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Are Musicians Underpaid?

posted 1 Jul 2014, 07:41 by Chris Morris

We've all seen those images that float around the internet. Someone else's recycled opinion, often plastered onto a scenic background, and shared on Facebook by someone who simply says “so true” or “damn right”.

About a year or two ago, a friend of mine shared a certain image on Facebook about how musicians are underpaid for the gigs that they play. The image annoyed me for two reasons; firstly, I thought it was untrue, and secondly, I thought it gave a bad impression to people about the egotism of musicians. However, at the time I simply had a little giggle at it and moved on.

This week however, the image resurfaced on my Facebook news feed as another musician friend of mine felt the need to share it. The image looks like this:

I said I had a little giggle, but really, this is no laughing matter. As someone who makes a living from being a musician, you'd think I'd be the first to share this with my obligatory “so true” flying proudly above it. But I'm afraid I'm in the opposite camp for this one. Before I break down, point by point, why this image is so ridiculous, let's start with the fact that whoever this disgruntled and frustrated musician is, he or she is making $300 per gig, which works out roughly to £176.15.

What does that work out to per hour? Well, usually a band won't play any longer than maybe three hours, so that would work out to £58.71. Sometimes, of course, bands and artists will play for longer, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt – at the rate that our frustrated musician has claimed, a four hour gig would pay the musician £44.03 an hour. And let's just go overboard for the heck of it, if the musician somehow plays for six hours he'd be making £29.35 an hour.

Now, considering national minimum wage is just £5.03 for 18-20 year olds and £6.31 for over 21s, that's not half bad. In fact, while I was shovelling popcorn and cleaning up sick for just £4.81 a few years back, I would have killed to be making £29.35 doing something I'm supposed to love.

So $300 doesn't seem so bad now does it? But a musician is a special skill, and usually jobs have to pay more for these special skills, yeah? Well, again, I make a living as a musician myself and I have a degree in music (Something not all of these frustrated musicians complain about getting paid to play have), which makes me a professional. A quick crunch of Dundee Drum Academy's figures from last month shows me that I earned roughly £8.91 an hour. That's a whopping £20.44 difference. And my job involves a little more than just playing my instrument for fun.

Anyway, enough about numbers and figures and horrific memories of cleaning up vomit in the cinema to the tune of “Slipping Through my Fingers” by ABBA during Mamma Mia's lenghty run in theatres. Let's get through these items that the frustrated musician claims the money has to pay for.

1. “Equipment and instruments”

At this point in the list, I was still willing to hear it out. But unfortunately, it begins with one of its most ridiculous points. If you call for a plumber to come and fix your sink and he demands extra money for the spanner he bought twelve years ago I think you'd likely throw a fit. And you'd be right to. Lots of the musicians I know around Dundee use instruments they've been playing with for years. Some of them were bought by their parents years ago when they were just learning. And I doubt that they were bought for the specific reason of going out and earning money.

And equipment? I assume this includes such extravagant items as microphones, stands and a PA system, all of which can be bought in great condition second hand online or in local music shops. I wonder if my barber will start to charge an extra £10 for the use of those shiny scissors...

And besides, these days most venues have their own equipment for musicians to use. In a recent gig with my own band, we supported a much more established band who had come up from England. Even though the venue always offers the use of its own drum kit, the drummer still brought his own gear, and let me have a bash at his ace Jalapeno drum kit. He didn't charge me, or the venue. Nice guy.

2. “Hours of rehearsal time”

This one almost does have a valid point. It can be pricey for bands to hire a rehearsal room, especially if they are trying to make a living from playing gigs. There are great rehearsal studios here in Dundee, but here's the thing – they aren't expensive. Especially if you're in a band with lots of musicians, splitting the cost between all of you never amounts to very much.

I also doubt that bands are in rehearsal studios learning songs for hours on end. Most established bands have a catalogue of songs that they have been playing together for years, and could (and do) perform them on command. As for smaller bands and artists, some of them will never see a rehearsal studio in their entire span as a gigging musician. I'm not a terrific guitar player, but in our rock group for mental health service users I've been able to learn a good few songs in less than a minute. A professional guitarist would do even better.

3. “Rehearsal space”

I'm struggling to see how this differs from point 2. My first instinct would be that our struggling musician simply wants to beef up his list to make it look more impressive than it actually is. Unless there is some sort of difference in paying for time and paying for space? It's all getting a bit Doctor Who now...

4. “Transport to and from the venue”

This is where I really started to laugh. When I worked at the cinema, they never paid me for transport to and from work. In fact, I was never paid for travel expenses by B-Wise, Tesco, Currys, Bodman School of Music, Tayberry, or any company I've worked for, ever. Why? Might have been something to do with the fact that it's ridiculous.

If you're getting paid for travelling to and from the venue, maybe you should be getting paid for new shoes after you stood in a puddle and got them dirty.

