The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Should musicians work for free?

Well, if you're an unknown musician, what choice do you have?

We've all heard the story about the wedding planner or plumber story, where customer asks them all to work for free.

On the surface it sounds like a good example, but the reality is nobody's going to pay a plumber who has no experience, or trust the wedding cake to an amateur...and if you're family you're going to get stuck working for free, even if you can't stand the bride.

Even a musician with a reputation and a proven ability to draw crowd will occasionally be asked to work for free. This is particularly true with people who plan art festivals and similar events.

The reason they always give is that it provides valuable exposure for the musician. Which is bullshit. In all the art and wine festivals I've ever attended, I can't recall the name of a single band that was playing there, and most people don't because even if the music is presented in a formal setting it's still considered incidental music. In other words it's part of the atmosphere.

This isn't a new phenomenon. In the classical era, even famous composers like Mozart wrote what was called divertimento music, that is to say background music. He was paid of course.

But Mozart was paid because he was Mozart, and you can also bet he played a lot of free recitals when he was a kid.

I remember at one well-known blues club, the owner never paid the band. He basically gave them a cash drawer in order to make change, and let the band keep 100% of the door, or entrance fee.

Most of the musicians that I talked to at the time didn't like the arrangement. For one thing the door wasn't very much during a weeknight, and one of the most common complaints was that the club didn't have a "built-in house."

In other words a regular crowd that showed up that night, which would guarantee the band a certain minimum of pay.

The owner's position was actually quite simple. The club was well-known, actually famous with blues fans around the world, so the band had the advantage of being able to say that they were playing there. In the owner's opinion, the problem was that the band didn't have a following.

Some of the bands that played there during the week were actually quite good, and it was a shame to see them have a lousy payday.

In this case, the question was should the owner of the club pay a talented band it's normal asking fee and not make a profit that night.

Musicians are technically businessman also, so you think the answer would be obvious. 

The thing is, musicians are dealing with a product where the value is intrinsic. It's worth as much as the customer says it is, but the artist might actually value it much higher.

That's the basic conflict the marketplace creates. The artist creates or re-creates music that takes a lot of time and effort to learn and perform. If the person's a real professional, there's been a substantial investment in equipment also.

The difficulty a musician has getting fair pay for his efforts is most often attributed to people's unwillingness to pay for music. There's some truth to that.

I would also think that in America, there's another factor in play.

That is, there's probably is more musicians and bands in America than even lawyers. For every club or venue that pays musicians, there's probably hundreds of bands in the area that would love to play there.

In our capitalist system, most of those bands would willingly take a lower fee or play for free to get into that club or venue. It forces the rate of pay downwards.

I remember once reading an interview by Muddy Waters, and how he talked about the club gigs in Chicago being almost like territories that they had to be willing to fight over to keep.

That's an extreme example, but the basic point is clear. Instead of thinking that the customer just wants to rip you off, it's also a good idea to keep in mind that there's plenty of competition for that same gig.

For an unknown musician it may not be such a bad thing to play for free. Giving out free samples is a time-honored way to introduce a product, and in the case of music, the customer might just become a fan after hearing you play and be willing to pay the next time.

After all, music is like any other job, there's an entry-level where you have to pay your dues and work your way up. Having a college degree is no guarantee of success, and neither is owning a guitar.

But whether the musician plays for free or not, there is one advantage. If you love playing music, being entry-level or a star's really all the same, it's the same joy.