Your questions (9)

Why should I care about this issue?

If you like music then you should care about this. Music is already a difficult career to sustain because, unless you make it to the very top, it is so poorly paid. Most of the MU’s 30,000 members already have to do other jobs alongside music in order to make ends meet. If the situation continues to get worse then you may well find that your favourite bands and musicians just aren’t around anymore in a few years’ time.

Is this a real problem?

In a word – yes, and it’s getting much worse. We’ve always seen examples of musicians being asked to work for free for charity, but with the recent Olympics there seemed to be a blanket policy of not paying for music and recently others have started to do the same, including Café Rouge.

What about charity gigs?

It is extremely unfair to put professional musicians into a situation where they are emotionally blackmailed into working for no fee and are asked to give their services to a good cause.This is particularly unjust when others associated with the event, such as venue staff, lawyers and caterers, are being paid.

We agree that there is nothing wrong in asking a worker to donate to a good cause, but just as with any other member of the public it must always be a choice made freely by the individual and not a decision that they feel pressured into making. Musicians should be offered their usual fee and it should be up to them whether or not they give any of that fee back to charity.

We are also becoming aware of an increase in charity events whereby minimal levels of revenues are donated to the named causes, despite high ticket prices and unpaid slots for musicians. However, organisers, promoters and other event personnel often take their regular fees at these events.

Most musicians enjoy their work, so maybe they shouldn’t be paid?

We are very worried that increasing numbers of people appear to think that music is a hobby rather than a career. To be a top class musician takes years and years of dedication and study and is a full time job. As for the fact that musicians enjoy their jobs, that is largely true – but does it mean that what they do has no value? If you’re still not convinced then next time you hear your plumber whistling, tell him that you won’t be paying him as he clearly enjoys his job and see how far you get.

The really enjoyable part of a musician’s job is often their time on stage or in the studio. However, these enjoyable creative times are short in comparison to the work that goes on behind the scenes – travelling, rehearsing, administration etc. Often a one-hour gig is part of a musician’s 12-hour day.

But isn’t it good exposure?

It can be. But very often it’s not. Take the Olympics. Had the bands in question been asked to star in the opening or closing ceremonies, then the exposure would have been good. But most of the ‘free work’ was taking place in the Olympics Village or at gigs to celebrate the Olympics. Managers and record companies weren’t going to be walking by and signing people on the spot. It was just a way of getting free labour. By that rationale, shouldn’t the police also have been working for free, for good exposure?

But I want to work for free…

It would be unrealistic to say that musicians should never work for free, and of course it has to be a personal decision. The reality is, though, that many musicians are not given the choice. If the only work available is free work, then they feel forced into doing it in the hope that it will lead to paid gigs. It rarely does.

You may have taken a decision to undertake unpaid work whilst studying or carrying out additional non-musical jobs, but what happens if/when you want to pursue a career solely in music? If you’ve only ever played free gigs, how will you then convince promoters and bookers that your music is worth paying for when previously it was free?

What about headline artists?

For headline artists who are already well known, the offer of exposure can often be a good enough reason to accept free live work as they can promote a new album or tour. In addition, very well off artists may well choose to do charity gigs for free and we would not argue against this. It is important to remember though that there are only very few well off artists at the top of the profession. Most of the musicians we are talking about are gigging musicians who absolutely rely on income from live work.

I’m an artist and I can’t find any paid gigs – surely free gigs are better than nothing?

We understand that a lot of artists undertake unpaid work whilst launching their career and building a fanbase. Unfortunately gigs at grassroots level don’t often come with the offer of a guaranteed fee. However, even small gigs can generate enough money to ensure that both the artist and promoter/venue are fairly remunerated. By co-promoting shows, artists can start to make money from gigs at an early stage in their career. For further information and advice read the MU’s Fair Play Guide: Fair Play Guide.

What do the MU do about musicians playing for free?

There’s little that we can do when musicians inform us that they agreed to do an unpaid show, but then felt aggrieved afterwards, often when they realised that the promoter/venue must have made a lot of money from their performance whilst they received nothing. Most of the time this bad practice is not illegal – it’s just immoral. With this in mind, we’re doing our best to educate all involved: artists, in order that they can find the best work available; employers, who may not understand the implications of exploiting musicians, and the public, who play a crucial role by attending gigs and buying tickets.