Picture this: a busy Friday night in a trendy city venue. An up and coming band plays a beautifully-crafted and well-rehearsed set to a delighted audience, at least half of whom are the band’s loyal fans. The bar is busy and the night is energised. It’s a scene many of us are familiar with and is one of the great things about life in a city with a vibrant and exciting music scene. As the night draws to an end the various members of staff who have made the night happen congregate in the back office to collect their pay check. The frazzled bar staff collect their well-earned cash. Door staff are handed their envelopes with wry smiles and pats on the back, ‘Thanks guys that was a tough one tonight’. The school kid who collects glasses excitedly pockets his £20, and the cleaners, who have just arrived, take their wages in advance, their eyes diverted though the gap in the door at the alcohol stained apocalypse that awaits them. Now it’s the turn of the band. The guys and girls who rehearsed solidly in expensive studios for months; who promoted the show for weeks; who arrived at 3pm in a hired van after a 2 hour journey; who lugged all of their gear in the pouring rain to the sound check; the band that entertained the revellers and made the night awesome; in what giant envelope will the 5 of them receive their remuneration they quietly wonder? ‘AMAZING set guys, you were great… er we didn’t take as much as expected at the bar though, so obviously we won’t be able to pay you. Really sorry. I think we have a few bottles of beer left over that you can take’. The band saunter outside into the first rays of sunrise, 2 warm beers between them, full of defiance and resignation.
You don’t even want to know what happened to the Sound Guy. He made less than the band. And he doesn’t even have groupies.
Ok jokes and romaticisms aside this is actually a pretty accurate example of the economic reality of being a musician. How many of you have experienced something similar?
It is becoming increasingly and disturbingly normal in the music industry for musicians and other professionals to work for free (or leftover alcohol) and in some extreme cases for musicians to actually have to pay to work! Louise Dodgson from The Unsigned Guide covers it well here. The Musician’s Union is an amazing organisation that works to promote fair wages for musicians and I’d encourage all musicians to think seriously about joining. Work Not Play is another organisation that campaigns on this issue.
Taking a broader perspective, there are countless unpaid ‘opportunities’ swishing around the music industry at any one time in the form of internships or work experience. Interestingly the law is quite clear on this front; that all workers should be guaranteed the minimum wage regardless of what they are called. Hiring an intern should never be a way to get around paying a fair wage, although unpaid opportunities are unfortunately still very common and appear to occur without recourse to regulation.
So, lets have a look at some of the pros and cons of taking on that free gig (whatever it may be):
This is really the heart of the matter for a musician. Capital can come in many shapes, and is not exclusively monetary. Playing a free gig that gets you 10000 new fans and sells 1000 records is obviously a good investment. It is up to you to sensibly weigh up the potential benefits of playing for free and be aware that it will always be a gamble. When you are just starting out, you will probably struggle to book a decent gig, let alone get paid and so it makes sense for most musicians not to expect payment right away. Not getting paid at this stage is an investment in your future and at this point in your career you are fighting the rules of demand and supply. With no demand for your music and a massive over supply of competing bands and artists, your wages will inevitably suffer. However if you are a seasoned and skilled musician who brings proven value to an event or product then the decision is more complicated. If an established company is looking for a skilled musician or producer for an exciting new project but has no budget, alarm bells should start to ring. If the product/gig/whatever is so amazing then why is the business not making a proper investment, whilst at the same time expecting you to essentially invest for them by way of your free labour? Having people work for free is often a way for those who profit from production to shift the risk of investment onto the worker. Always question whether you want to work for someone who can’t or wont pay.
For many professionals, the key to success is often perceived to depend on getting ‘a foot in the door’. You can’t get the paid job because you have no experience or training and so in some cases working for free will give you that first break that you need. Many sound engineers for instance will have learned the ropes whilst making tea for free in a studio before one day getting their hands on the console. The key here is that you actually learn and actually get experience. How many budding engineers have spent a summer ferrying lattes from Pret in the name of work experience only to find at the end of the internship that they know more about coffee than they do about compression ratios. Be careful! If you are not learning or getting hands on experience then you are wasting your time and probably being exploited. If you take a short term work experience and are certain that you will have an invaluable learning experience then proceed, but with caution. Remember, even the UK government (not exactly a bastion of progressive workers rights) advises that work experience should pay the minimum wage.
One of the reasons that I set up Violet Jobs is that I saw the correlation between passion and exploitation. When someone wants something badly enough there will always be someone ready to promise it, usually at a cost. Music industry professionals are some of the most passionate and driven people out there but it is important to not let passion cloud your judgement. If music is merely a hobby then yes, of course, produce or promote or play live simply for the love of it. But for those of you who want to work in the industry then it is important to think carefully before working for free simply because you love the job you are doing. This can facilitate a race to the bottom and reinforce the notion to employers that it is OK not to pay musicians. To maintain the high standards in this industry that we love we must ensure everyone is paid a fair wage, or else music will exist only the realm of the rich. When people are forced to work for free in any industry, those who need to earn a wage in order to survive are excluded, and those who have other means are able to flourish. You only need to take a cursory glance at the music industry today to know that this is at least partly already a reality.
What do you think? Is it ever OK to work for free? Share your stories and ideas with us.
For our part, at Violet Jobs we will only list paid opportunities. And we promise to always allow you to search and apply to these jobs for free.
Source: Music think thank