Music is Business, Seriously.

Wednesday April 6, 2016

This is a topic frequently discussed in the music community, particularly when addressing students burgeoning into the world of music. What we do as musicians is a legitimate profession, and we must be paid FAIRLY for our services.  This is a hard sell when there are many amateur start-ups willing to play a club for drinks, $40, or even worse…free. The inspiration for this one came from a tremendous comedy of errors wherein a well-respected musician and professor was asked to provide a student for a four hour recording session for $50 and food, and then the very next day was asked to perform Handel’s Messiah for free. All you can do is laugh, some folks are without a clue.

What’s that quote…”If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Well, I agree with this — to an extent. There are instances where I have given free masterclasses or clinics to aid in recruiting private students. There are other instances where people have donated their time out of the goodness of their hearts to help a colleague, educate underprivileged youth, or to raise funds for a great cause. My hat is off to those of you who do this without hesitation.

Without further ado, it’s real talk time:

Setting the Expectation:

Students have it bad…really bad. First voyages into the professional realm can be terrifying, exhilarating, and great teachers of life lessons. Being a green horn comes with its own set of challenges, particularly when commanding pay for your services. As tempting as it seems, playing “for exposure” is most certainly a terrible idea 99.99% of the time. Businesses and individuals alike love to use this phrase to coerce people who are desperate to start performing professionally. After all, “exposure” can have some nice implications to it. It implies that they are getting you out there in the public eye, doing you a FAVOR by providing a venue to do this. The expectation being that you’ll gain paid work from it. It’s simple, you just have to say no. Try paying your bills, eating, or filling your gas tank up with exposure…I’ll wait.

When faced with requests like this, the best thing to do is craft a carefully worded professional response. Give them a clue, they need one. The knee-jerk reaction is to blurt out “Well, do you let people eat at your establishment for free? