The 24 Hour Musician: Rights, Respect and Exploitation
May 4th 2012
For fun, this afternoon I googled Why are musicians so expensive? And as expected, there were no relevant results. So I retyped: Why are plumbers so expensive? and clicked search. A barrage of related sites appeared with suggestions ranging from high overheads and high demand to it’s a highly-skilled job. High, high and more high.
The reason I embarked on my little google-a-thon was because I wanted to highlight the training and earning disparity between plumbers and musicians. One would sensibly assume vocations that require a lengthy and high standard of training inevitably pay more in the long run. But no vocation disproves this more than that of the humble musician. And no vocation highlights the disparity more than that of the plumber.
Did you know that you can train to become a plumber in as little as two years? One website even quotes: “you can practice as a plumber with minimal qualifications”, yet plumbers charge on average £50 – £100 for the first hour and £50 for each subsequent hour. Training to be a musician, however, is a whole different playing field, taking on average, 10 – 15 years of private study and often longer if you factor in music college and / or performing experience. It is one of the longest apprenticeships known for any vocation; longer than that of a teacher, dentist, vet, pilot and even, doctor. Musicians train in a subject whose basic foundation isn’t taught well, if at all, on the national curriculum; encouraging a class of 14 year-olds to play Frère Jacques with one finger and teaching us that o = 4 beats, does not count.
Professional musicians surpass the barriers most reach when learning a musical instrument. They persevere and study to a high level; often taking examinations, diplomas and music degrees, practising their instrument for eight hours or more each day and gigging 5 nights a week to learn on-the-job. Musicians pay their dues, attending numerous jam sessions to network and meet other players, setting up projects, taking risks. And studying music is expensive too; on average, musical training costs £20K, plus any college and university fees, not to mention maintaining your instrument. The professional musician exists on a fine balance of projects, gigs, tours, party bands and teaching, often working upwards of 70 hours a week. But despite their rigorous effort, discipline and long hours, musicians are lucky to receive £50 a gig, or £25 per hour for offering private music tuition.
When you compare the musicians apprenticeship to that of the plumber, why are musicians paid so little? And sometimes, not at all?
The sad reality is this: musicians are exploited very openly and in many ways. As a musician myself, it is wearing thin. I had hoped that I could present this information for you in organised sections titled ‘pay’ and ‘venues’ but, each aspect of the working musicians life is intertwined, so I present to you a semi-organised bursting forth of facts, experiences and possible causes for musical exploitation.
Payments and Venues and Everything Else
Musicians are often nervous about asking for payment, especially for smaller gigs in pubs and bars. For these gigs, it is impossible to ask the landlord or promoter to sign a contract specifying your fee; they just won’t. A pub landlord once refused to pay my band more than £20 per head. “It wasn’t busy enough”, he said, “where were all your fans?” He did eventually pay our agreed fee of £50 each, but only when I threatened to contact the Musician’s Union.
It is not uncommon for bands to go home with empty pockets. In the States, many venues operate a PAY TO PLAY system; a practice that either involves a band paying the venue money to host their gig, or the band bringing in a minimum amount of punters in return for a fee. PAY TO PLAY is sadly, starting to creep into the British music scene. And British venues are expecting more and more from musicians; not only do they expect us to be a brilliant, they also expect us to be promoter, marketer and ticket seller. This attitude largely comes from the idea that they are doing us a favour by giving us a gig.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, function bands are often booked for lucrative award ceremonies, weddings and parties at a reasonable rate of pay and with a signed contact. But they are often told: ‘we’ll pay you cash, after the gig”. Why are musicians expected to work in good faith? My mobile phone provider won’t give me the new iphone 4 without first performing a credit check. Function bands, however, are expected to work for a full day with no guarantee of pay at the end of it. And on the subject of wedding bookings, why do the bride and groom expect to hire a band of six musicians for less than they are willing to pay one photographer? Since when are six worth less than one?
Musicians constantly justify their rate of pay. And they shouldn’t.
Many musicians make ends meet by taking on private music students. But when students cancel lessons at short notice, or forget to show up, they do not expect to pay for the musicians time. They will gladly pay their dentist or driving school for a missed appointment whereas with an individual musician, there is always the hustle. Because music is their hobby, I fear they assume it is mine.
I think one of the reasons musicians are afforded so little respect comes from the way people view music; music is a beautiful thing, an art form, an amazing rite of self expression. And because of this, many think of a musicians life as one of privilege.
“You’re doing what you love”, they say.And yes, they are right. I love being a musician. But it is not easy and the journey here was not easy either. In many ways, being a musician is a sacrifice, with most musicians struggling to make ends meet.
A huge part of the musicians struggle is the attitude of others.
Music is one of the worlds biggest hobbies: there aren’t many households that don’t have a guitar in the corner. And that is great. It really is. But with the dawn of instant fame, every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks they can do it and earn a living from it. For the professional, it is hard to explain that although music is a passion which started as a hobby, it is also a job.
Whenever X Factor season comes around, I am inundated with fresh singing students who want one pre-audition lesson. “I don’t need more than one lesson”, they say. “I can already sing”. I shrug, take their money and offer as much advice as they will take. And I am yet to discover a genuinely talented singer. I have taught many students who think that learning to sing or to play an instrument is easy, but are not willing to put any work in. They want a quick fix and I call it EGO.
