I was asked recently, by a nice old lady if I could book some live music for a local event. “What’s the budget?” I asked. The woman looked at me like I’d molested her pet parrot. Confused, worried and a little shocked she said “It’s a community event.”
Still looking at me like that had answered my question she continued “It’s to raise money for the local parish. There’ll be hundreds of people there.”
“So there’s no fee?”
“I’m sure we can offer them a cream cake and as much tea and coffee they want.”
I have put on gigs in a variety of venues in Worcester. The Marrs Bar, Drummonds, Keystones, Coach and Horses, St Swithuns Church, Cap n Gown, Boston Tea Party, The Pheasant, Swan With Two Nicks, Worcester Arts Workshop, Eagle Vaults, Tudor House Museum …. (jeez, that’s a lot of venues. I’d forgotten about a lot of these until writing this list.)
Alot of the time it was a Pay On The Door event where the acts got a percentage (a large percentage) of the door money. Other times the venue itself paid me and I split the money between the acts (but not me. All I normally got was a couple of drinks and maybe a bit of food.). I always tried my best to pay the musicians. I thought that it was important. More important than me making any money.
Now I am older and maybe a little wiser. I have arrived at a place where I try not to do anything unless it benefits me, preferably financially. This may sound a little selfish but I now have a family to support. Bills to pay. I cannot carry on shelling out money left right and centre. If someone is making money out of my services then I want a cut. Reading that back makes me sound cold and money grabbing. I’m not. I still volunteer for various people/places that I believe in. But that is my choice. I have donated my services to hundreds of people at hundreds of events over the past 12 years and now it is time that I thought about what’s important to me. My family.
A lot of musician friends feel the same. Why should they play for free when everyone else is being paid? The barstaff, the door staff, the sound guy (sometimes). They all get their money. Why shouldn’t the musicians?
You could argue that these people are doing it to pay their bills, whereas alot of musicians are hoping that their hobby can make them some money. It’s their choice to play guitar and sing in a pub somewhere and hope that people like what they’re doing. Some musicians are good at it. Really good. Others not so much. So who decides if a musician is worth paying? You wouldn’t pay for a plumber who keeps begging you for a job or has only ever fixed one or two leaky pipes in the past. You want a plumber who has experience and knows what he/she is doing. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to pay money for a musician who has never performed live before or is not suitably entertaining.
Which is why I think Open Mics are a great idea. Okay, these gigs very rarely pay the artists performing but they are a great place for experienced musicians to try out new material, and for new musicians to try out playing live in front of an audience. Local promoters often frequent open mics looking for decent talent which could lead to a paid gig. It’s true that the venue makes the most money, selling drinks and food, but these venues need supporting as well. If venues didn’t make money they would go bust and close down and then there would be no-where for musicians to play.
Charity gigs and free festivals are another sore subject with musicians wanting to get paid. Should they play them or should they stay well clear and then publically moan and slag off the promoter/event on social media like a few musicians I could mention (but won’t) do?
Well, it’s up to you. If you want to play a free gig and if you want to support the event, or if you just want to play, then play. If you don’t, then don’t. It isn’t rocket science. No-one has the right to dictate what a musician has to do, or cannot do. It’s up the person playing the music. Sure it’s nice to be offered money for your services, but sometimes it actually feels great to donate your time/fee to a charity or cause that you believe in.
Money is one of the main reasons I stopped doing regular gigs about 18 months ago. Money and the fact that I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. In fact I was almost hating it. I would lie awake the night before worrying about if the bands would show up, if the PA would be okay, if anybody would turn up to watch. I spent the day of the gig sending facebook and twitter updates badgering people to come to the show. I would spend a couple of hours setting up and sound checking the bands, forgetting to eat any food and drinking coke aware that I had to drive later so couldn’t drink beer.
I would spend time before the gig looking at the door hoping that there would be an audience. When they did turn up would they argue and get nasty about having to pay a couple of quid entry. Would the band stick to their allotted stage times. Would they be happy with the sound and with the measly amount of money I could afford to pay them. I would buy people drinks out of my own pocket hoping that they would stick around to watch all the bands on that night. I would worry that as soon as the local band had played their set, their followers (and the band) would bugger off leaving the headliners playing to half a dozen people. Should I have put the bands on in a different order, or booked different bands?
When I got home I would unpack the gear, reheat cold cup of tea from that morning in the microwave, eat a couple of slices of toast and think about the fact that I, once again, made a loss out of putting on live music.
Back to the nice old lady who asked if I could get some live music for her community fundraiser. I thought about politely saying no, but she was a nice old lady so I decided to reluctantly help her out. I sent out an email to 21 bands/musicians, explaining the event and that payment would be in tea and cake. These are the responces …
9 x no reply
4 x “I’m already gigging that day. “
2 x “I’m on holiday.”
2 x “is there any cash available”
1 x “I don’t drink tea or coffee. Is there a bar?”
1 x “no but thanks for asking. ”
1 x “I’ll get back to you.” (they never did)
1 x ”Yes, I’ll do it.”
Success. One out of 21. I made the introductions and left them to it. I’m told the musician turned up, played to a appreciative audience, ate cake, almost drowned in free tea, and even got a little cash to cover her travel expenses. She even got a paid gig out of it as there was a coffee shop owner there who wanted to book her.
So, a free gig might turn out to be a passport to a future paid gig.
Or it may be just a free gig that you just fancied doing.
If you want to play a free gig, play one. If you don’t, don’t. The choice is yours, don’t let anyone make that choice for you.
And if you want me to organise a gig again, the anwser is probably gonna be no. But I might change my mind at some point.