From the uproar surrounding zero-hours contracts to protests demanding the rise of the living wage, our work and how much we get paid for it has recently been at the forefront of popular consciousness. In the art world, recent exhibitions from Jeremy Deller in Manchester and the Time & Motion exhibition at FACT have brought to light the monetary stresses of the modern working condition, and never has the issue been so prevalent as when assessing what is ‘fair’ pay for musicians. The fact is that there are no easy answers to the question ‘how much is live music worth?’ As the line between bands providing a service and being provided with an opportunity becomes increasingly blurred, it is important to examine this argument from the perspective of everyone involved; and it quickly becomes apparent that the issue is a lot less simple than some would have you believe.
One of the first questions we need to address is why the issue of payment for musicians is important, particularly for those just starting out. At its most basic, paying artists to perform ensures a healthy local music scene. Over the past few years Liverpool has seen the birth of numerous exciting live venues and independent promoters and, as the live music scene flourishes, it is important that smaller bands feel encouraged to participate. This means not only providing them with valuable opportunities and exposure but also fostering a relationship where they feel valued. The easiest way to do this, I would suggest, is to pay them fairly. But, says the counter argument, if the bands enjoy performing, isn’t the opportunity payment enough? “I’ve certainly got the impression from some promoters that simply by allowing you to play the support slot you enquired about they owe you nothing more,” argues local musician Luke Mawdsley (Cavalier Song). “It’s sad to think that artists are immediately on the back foot because they are trying to work things out without a manager. It’s intimidating, too. If someone makes you feel like they have done you a favour, how are you going to ask them for money? I appreciate promoters are trying to make a living from what they do but in no way are they more important than the people making music and neither is their branding.”
Last year the Musicians’ Union started a campaign with the aim of addressing the issue of payment for performance. “Work Not Play was started in response to an increasing problem in the industry whereby musicians are expected to work for free,” says Kelly Wood, Live Performance Official for the MU. “We know it happens a lot in the grassroots music scenes where venues put on small gigs, but where we’re seeing a big increase is in events where there’s a lot of money being made by someone and not being shared with musicians – corporate dos and charity events. The mindset is that musicians love doing what they do so they don’t mind doing it for free. There are times where acts will get a big audience and a lot of exposure and it will be good for their act. But you find increasingly that not only are the bands not being paid but by playing for free they’re actually driving down the value for other bands. Every time somebody does something for free they’re setting the precedent that’s how it should be. We’re trying to undo that by educating both musicians and employers that’s not really the way it should be.” The fact is that for a lot of musicians playing gigs requires a huge investment of time, energy and money. It should therefore be reasonable for them to expect remuneration for their efforts, and as record sales continue to decline live revenue has become increasingly important, with lots of musicians relying on it to be able to survive.
Anecdotal evidence more often than not paints the gig promoter in the role of villain, exploiting hardworking artists and disappearing at the end of a gig with a big bag marked ‘swag’. In reality, this is far from the case: our city is blessed with a healthy network of independent promoters who regularly risk financial bust and boom in putting on shows. Not only does this provide us with an enviable gig calendar, it also throws up a number of opportunities for local musicians to engage with new audiences in support slots at these shows. When working to tight margins there isn’t always enough money in the pot to make sure support bands are remunerated for their efforts, but this is balanced out by the value of the opportunity provided. Surely it can be argued that playing to a room of 200 potential new fans is at least equivalent to 50 quid in the band’s collective back pocket?
Behind every gig opportunity there are a myriad of benefits and pitfalls, some less obvious but no less important: exposure, reputation and experience are all important aspects to consider when looking at the worth of these opportunities. The ability to examine an opportunity on its individual merits has become increasingly important for artists and by familiarising themselves with the business side of playing live they can avoid being handed a bum deal. “Artists need to understand each situation and know how to negotiate,” explains Kelly. “If you’re playing in a really small venue and you can see there’s not a lot of money changing hands then you can’t expect the same level of payment you might at a bigger event where there’s lots of people buying tickets/drinks. Artists need to educate themselves and understand how to negotiate with promoters and a big part of that is knowing when to say no.” As a promoter with Deep Hedonia, Jon Davies has similar advice. “Once you realise you’ve got real talent, you should take control of what you want to be doing. It’s not enough these days to write a good song. You’ve also got to be your own promoter, your own marketer and your own manager.”
Understanding the benefits and pitfalls of each gig protects bands from making decisions at their own expense. The model of Pay-to-Play, which is often seen as a way for promoters to exploit musicians, particularly those who are young and inexperienced, has been subject to particular scrutiny by nearly everyone I have spoken to. Yet, fifteen years ago it was seen as a valuable stepping-stone on the live music ladder, and provided many budding musicians with their first experience of performing live. Though it’s nowhere near as prevalent as it once was, it’s still a subject that raises people’s hackles. Tony Donaghey, admin of the Liverpool Bands Facebook page, is particularly aware of the reputation of the Pay-to-Play model amongst local musicians. “I understand it at a level, but at its worst it’s pure exploitation. I get messages regularly from bands headlining a night on their debut gig! They ask a promoter for a gig and when he tells them they have to sell 50 tickets at £5 [each] they say no problem. Those 50 tickets go to friends and family who only watch that one band. They might as well have had a house gig.”
Is there an argument to suggest that these issues are evidence of a larger societal issue surrounding live music? Can the perceived problems between promoters and bands be read as symptomatic of a live music scene that simply isn’t generating enough money to sustain itself? “Ultimately, the way that music is sold and marketed in Britain severely undervalues live music,” says Jon Davies. “I’ve seen way too many shows where I’m on the door and it’s four acts for £5 and you have people come in and say ‘I can’t really afford it.’” Kelly agrees. “There’s a whole generation who aren’t necessarily used to paying for music. People see music as something you can have for free or as a try before you buy. Music has become something that people will pay for, but they think ‘I’ll pay for it how I want to and when I want to.’”
Ultimately, as is often the case, the issue proves a lot more complex than it first appears. After speaking to people with direct experience of the way the live music scene works it has become increasingly apparent that, while the live music scene struggles to thrive, it has become increasingly important, especially with the emergence of social media, for bands to engage in promoting themselves. A promoter should never undervalue the effort and value represented by a professional performing musician, irrespective of how much they might enjoy it; but at the same time a musician must be aware and honest about what they can provide. Working together to guarantee the success of an event helps foster a respectful, and hopefully profitable, working relationship.