Jazzers’ Debate No 10: Musicians’ Pay


Jazzers Debate No 10

Musicians’ Pay

Peter Mark Butler


I was copied in on an email recently regarding overseas jazz musicians and bands enquiring about potentials for UK tours and “likely remuneration”, or rather, what they should charge.

I was also copied in on the answer and what they could expect to be paid, exclusive of expenses and accommodation. An addendum was added to the effect of: “They may be on a ‘jolly’ and not expecting too much!”

I received another message the very same day from a superb jazz trumpeter, good friend and fellow Jazzer – a “younger” musician at that! He wrote:

“Hi Peter

“From the cover of the latest issue of Musician magazine: ‘the MU is concerned about musicians being asked to work for free. Work not Play is a campaign that aims to raise awareness of the issue and debunk the myth that says because we enjoy it we don’t need to be paid. The aim is simple – to ensure that all professional musicians get paid for what they do.’

“It’s food for thought. Maybe we need to be pointing this out forcefully to all the bands going out and working for 25 or 30 quid. If you are not worth a proper fee, are you worth listening to? Should you be playing in public anyway?

“The issues raised by bands and musicians about audiences and the strength of traditional jazz is undermined when they undermine the value of what they do. We won’t have a strong jazz resurgence unless and until younger players can see that they can make some sort of living from the music. And they won’t see that when leading musicians in the field are driving hundreds of miles for a £50 ‘fee’.”

“All the best.

Peter Leonard”


So much so that as my friend Peter says, The Musician’s Union has launched a Fair Pay Campaign under the banner of “WORK NOT PLAY”! Their website states:

“The MU [has launched] a campaign for fair pay for musicians which can be found at www.worknotplay.co.uk.

“The campaign comes in response to the growing number of examples of musicians being expected to work for free whilst other workers involved in the event are being paid, and the website highlights many individual stories as told by musicians.

“Share your comments on Twitter using #WorkNotPlayMU

“Musicians from all genres are invited to sign up and share their stories of being asked to work for no fee.”

John Smith, MU General Secretary, says:

“We are concerned at a growing trend of professional musicians not being paid for their work. In this era of illegal downloading, live revenue is incredibly important and musicians rely on it to be able to survive.

“Too many people seem to think that music and entertainment are a hobby rather than a career, and are unaware of the years of training and hard work that it takes to become a professional performer.

“It is difficult enough to earn a decent living as a professional musician these days, and, headline artists aside, it is not a highly paid profession. We’re looking to challenge the idea that musicians should be happy to work for free, and we’re delighted that so many musicians and music fans are joining up to this campaign.”

Posted: November 14, 2012

John Petters First of all, I hate the term ‘work for free’. It is grammatically incorrect – the surplus ‘for’ creeps in everywhere these days. Trad bands are their own worst enemies. Firstly, many will play for next to nothing. Secondly, they do not expect to get travel expenses. Thirdly, most of the clubs do not charge enough on the door to make it a viable profession. I’ll not mention the free admission venues!

As you know, Peter, I organised the final tour for Wild Bill & Art Hodes. I put them into proper venues and paid a good rate. I’m constantly being bombarded with requests to play at my festivals, but bringing overseas performers is not viable.

Chez Chesterman Attaboy, John! The Manchester band that I play with goes to Benelux countries, Germany and Denmark on a regular basis. Accommodation is always provided and at least one major meal per gig, usually together with audiences who happily pay good money for a good night out. But when we try to put a tour together in southern England – well – what a difference. Overseas bands, who used to play here for peanuts, have wised up and the good ones are rarely seen here now, we just get the cheapskates.

John Petters Bang on, Chez – as usual. The Europeans normally get it right. The idea that musos have to buy their own drinks is regarded as crazy by the German musos I’ve worked with. It may be unpopular to state – but it could be that the present generation of jazz clubs needs to die out before a more professional approach can be taken. There are some which are run very well – I can think of Sylvies’, Wickham Bishops & West Chiltington, Friends of Upton, etc, as examples where the fees are always good and very good promotion ensures good houses. Derek Watson has said he is also having to work harder at Wickham Bishops to, in effect, stand still. Harlow has not been good this season. We have been hit with an unfortunate number of deaths and illness amongst some of our most regular customers. The answer is to increase the publicity.

Chez Chesterman You’ve got a good core audience at Harlow, John and one with wide jazz tastes. In that respect you are a lucky lad but there’s nowt you can do about those who shuffle off. More power to your elbow.

Jeff Matthews Hot issue indeed! Timely too as I am looking at a series of gigs for 2013 and looking at the fees offered and the distances to travel. Is the gig worth doing? And that is the crux of the matter. Your trumpet professional has made a strong point. But “forcefully” suggesting that any musician play for a decent fee or not play at all is not going to work. Suggesting that someone who plays for £25 or £30 might not be of a decent standard is also not helpful and is a little high handed, even though not intended to be. There are many, many fine musicians playing today who are of pro standard, indeed might be ex pro’s and might be retired, who want to continue playing the music they love. Are you going to forcefully insist that they shouldn’t?