I don’t think I can be a doctor. I am not anywhere near arrogant enough. But with music, arrogance is rife.
A culture of ‘instant-fame’ (insta-fame) is ruining the music industry. It has taken the art form of music, stripped it of any musical depth and spun a quick buck. “Think of yourself as a brand”, young musicians are advised. And this brand is seen as more important than the music. Think Simon Cowell, Pop Idol, X Factor; all churning out one ‘shit’ wonders.
It is no wonder that people expect musicians to play for free. “They are lucky to be doing what they love”,promoters think as they persuade us to perform at their venue, in return for‘exposure’.
Most of the musicians I know couldn’t care less about fame; they want to bring their music to others and they want to work. After all, they have paid their dues and put the time in; they have every right to work. But one thing that is increasingly harder to come by are legitimate jobs. There are only a few music job websites out there and the two biggest are Star Now and UK Music Jobs. Amazingly, both charge a fee. Not only do venues operate PAY-TO-PLAY, job sites expect musicians to PAY TO WORK. These websites know that in the dawn of insta-fame, there are a lot of desperate people who want an ‘IN’ to the music industry but don’t have the networking connections professional musicians have. These people are willing to pay for this information and genuine musicians suffer at the hands of this kind of exploitation. A few years ago, I joined Star Now and found it to be full of so-called industry types, scouting for insta-fame girl-bands. UK Music Jobs was no better. I never received a call back from any of the jobs I applied for and I wouldn’t advise any musician to join these sites.
If you are a female musician, it is even harder. I have first hand experience of being turned down for vocal work because I am over the age of 25. A good friend of mine who plays in the pit orchestra for west end shows was recently fired and told: “You’re too old now. We need fresh totty”.
Did it matter than she attended music college on a full scholarship and has worked solidly ever since? No.
I used to know a young woman who was a dental nurse. When we first met she asked: “so, what do you do?” “I’m a musician”, I replied. “Is that all?” She asked, incredulous to the possibility that anyone could earn a living from music.
It wasn’t her fault she felt this way; the only musicians she knew had taken a music course at the local college and promptly signed on the dole. They didn’t want to learn to read music or try performing new genres so that they might earn a living as a session player and they couldn’t see the point in developing their aural skills so they might compose or teach. They were too cool for that. “Who needs notation when you’re in a metal band?” They wanted ego and fame but still couldn’t play 12 bar in B. A plague of these muso-types inhabit local pubs and bars, charging only £20 plus a beer per head and living with mummy and daddy.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for musicians to earn a living from music. Every year a few more of my musician friends get a 9-5 job to subsidise living. My own partner, an extremely talented jazz pianist, is now working for a software development company. But I refuse to follow his stead and instead lead 3 choirs, teach 20 private students, host jam sessions and write articles. I rarely gig anymore because I refuse to accept bookings that involve a fee of less than £100 per head and I won’t accept pressure from venues to bring my fansalong. As Dave Goldberg said in his Open Letter To LA Club Owners: “the goal is to build a fan base of the venue” and not a quick fix solution like the bands family and friends. Despite my 70-hour working week, I am grateful to continue working within the realm of music and I am sad for my musician friends who continue to work so hard for so little.
When people want to book me and my band for less than our worth I say this: “why don’t you find out what it would cost to hire six plumbers on a Friday night? We’ll do it for half. Do make sure you tell them that they have to drive for 80 miles, set up four hours before they are required, perform songs for two hours in front of people who might puke in their toolbox or try to steal their spanner and then drive home again without overnight accommodation, and usually, without a good meal”. They usually hang up the phone but it is my little revolution and it will hopefully stop clients from making unrealistic requests of other bands.
Ironically, I know two musicians who recently re-trained as plumbers. It didn’t take too long.
The composer John Adams has an interesting theory on why musicians in American are afforded such distrust and lack of respect. His theory could easily be true of the United Kingdom, whereas in other cultures, musicians are often revered.
“There’s a fundamental distrust of artists in this country and it goes back to our puritan background and the fact that this country was settled by two types of people; they were either religious zealots – who believed any form of entertainment suggested involvement with witchcraft – or they were mercantile explorers; people that were coming here to make a quick buck. And that has carried on for centuries. And today if you tell someone that you’re a poet or you write music they often will smile and say: “that’s wonderful. And what do you do for a living?””
I do think that a part of the problem is the musician. In the sea of musical exploitation and negativity, the musician has been brainwashed into believing they deserve to be treated poorly in exchange for the perceivedcool and privileged lifestyle they lead. Musicians often accept poor pay and conditions as ‘the norm’ but I can’t think of any non-art based vocation where it is acceptable to be underpaid, or work for free. Musicians deserve to be paid for any musical service they provide at a rate that reflects their level of training and skill.
So, what are you, the musician going to do about this? Are you going to demand fair pay and reasonable working conditions or are you going to play it cool?
* Names and information about peoples mentioned have been changed to protect their identity.
** If you are a musician or hirer and wish to share your thoughts, please comment below. It will accept a fake name and email address if you wish to conserve your identity.
*** When this blog was originally published on my public emilie blog in 2012, it opened up a large debate regarding the value of musicians. If you wish to view some of the comments which were made by musicians, hirers and music industry professionals, please click here.
**** For more information about Musicians Rights visit http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/