Live Music Exchange Blog

The Musicians’ Union Fair Play Venues Scheme – Sheena Macdonald


This week’s blog post explains the rationale behind the Musicians’ Union Fair Play Venues scheme. Sheena Macdonald – Musicians’ Union Regional Organiser for Scotland and Northern Ireland – discusses the background to the scheme and opportunities for musicians to participate.

I came to my job at the Musicians’ Union (MU) as a fan, a fan of live music. And like a lot of live music fans I spent a lot of time attending gigs, bought and devoured the NME, and loved seeing bands I had seen in small venues and pubs make it to the top of festival bills. I am now a parent to two small children, so getting out to gigs is now more of a bi-monthly pursuit, than twice weekly standard. In my role at the MU I am more likely to be advising and helping a band who hasn’t been paid for a gig than actually getting to one.

It can be easy in a job where you only hear the horror stories of life as a working musician to primarily focus on and know about the pubs, clubs, venues, promoters and festivals that treat musicians badly. After all they are the ones that we get the complaints about. I sometimes joke that I only really know the places not to get a gig.

For years the MU has had an Ask Us First list, giving details of individuals and companies working in the music industry that our members should come and have a chat with us about before entering into any deals. Of course musicians themselves talk and share information about venues and promoters, just in the same way as venues and promoters talk amongst themselves about bands. There is nothing new about that. So for the most part, in the last decade that I have been working at the MU we have concentrated on the places that have given our members bad deals and treated musicians poorly.

I have lost count of the number of discussions I have had with musicians about pay to play deals, last minute cancellations because a “promoter” didn’t promote, poor treatment, and lack of payment to bands playing in venues putting on live music to increase bar takings. Nearly all of the musicians I have spoken to had learnt the hard way about how to avoid these types of situations, and in some cases it has been a long learning curve.

The MU launched its Fair Play Guide a few years back, to give emerging and unsigned artists advice about how to navigate their way through co-promotion deals, competitions, showcasing events and artist submissions for gigs and festivals. In my experience it is the musicians at the start of their careers who get taken advantage of most – it can be easy to get excited about playing on a stage to an audience and sign up for a deal which requires you to sell lots of tickets or pay the “promoter” if you don’t. The Guide offers advice to musicians on offers that are fair and workable alternatives to a straight fee such as mutually beneficial ticket deals and co-promotions.

So far so good, but what do I say to the musician who asks me if a venue or promoter is fair to musicians? If I know them well enough and have heard good stories from musicians I’m always happy to say so, but if not my standard line has always been, well I’ve never had anyone complain to me about them. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Until now that is, with the launch in late 2014 of the MU’s Fair Play Venues Scheme. Now we can point to the venues we know will treat musicians fairly and work with them to ensure that everyone has a good experience from the gig. The point of the scheme is to recognise good practise and support the work of the wide range of live music venues across the whole of the UK. Over 50 are signed up already and we’re working on an interactive website so that musicians and fans alike can see who they are and support them.

We need musicians working across all genres in venues of all shapes and sizes to let us know about the ones that treat them fairly in terms of the deals they offer. A venue just needs to operate in accordance with the MU’s Fair Play Guide to sign up, and once enlisted they will have window and wall stickers to display to show they are considered a fair venue.

So tell us about all those venues that work to support and develop vibrant local music scenes as well as treat musicians fairly. We know they exist, in fact I suspect I may even has been in a few the last few months as we managed to get the babysitters in.

Email Kelly Wood, the MU’s Live Performance Official, for more information or to tell us about a great venue.






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