John Petters Good points, Jeff. However, to expect anyone to turn out – at whatever level – for £25 or £30 is not on. The Trad Jazz circuit has suffered from an amateur approach for too many years. Free boozer trad for example. How can you justify a high fee if your client can see you playing free in a boozer? Anything worth having is worth paying for. Just because a pro may be retired they should not be expected to play at cut price.

Jeff Matthews So the answer might be to accept the present musicians as they are and start to work on the clubs and venues to pay more for the bands. If they are paying good money, they will want good bands. Surely there will always be different levels of band. Top touring name bands who will always get the money they ask for and ‘boiler’ bands who keep the jazz interest going and in the minds of local audiences. After all, if it wasn’t for pub and club bands up and down the country there would be little else promoting this music and it does act as a ‘funnel’ for the better festivals and events put on by ‘names’. Take that away and I respectfully suggest that, genius musician or not, name band or not, pro or not, you will be reduced to a tiny few people wanting to see what in effect will become, a musical museum novelty act.

John Petters I think that is what it will become eventually, Jeff, unless there is a revival that grabs the young.

Jeff Matthews I agree John, nobody playing this music should be expected to accept sub pay lower than the national minimum. I am not sure how this can be changed in the present economy and audience mind set. But there must also be opportunities where people can develop their abilities and hone their craft. Professionals might find it helpful all round to educate those trying to play and promote this traditional jazz.

I believe the revival must come from middle aged musicians not necessarily young musicians only. Times have changed and attitudes amongst young musicians are different. The conditions which led to the revivalist jazz movement of the late 40’s and 50’s are no longer here. There was a passion, in some cases fuelled by political idealism. Tribal even – trad versus bebop. I wasn’t part of that. My interest, which developed later, was purely music based.

John Petters Yes, all sorts of things there, Jeff. I think the remnants of the 50s revival looked upon it as their ‘pop’ music. So often you find a nostalgia attitude. Some delved right into the roots – others stuck with the Ball – Barber – Bilk idiom. It probably needs to start again in colleges and universities, but as you have indicated, times have changed. I think it is likely, in years to come, that traditional jazz will be regarded like classical music – played in concert format. Barring a revival, I see no other reality.

Bill Bissonnette Every musician puts his own value on his own playing. The musician who will take a $50.00 gig [excuse me for using US currency values. I’m not up on my exchange rates!] is a $50.00 musician. Anybody who would ever pay him more is nuts. I stopped playing local gigs decades before I retired because I would not work for the low rates offered locally. When good friends asked me to do a gig as a personal favour and offered the local rate to me, I would say sure I’ll do it – free – as a personal favour. Come when I want. Play what I want. Leave when I want. But don’t insult me by offering anything lower than my standard fee. That’s why, as those of you who have played with me occasionally in Fritzels in New Orleans know, I never shared in the “kitty.” The idea of performing for $10.00 or $20.00 was always repulsive to me. But the idea of jamming with good friends for “kicks,” as Kid Tom would say, is OK with me anytime.

Jeff Matthews Chez’s comments are interesting as they take some of the emphasis off musicians and underline cultural differences between Europe and its attitude toward the music, and our own here in the UK. I know of one musician who played ‘trad’ across France for a number of years and he was paid generously. I know of a singer, not jazz, but classics to classic pop, who is paid exceedingly well in Austria. Perhaps we should be discussing how we change things culturally here in the UK rather than looking as closely at our jazz bands. What do you think?

Another very interesting post, this time from Bill. I think a lot of bands jam with friends for ‘kicks’ over here in the UK too. The whole purpose is to play the music not to earn money playing it. If £30 or $50 is accepted, it is to cover excessive fuel/gas costs.

Peter Mark Butler I’ll conclude this debate as far as it has gone to date, with the following quotes taken from my article “Analysing the Jazz Scene – Past, Present and Future” (Just Jazz, August, 2012):

“I think it’s clear that obtaining a reasonable income in jazz …  is becoming exceedingly difficult. Those of us who grew up in the arts bubble were very fortunate to come up in an era that was, relatively speaking, flush with cash, which makes the new reality very difficult to accept. But historically speaking, this was an aberration. Beethoven had money problems, Mozart died broke, and I’m sure that we’re all aware of the many incredibly talented and influential jazz musicians of the last 75 years who needed benefit concerts to pay for medical care and funeral expenses as they entered middle and old age.” (Kurt Ellenberger: pianist, composer and music professor)
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“Most of the working musicians I know make a living not by playing jazz, but by bringing their jazz training to bear on other more current or popular styles. And those styles certainly attract enthusiastic, passionate listeners. …… It is certainly more difficult than ever to make a living playing jazz; not that it was ever really easy. But to say that jazz music begins and ends at the traditional jazz ensemble is to ignore the many ways that the music has evolved, the many ways that players have evolved alongside it, and the ways that listeners have evolved as well.” (Kotaku.com Editor Kirk Hamilton)
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