Live Music Exchange Blog

Playing for nothing – Simon Frith


This week’s guest blog is by Live Music Exchange’s own Simon Frith, in which he muses on the perennial problem about musicians playing for free.  He discusses musicians in market terms, and finds that the issue of playing for free does not come down to ‘professionals’ versus ‘amateurs’ or even music-making as a service versus music-making as a career. Instead, the problem of ‘playing for free’ is caused by the ‘exploitation’ of live musicians by the people who make money out of them.

I’ve never met a musician who hasn’t got a gripe about playing for free. Complainers range from my teenage daughter, who resents the fact that when she and her friends perform at a public or corporate event it’s the school not the performers who get the fee, to a highly successful concert pianist, who gets continually implored by friends of friends of friends to play gratis at their children’s weddings or birthday parties, to members of bands asked to pay for a support slot on a tour or for a booking at a festival. It doesn’t surprise me that pay-for-play is the topic that most vexes people on music websites.

The usual way of thinking about this problem is in market terms, as an effect of musicians being ‘oversupplied’. The argument is that struggling musicians are undermined by performers who are willing to work for free. In the early days of the Musicians’ Union it was assumed that professional musicians were unable to benefit properly from the market for their services because of the competition from amateur players (in the early twentieth century ire was focused on military bands). But this was, perhaps, too simple a conclusion—as evolving MU policy has acknowledged. Can we really describe the live music sector as a single market in which two different kinds of musician, the amateur and the professional, compete?

There are certainly plenty of examples of amateur/professional collaboration. Professional orchestras like the RSNO or CBSO, for example, have their own amateur choirs (who not only sing for free but also pay the orchestras, via annual subscriptions, for the privilege of being choir members). Other amateur choirs (the UK’s network of Bach Choirs, for example) pay professional soloists and instrumentalists to perform with them in their public concerts. Such payments contribute significantly to classical musicians’ incomes. In the jazz and folk worlds too, it has long been the case that clubs essentially run by and for amateur performers pay visiting professionals to play with and to their members.

What this suggests is that amateur and professional musicians don’t occupy the same market position; professional musicians’ superior skills, experience and versatility are recognised by the public as well as by broadcasters, film and recording studios, etc. This is apparent, for example, in the wedding music market. Of course people can and do employ friends and relatives to provide wedding music for free, but if they are paying significantly for the event then they are likely to want the music to be of an appropriate standard and to pay for professional music services accordingly (even if they do sometimes try to use friend and family networks to get such services for free).

Following the discussion threads on music websites, what strikes me is not the amateur/professional problem but another kind of distinction: between music-making as a service and music-making as a career. Again this distinction may not be as clear cut as it first seems but it is useful. On the one hand, then, we can treat a musician as someone offering the public a service, comparable to, say, a plumber. In everyday life people expect to pay for services so why would they not pay for music? No one expects a plumber to mend their toilet for free (unless, perhaps, the plumber is a family friend or relative) nor would they entrust the job to an amateur (family friend or not). And musicians add, correctly, that when they are asked to play for free (at a charity concert, for example) the promoters would never dream of not paying people providing other kinds of service—security, posters, ticketing, etc. I was irritated by just the same sort of expectations in my journalist days: lefty magazines would expect me to write for them for free, because they were cash strapped in having to meet the ‘necessary’ costs of printers, photographers, distributors, etc.

The implicit argument here is that musicians/writers are different from other service providers (box office staff, printers) because even if we are not being paid we are getting something of value from the event: an audience, a name, a reputation. And this relates to the conception of music making as a career. From this perspective a musician’s live performance has to be understood economically in terms of the development of their ability to make money from their music in the future. Hence the argument that the fees groups have to pay to get onto a tour or a festival brochure is a useful and, indeed, necessary investment in the process of star making and audience building. This is obviously true at the start of people’s careers, and remains significant as acts move from one level of success to the next. Live performances must thus be treated as investments against future earnings rather than as bringing immediate financial reward. (This has parallels with—and, indeed, was once an aspect of, record company policy. A significant number of newly released records are supplied freely to critics, deejays, promoters and anyone else taken to be significant for the promotion of a new act).

Ambitious musicians have always understood this. Here, for example, is the Hollies advice to would-be pop stars in 1964: “To begin with you can expect very little money for your services. If you ask for more you will be told that you are lucky to get anything.” Rock common sense remains that the early days of a successful performing career should be understood as an apprenticeship, musicians in effect paying out of their own pockets to get experience and to develop a distinctive voice.

