “this is it”. No A&R types would have taken the line up seriously and the only other gig you’re likely to get from it is an also not paid gig at one of 2 of the organisers pubs.


        But young bands who are just happy to play jump on it and get all excited about playing this big festival. Moment gigs which fund, as far as I’m concerned, criminal lifestyles. Rip off the people who make you your money. Vile, vile people.

  • Ella Phileas Hog

    Ok, this is a very complex issue and reminds me of the current unpaid internship argument that is raging. I’ve been a professional musician for 15 years and can now command fees of £300 a night, but I had to start out doing years of these kinds of gigs you mention. It used to piss me off, but when I look back, I was honing my craft and testing out how to play in front of people. I don’t think I really deserved to get paid much, if at all. What other profession would you be able to walk in and command a fee for with no experience? And yes, there is a kind of magic around being a performer, it’s not like a bar job/cleaning job, both of which I did to support myself at the beginning. Having said that, I did run an open mic night for a couple of years and the pub manager paid me £100, some of which I gave the musicians.

    • Glenn Van Reason

      Ella you say ‘what other profession would you be able to walk in and command a fee”, I would like to respond…..all of them. Every trade has apprentice wages so that the person who is undergoing training and honing their craft can live and eat while they learn. About being deserved to be paid much, I remember having a discussion with an older and wiser musician about pay rates. As I was just starting out he was telling me that we should be charging market rates instead of undercutting the existing bands as all that does is weaken the industry, I asked “What if I think I am not worth the fee” to which he replied ” Go back to your garage and rehearse untill you are” I took those words on board and have been performing at market rates for the past 30 years.

      • ben

        What other self employed professions would you be able to walk into and command a fee? Surely the point about being self employed is that you choose how much you set your rates, and if the market allows it, you get paid, if you are over valuing yourself vs the market demand (and that’s no ones fault, but its just reality) then either get used to not having much money, wait for that situation to change (maybe you get a record deal, or get more experience/contacts) or get another job.

        I know that may sound harsh but many of these venues that offer ‘exposure’ aren’t on the look our for ‘great’ musicians. Musicians who do it for a hobby will provide them with what they are after, and maybe those musicians are happy to perform for free. If someone can command good fees, then great – but if you don’t command those fees it’s not the venue’s fault. If no one wanted the exposure that those venues offered, then the venue would either have to pay musicians more or they would stop using live music (in many cases the second case would apply). The fact that this discussion is being raised shows that there are many people willing to do it for free or low, and that is the nature of the beast with capitalism [which is actually the best economic system available right now imho].

        In a way, music being ‘enjoyable’ IS probably why so many people love to do music, and want to do it as a job. The result of that is an over saturated market, so rather than complaining about the situation, either create more value in yoself as a musician, or put on your own shows, build your own business – because these kinds of posts are a distraction and do not lead people to create proper opportunities themselves. It leads them down a dead end, with a notion that maybe, if everyone joined together we would force venues to pay above the ‘market rate’ (and it is above the market rate if they aren’t paying it already and people are providing that service). The reality is that if people aren’t building their own opportunities then venues will never pay more than they are at the moment. there will always be someone to undercut you.

        I love live music, and i’m not ‘on the side of the venues’ – i just think you should take this energy, and create real value in the market place so that you can build opportunities for musicians that way, rather than trying to, for example boycott venues and bully them into paying more than maybe they can even afford. Good on them for getting to where they are.

