Bandleaders: Pay Your Musicians

I had a long conversation with some of my favorite musicians last night about taking gigs for crap money. I’m against it, some were for it, I’m curious what everyone thinks.

My position is that part of a bandleader’s job is to make sure you have money to pay your musicians what they deserve, regardless of expected turnout, and even when hiring your friends (I think ESPECIALLY when hiring your friends). There’s money out there to support music (How much did KEXP’s new building cost? How much did folks raise to save KNKX?), it just requires making the case to get it. Grants, fundraising, negotiating with venues, seeking out money gigs, merch, etc. It’s not easy and it takes effort and creativity, but it’s doable. Aside from making sure you have money to keep for your own effort, there are a ton of positive side-effects to having this attitude. 

Most importantly, if we all hustled to get funding for our projects, it would bring money into the musician economy and get more into all our pockets. A rising tide lifts all drummers. In just under two years, Happy Orchestra’s spent $46,000+ on local musicians, recording, mixing, and mastering engineers, artists, publicists, and even on myself **GASP** with money raised from 4Culture, Kickstarter, show and merch income, and private support. That’s right, I am a job creator, cut my taxes.

Paying musicians also forces you as a bandleader to be smart and efficient with the time you demand of yourself and your band. Paying for rehearsals means you only schedule what’s necessary and you’re likely to be prepared to make the most of everyone’s time. Twice-weekly rehearsals for a gig two months away with no new material go bye-bye! (Yes, I’ve been asked to do that for free.) Paying your band forces you to think twice about what shows are worth doing and gives you an incentive to promote and get the most return on your investment. No more six-hour drives for an unpromoted Tuesday night one-off. (Yes, I’ve been asked to do that for a split of door.) When you show musicians that their time is valued it brings their game up too. They know you’ve put in the effort to pay them well so they’re more likely to be prepared and bring their best. And by the way, when you compensate musicians with legal tender as opposed to drink tickets, better musicians are more interested in playing your music.

This is in contrast to “Hey, you want to do this gig at this place? No rehearsal, light crowd, probably $20.” It might get mentioned on social media once or twice, no one besides the bandleader will think about the gig before they walk in the door, and all will be forgotten the moment it’s over. What’s going to come out of that situation that wouldn’t come from meeting somewhere that doesn’t require everyone to show up early for soundcheck and wear a nice shirt? Save everyone the ironing time and just meet at a rehearsal space.

I made a commitment with all of my projects to make sure I pay the musicians involved a reasonable amount of money for everything they do, partly because I just believe in the principle and partly because I respect them too much to ask them to take a risk with their time. It’s still not as much as they deserve and I’m sure there are moments I’ve slipped into paying less by habit, but it’s definitely at a level I know they appreciate. I also generally pass on gigs that don’t meet that same standard unless there’s a good reason not to. It’s a change in thinking and a different way of operating in the creative music world, but it’s more sustainable for me because I have a sense of value around what I do. I may play a bit less, but what I do now is at a much higher level.

Obviously this doesn’t apply to a group of people committed to working as a unit. A true band of people risking their time and money together is a different story altogether, but it’s also a rarity. Often it’s one person who’s written music, wants to put on a show or make a record, and calls on his or her friends to play. This is for you, whaddaya think?

6 thoughts on “Bandleaders: Pay Your Musicians”

  1. Excellent post, thank you. I firmly believe that if more musicians made this their MO, more musicians would make more money.

  2. As ‘Bandleader,’ I try, whenever possible, to walk into the gig with enough money in my pocket to pay my guys, regardless of turnout or clubowner honesty. Usually, my band is with me because they believe in what I’ve brought together, not because they’re getting paid for travel or rehearsal time (they’re not). The least I can do is assure they receive decent pay for showing up to a gig, setting up, tearing down, and putting their hearts into the show.

  3. Thanks for bringing up this oft-discussed topic, as I’ve been thinking about it a lot in regards to KNKX. We would like to do public events with live music, but whenever I’m asked by my co-workers, I tell them that the band should be paid well. This often results in being told that the band “would get great exposure” or would have a chance to “sell their CDs” at the event. I’m sure my co-workers are sincerely thinking musicians/bands would jump at the chance. I’m wary. What do y’all think of this? Give me your thoughts on “promotional” gigs, please!

    1. I don’t blame your co-workers for having that attitude, it’s the expectation that’s been set by event-planners and bands for a long time. That said, my feeling is that KNKX would not exist if not for musicians creating the music it plays all day, and those musicians need more than exposure or $100 in CD sales to create that music. I also think that KNKX is in a better position than almost anyone to raise the money necessary to pay a band well. It has a fundraising infrastructure and the power of its broadcast to drive a great turn out and/or justify a ticket price. It would be great for an organization that relies so much on music to lead by example and make sure the musicians it works with directly are compensated fairly.

      It also depends on what the situation is. I’ve never been paid for doing an in-studio session at KNKX and I don’t mind. It’s 3-4 songs, the drums are already there, and the artist gets HD video of varying quality at the end of the day. That said, I’m not convinced those sessions have translated to any meaningful “exposure” for the groups involved. If it were a situation where I was bringing my equipment and performing a whole set or more, I most likely wouldn’t do it for free.

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