5. “The amount of money spent of lessons and training to become the musician that they are”

I don't even know where to start with this one. I was lucky enough to never have had to pay a penny for any kind of music tuition, ever. And admittedly, this was very lucky. I learned drums and percussion at school through a phenomenal teacher, and because I came from a working class family who didn't earn enough to pay for lessons, I got them for free. This still happens in school – lots of people learn their instruments at high school free of charge. If you go on to study music, which is free in Scotland, you will receive tuition as part of your course.

Of course, others have to pay. Here at Dundee Drum Academy, my biggest age group is currently early-mid high schoolers. By the time they leave high school I'm strongly confident they will all be terrific drummers. At which point they will probably go on to college or university. During which time they may still come for lessons or they may move on. Whatever they decide, only a handful of them might want to try to make a living out of drumming. I seriously doubt that any professional, gigging musician is still receiving professional tuition. So are people seriously expected to reimburse them for the lessons they received years ago?

Also, how many musicians these days actually go to lessons? The number of “self-taught” musicians has risen rapidly over the last few decades, and I suspect that our frustrated musician may be one of them.

6. “Costume for the event”

Really? Do I really have to explain why this one is ludicrous? Do musicians have to buy a new suit for every gig? Are they setting their “costume”s on fire after every gig in some sort of rebellious rock'n'roll act? Personally, whenever my band plays I just wear whatever I happen to be wearing. Maybe I should start coming in to Dundee Drum Academy in fancy dress and charging a couple of extra quid for it.

7. “Promotion costs”

Cost of promoting a gig on Facebook: £0. Cost of promoting a gig on Twitter: £0. Cost of printing out 100 promotional posters and hanging them up around town: £5. Yep, there's a place that'll print out one hundred posters for a fiver. But usually, the venue takes care of this themselves. And anyway, the band have already been offered the gig, and are getting paid $300 for it, regardless of whether they promote it or not. Is it the responsibility of the band or artist to promote the gig that the venue are paying them to play?

8. “Website fees”

Dundee Drum Academy has a website (You're on it right now, unless this blog has ended up somewhere else). It's a address and it was free of charge for the first two years and now I have to pay an annual fee of:

Wait for it.

Wait for it.


Move on.

9. “GST to give the taxman”

I'm about to stir a whole different sort of pot here. Not pointing any fingers here, but I do know a handful of musician friends who don't declare any of their earnings to HMRC. As a partly self employed musician myself, I have to do my own taxes, and it's increasingly surprising how many of my fellow musicians don't even know that they also must do the same. I fear for their pensions.

And anyway, what job in the world pays you even more because you will get taxed like every other hardworking person in the country? My wife is a teacher, and she gets taxed more than I earned altogether while I worked at the cinema. Should she be given extra money for that?

10. “Phone and internet bills spent on organising the gig and telling others”

In this wonderful 21st century, most of us have contract phones and pretty generous wi-fi allowances. I doubt the combined use of your phone and computer is amounting to anything more than about £1. Jings, that plus your annual website renewal fee would only give you £1 change from a fiver, no wonder you're charging nearly £30 an hour.

11. “Manager fees/agent fees”

This has to be one of the most laughable items on the list (excluding the costume one). If there's a band out there that's hiring a manager which is organising gigs where the promoter doesn't promote the gig, doesn't have any of their own equipment, and is only paying a band the unbelievably low rate of £175 then that band needs to either get a new manager, or do what all the other bands in the world do – don't have a manager.

12. “Not to mention the payment also has to cover food, a roof over the musician's head, bills, a car, and every other living expense”

What, you mean like every other job?

So there you have my breakdown of everything that's wrong with that image. One baffling fact about it is that the two people I have seen share it are not musicians for a living. In fact, I think both of them barely play any gigs at all, and when they do it's less about making money and more about promoting themselves and generally just having fun. And that brings me to my next point:

When did playing music become all about money?

When I started playing in bands money was the last thing I thought about. Too many musicians these days have forgotten why they play gigs. What happened to playing for enjoyment? When did these people become so arrogant to think that they are owed money to do the thing that most likely started out as a hobby?

Yes, there are professional musicians out there who have spent years honing their craft and are very serious about what they do. But I'm afraid that for the most part, the music “scene” is filled with amateur musicians who have other jobs but have become so egotistical to think that they must be paid more per hour than a doctor or a teacher because they can play chords or bash out some drum rolls.

So are musicians underpaid? Absolutely not. In fact, some bands and musicians are sickeningly overpaid. I've seen wedding bands who charge up to £2000 for a single performance. And some of them aren't even great musicians. A friend of mine joined up with a company who sends musicians out to venues to perform for money. They had her stand and mime the guitar along to a backing track for the first night because she hadn't learned the songs yet. Any person reading this blog could have done the same, and she was paid for it. Did she deserve that money?

With every like and share of that picture on social media, more non-musicians are reading it, and more musicians are getting away with murder. If it still sounds strange coming from a musician who is paid for being a musician (actually, I see myself as more of a teacher than a musician, but a musician nonetheless), I suppose what I want to say is that if more of us worried less about money and more about their own integrity, the music scene would be a much fairer place.