        • Glenn Van Reason

          Entertainment is not the only industry that suffers from the hobbyist taking market share away and lowering performance fees. In other professions, unlike entertainment, they have industry practices and legislation protecting the professionals that are trying to make a living. Take for example motor mechanics, you cannot setup your own workshop without being licensed.
          On the point of the venues not putting on music if they are forced to pay for it I do not agree. They put value on everything else in their establishment from the food to the staff. Like you say it is a case of supply and demand but in this case the demand is being met by the hobbyist providing the service for under market rates. And venue would be a fool not to try and get their entertainment at the lowest cost as they do all their consumables.
          I think this is the crux of the point, yes being self employed is about maximising your product, educating your customers as to why they should invest with you but you should also be able to protect yourself from situations that force the market down.
          As you say capitalism is the best economic system we have ( not that I share your view) and even this system has protections inbuilt to prevent outside markets from undercutting existing markets. Surely finding a way for the hobbyist to compete at the same market rate is the same as these protection measures.
          Whilst I agree that boycotting venues is a waste of energy I still think educating the hobbyist as to what they are doing to the self employed musician will go a long way on improving the situation.
          I remember a conversation I had with a local band member who also happened to own a bookshop, he was telling me that he doesn’t charge much because he doesn’t care if he gets paid or not as he in financially secure and only does it for the love of it. I pointed out that I love books and reading and that how would he like it if I opened a book store and sold all my books at wholesale prices as it would give me an opportunity the read whatever I wanted. He understood what his actions was doing to me after that.

          • ben

            On the point about mechanics requiring a license, that is to safeguard customers rather than to prevent hobbyists from undercutting. My point of view is that it is completely unrealistic to expect those kind of safeguards for an industry which is by nature subjective.

            In a capitalistic society, there’s enough fluidity that innovation and creating value can create jobs and more wealth in a sector. The problem is that there are too many musicians (i am a working musician myself by the way), and therefore the market values them lower than, say a mechanic (generally speaking). Also because being a mechanic that can achieve a certain task is much less subjective (you can either do it or you can’t) whereas many people do not know the difference between a fairly good hobbyist and a professional musician.

            With this as the case, my only argument is that we should stop with this ‘negative’ moaning which is a dead end approach [venues are never ever going to be forced to not use hobbyist musicians, that’s just unrealistic] and instead encourage musical entrepreneurs.

            If every musician who cared a lot about this, created a great business plan and approached the banks for funding, put on their own events where they paid good musicians a good wage, that would help 100 times more in my opinion than trying to force venues to not use hobbyist musicians.

        • Economike

          Anybody who plays music half way seriously in actuality has more of a brutal grind than someone working a regular job and just going home. From going on 3 or 4 hours a sleep before your day job to touring for weeks in a cramped van, going without meals or healthcare when your getting started. It can be a brutal grind. If you believe in Sarte’s theory that people have a sort of pre ordained reason for living then you know you can’t give it up and do something else.

      • Gary Willcox

        I agree , Glenn V.Reason. If promoters know they can get beginners for next to nothing then they will. Trouble is, it’s difficult for anyone and everyone else to get more than that then.
        When you’re young you’re keen to play anywhere and everywhere, but you’ve got understand not to sell yourself, and everyone else, too cheap.

      • Not all music is worth paying for

        Hi I’m a brain surgeon.. Well sorry I watched about it on horizon and it looks fun so I thought I’d give it a crack.

    • Jaka J

      Yesa complex issue to be sure, though, driving to venues, carrying gear (having invested in said gear), relationships within the band, setting up, practicing, late nights away from family… these are all part of the equation, not unlike any other business – and with free gigging on the rise the music quality is bound to suffer, as people will have to do other things professionally thus detracting from putting work into their music. And after decades of playing it sometimes feels like I would rather have a night in, but if I want to have more gigs, I can’t really afford to…

  • Bret Cohen

    Any similar representation available in New York?

  • Laura

    I totally agree that musicians need to be paid but it needs to be realistic and will vary from venue to venue. I’ve been booking and paying musicians to play at pub venues for a few years now and I’ve lost out quite a few times when the musician has said they have a following, you agree to a fixed price and then only their mum and dad turn up and you end up paying out more than you’ve taken for the whole day, let alone the 2 hours the musician was playing! I believe the musicians need to prove their worth to the venues too before they can expect to be paid £50 an hour or more for their services. That way, if you’re good enough, the money will go up accordingly and you’ll get repeat bookings too.