The problem with this argument is that only a minority of working musicians have (or even expect) such careers. In her study of the contemporary classical world, Dawn Bennett notes that: “Far from making a living by making music, the majority of musicians finance music by making a living,” and the same could be said about musicians in all music worlds, which means we need to flip the usual amateur/professional argument. The problem is not that amateur musical activity is a threat to professional musicians’ earning power but that would-be professional musicians, by offering their services for free as an investment in their careers, undermine the earning power of ‘amateurs’, those people whose livelihood depends on selling their musical services among the various other, non-musical things they do for an income. (And this argument can certainly be found over the years in the letters pages of Musician, the MU members’ magazine.)

Again, though, we must be careful not to make too clear a division between would-be professionals and pragmatic amateurs (and not only because most of the former become the latter). Those musicians who do have successful careers, who become stars and/or establish new musical languages and conventions, can, as a result, have a significant positive influence (though their effects on public taste and musical excitement) on job opportunities for musicians who never achieve such fame or fortune.

Put all kinds of musicians in a room together—professionals and would-be professionals, amateurs and pragmatic amateurs—and a consensus quickly emerges. The problem of ‘playing for free’ is not caused by competition between musicians, or even by the reluctance of audiences to ‘value’ music, but by the ‘exploitation’ of live musicians by the people who make money out of them–promoters, club owners, venues. The issue here is not that some service providers get paid and others don’t, but that musicians, unlike all the other people involved in putting on a show, provide the service which the public really values, the service upon which everyone else—promoters, security, lighting engineers, ticket sellers, or whoever—depend for their own employment. A concert may only happen because of the work of all sorts of professional, but the reason why people go to concerts, why they pay for tickets, is because of the music, the service provided by musicians. It therefore seems singularly unfair that they should be the people expected to provide their services for free.

Two points can be made about this. First, it has long been established in UK law (through legislation on performing rights as developed through court cases) that anyone using music to advance their own commercial ends has to pay for it. It therefore seems irrational that live musicians don’t have the right to be paid (which the composers/publishers of their material do—a club which required a group to pay for free would have to pay a license fee in order to play their records). Second, if a performer decides to perform for nothing because this is a necessary investment in their career, then this should be reflected in their contract with the venue. In effect the performer is buying the services of the venue rather than vice versa, and their control of the situation should therefore be recognised.

I don’t expect this to happen. To treat music at gigs (as against music at weddings) as the provision of a service is to ignore the peculiarity of the service on offer: unless the concert is by an act with an established audience, there is no way of knowing exactly what sort of demand for the service there is until after investment in its provision has been made. In the end, the economics of live performance depends on people paying for it; musicians don’t have a right to make money out of music to which no-one wants to listen. Live shows (particularly at the bottom end, where playing for free is most rife) are economic gambles, and if musicians rightly claim that they are the reason for a successful show and should be rewarded accordingly, it could also be argued that they are the reason for an unsuccessful show and should suffer accordingly.

The present situation is the result of the different people involved in paying for the event trying to share or dump their financial risk. From an audience point of view, the notion that a club (or festival) might have to close because of the box office effects of a crap act is just as problematic as the news that a club is expecting new bands to play for nothing. The problem has been exacerbated by the decline of record company investment in the live music sector, an investment that meant record companies (rather than their acts or the venues in which their acts performed) took on a significant share of the financial risk involved (just as state bodies do in the subsidised sector). This is not a problem that is going to go away.

Simon Frith
February 2014

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3 thoughts on “Playing for nothing – Simon Frith

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  1. And, of course, recessionary times have just made this worse. For those of you interested, I have a paper in the works looking at that amateur/professional collaboration in the folk world.
    Also, you might like to listen to this programme where it’s suggested that the increased ability for artists and fans to become ‘friends’ through social networking has caused expectations of fans being put on the guest list. Especially, as nobody appears to want to pay much for their recorded music. I’m not sure that I’m totally convinced by the guest list concern but have experienced it to a limited extent. However, it does beg even more questions about the value we put on our music. For What It’s Worth.

  2. Folk music accepts more of a cooperative spirit than many others. Pop follows audiences, jazz and blues are beholden to venues. Classical depends on nonprofit institutions of many kinds.

    I don’t see this changing, mostly because different kinds of musicians do not relate to each other, let alone interact past a basic level.

    There is, in a way, no such thing as “just music.” Each kind exists in a discreet world, and learning from others is not always relevant.

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