If you google ‘music education you will get thousands of results. Although few websites will talk about money and the music business. It seems it is almost taboo to talk about money. I have performed in every type of situation. From small bar gigs, weddings, corporate shows, television, jingles, and stadiums with massive pop stars. If you are learning an instrument and one day hope to get paid to play music, you might find these articles particularly interesting.
I was talking to a musician who is in his 50’s. He was telling me that in the 1990s in Melbourne he was playing in a popular cover band at a nightclub. The venue was packed every Friday and Saturday night with a line around the block of people lining up to get in. He then told me the band was being paid 8 thousand dollars a night! This was split between 4 band members. Keep in mind this was a cover band. I wanted to know how these musicians were making this much money to the rate that is paid to a cover band today, which is around $150 per musician.
He told me it was the classic rule in the economics of ‘supply and demand’. He then told me that the catalyst for musicians being paid a lower rate came down to one thing. Musicians who are willing to accept a lower rate to get a foot in the door. A band of university students approached the bar he was playing at and told management they would play the same songs for $200 each, or $800 in total. This figure was literally 10 times less than what the other band was being paid. It was a no-brainer for the nightclub owner. My friend’s band was fired immediately.
I must have heard the expression ‘The gig isn’t paid but think of the exposure! a million times in my career. These words are usually uttered by an unscrupulous manager who doesn’t want to pay musicians. Many musicians will jump at the chance to play on television or at a popular nightclub for free. They feel they can tell people they are performing at or with someone glamourous which will hopefully lead to bigger and better-paying gigs. Most of the time it doesn’t. The only reason people will attempt to ask musicians to play for free is that they know musicians love playing music. That being said musicians are still providing a service just as a plumber provides. I would never ask my plumber to fix my toilet for ‘exposure’ so I’m not sure how music managers can do the same.
I once performed some drum clinics with the drummer who performed with Prince. A young musician in the audience asked how to get great-paying gigs. Prince’s drummer said ‘If you know someone making a $1000 a gig working with a particular artist, don’t call the artist’s management and say you will do it for $500′. Eventually, this fee keeps trickling down until musicians are not paid anywhere near their value.
As freelance musicians, there is no stock standard fee to expect for performing. Usually, weddings pay better than bar gigs and cover bands make more than original artists starting their careers. The reason there is no real flat rate for musicians is that the music business isn’t regulated like other industries. There are many rules and regulations for tradespeople working in the building industry because there are organized unions. Although there are several musicians’ unions, they aren’t as involved in the weekly gigs of musicians.
It’s different if you get asked to perform a benefit or charity gig for free as opposed to playing at a bar. Although the nightclub I mentioned earlier in this article was paying the band 8 thousand dollars, it was taking in over 90 thousand dollars behind the bar during the week. In a situation where musicians are asked to perform, like a nightclub, there are many ways the club is benefiting financially. This is usually from the cover charge, alcohol sales, the email mailing list of the patrons, and so on. In this situation, the managers, doorman, bar staff, waiters, lighting guy and sound engineers are being paid. It is only fair for the musicians to be paid also. If you are ever in a situation where someone asks you to play for free or for ‘exposure’ ask the person if they could also do their job for free. Chances are they will be highly insulted. Burning a bridge to this type of working relationship will lead to building more valuable bridges somewhere else.