    • Brendan Dowse

      Be careful talking £XX an hour. Remember hours spent on stage are far from the total hours spent being a musician. Practice time, travel time, set up time, admin time, writing time, photoshoot time, promoting time….
      Plus equipment costs, travel costs, decades of education costs, promotional costs, recording costs…

      • Frustrated

        Moot point, teachers get paid by the hour and do days of extra-curricular prep plus, no one gets paid to travel to work and we all have to eat regardless of our job status, in fact if your job doesn’t pay enough for you to eat then you would usually look for another one. A carpenter needs tools and a van for travel, as does a plumber, you may argue these aren’t skilled jobs but they are accredited unlike music. Anyone can pick up a guitar and say they are a musician with a following, If you value your worth then set a value for your worth and don’t accept anything outside that, new original music IMO has no value until proven otherwise ie by the democratic rule of the audience, they will come back with more people if they like it, it’s called building a following.
        If the public choose to be happy with the plethora of unsigned drivel that proliferates the Kentish town mile then that says more about the audience(or audient in most cases) than anything else.
        Sorry – every other industry is lead by market forces so why should’nt music be the same..

    • Carole Munro

      Not many venues are paying £50 per hour more like £125 for the night if you are lucky and if you bear in mind you probably spend an hour driving to the gig, an hour set up/tear down, 2 hours playing, another hour driving home. So possibly £20 per hour less fuel, wear and tear on vehicle, instruments, strings etc. Musicians work blooming hard to earn a living and are often treated like they are asking for a favour when they ask to be paid.

    • Eric Sanderson

      Laura, if you are booking bands it is your responsibility to promote the event and get the punters in the door. Then it’s the bands job to entertain them. You are obviously not doing your homework properly if you are just going on one persons word that they have a following. If you can’t promote properly then don’t do it at all.You are making musicians pay for your own shortcomings.

    • Tones

      With all due respect, it sounds to me as if you need to do more homework before you employ your musicians.

  • James Fells

    What kind of nonsense is this?

    If the boss says there is no money, and you think you deserve it – ask! And if he still says no – walk.

    Or stay and work for nothing.

    Puff pieces like this for Unions – be careful. Do you think the Union man is going to do it for nothing too.

    • Dan plews

      The union doesn’t represent publicans or venues. They’re partners until their interests conflict with musicians. Puff piece implies self-interest, and calling it that is disengenuous. Delegates represent the interests and concerns of musicians. This is a pro-musician, pro-union piece. Nice one.

  • Jerbaliser

    Why would you wanna pay some wanna be rock star who pulls no friends along to the venue? these amateur musicians with their heads stuck up their arse. i understand if they are a quality muscian but in general its some wasteclart with a wanky acoustic guitar.

    • Jaka J

      But these are the very people who get booked,because they are bad enough to play for free. This is why they are continuously booked. At least this is the way it is over here. Of course you are going to pay a bad builder less, and won’t have him back, Somehow bad musicians are appearing everywhere. Though – the Beatles were really bad at first, being poorly paid full time professionals helped them get better, I think.

    • Economike

      Then they should book someone better who deserves the money

  • Tommy Tobin

    I like that hot blonde woman playing on her phone in the top photo. Let’s see more of HER.

  • Dave

    My goodness there is some rubbish being spouted off here. Venue owners who expect a ‘following’ from a performer need to expect to pay the appropriate fees. It’s not the musicians job to fill the venue. It’s called promotion and the venue should be doing it. A well known, in demand performer will be well paid and expect a good fee.

    By that same sentiment, there are some not too good musicians out there who are not known at all (maybe just starting out) and again it’s up to the venue to ensure that the band is up to standard for their venue. I know many musicians who are just starting out but are really good at what they do and are worth paying decent money. I also know some who I would not employ because they are simply not good enough —- yet. Most of us have been there when we were first starting out.

    Venues will get a reputation for putting on good entertainment – that feeds the publicity machine and attracts the crowds which in turn attracts good acts and enable the venue to pay decent wages. Good acts that are used to getting paid won’t be attracted to low paying or zero paying venues so here we have an bit of an impasse it seems. If the venue puts on bad acts then people will not come to the venue.
    It’s not rocket science is it?

    Yes I do some gigs for low pay even though I’m good enough to earn good money but it’s always on my terms – either for the love of the music, the kudos of playing with someone in particular or playing at a particular venue. I do not and will not play the local pub venue for no money, I don’t need nor want that kind of ‘exposure’.

  • Tom

    The problem is that many bands/artists playing for little or no money, because they’re desperate to play, maybe the way forward would be to have a statuary minimum fee. I must admit you have to make a personal choice as well we won’t play unless we get our minimum fee. But plenty of bands do play the venues we avoid because they are desperate to play.

  • Mikey Fell

    You have to be sure of yourself that what you are charging is worth what you are doing. For example, there are plenty of photographers out there, some will charge £50 a day, some will charge £300 a day. Those are the professionals who believe their work is worth precisely what you pay for.
    For me it’s the same; you get what you pay for as a venue. If you’re paying more, check out exactly who the band or artist is, if they’ve got absolutely no following/social media/advertising of whereabouts, chances are they’re not going to bring much of a following, which adds a safety measure to you spending lots of time promoting it yourself.
    If you pay for someone good, you can add that extra poster in the place. Let your customers know you only have good quality acts.
    MU is good at opening musicians’ eyes to the idea of fair pay, but, it’s also making other musicians increase how much they ‘think’ they’re worth.

    • Craig Brauns

      It’s the promoters job and venues job to make thier pub bar whatever busy not the artist their job is to entertain who is there and get PAID!!!!

  • Oliver Gray

    I’m a promoter and I have noticed an increase in (good) artists wanting to play for free or being amazed when I pay them. I refuse to NOT pay them, even if it means I lose money.

  • Redcurrent

    The creative industries are the worst for underpaying and undervaluing their talent, particularly those at entry level.
    All of us who work or perform in them are responsible for the current state of affairs. it is also true that there are always more willing door bangers to perpetuate the undercut and de-valuing of our talents. The odds have always been stacked in the favour of promoters and production companies et al..
    I remember and was gigging a lot in even worse circumstances – when PAY to PLAY was the dominant policy.
    That went on for some years and was only nudged out of the way through a sustained campaign of performer solidarity. We exist in a climate where our working life occurs outside the framework of secure employment contracts – sick and holiday pay are not for us. We are easily divided and ruled.
    Solidarity with each other is the only way we can improve our chances of making a living from our art. Gig in any other Country and you will be fed and watered at the very least. More often than not you will be paid. Don’t play venues here in the UK that don’t offer you anything for your services. Your travel expenses and a few beers at the very least. If we can secure even these minimalisms then we’re a long way from being paid what our efforts are worth. Solidarity and a strong belief on ourselves and our artistic output is the only way we can pull the industry into line and get respect for our talents.

  • Rick Whitelaw

    I’ve been a professional musician all my life. I’m in my early sixties. Long ago I made the decision NOT to work for free. It worked out for me. Now I work as an orchestra contractor and don’t accept non-union engagements. A person can’t sit on the fence on this issue. Regarding venues, I have a short story. In 1976 I was touring with Tom Waits in the opening act. We played this huge place in Houston and it was packed. The owner asked if we had a window to come back by ourselves. We did, but questioned whether it would be viable for him given it was a 1200 seat venue and, although we had a record deal, we, after all were just the opening act. He told us not to worry about that because people who attended his events trusted the venue’s choices and would show up. We played there later that month for two nights and it was packed. That’s a real venue. If an owner is known for booking quality music without exception the people will trust the venue and attend. This applies to smaller places like pubs. For every “pay to play” joint there are many venues that book good music, pay the musicians properly, and make a profit.

  • Nick Tann

    I never play for free otherwise you are worthless. Not paying musicians is akin to the nuts and monkeys analogy. If you put on shit bands and artists you are contributing to the slow death of decent music. Well done.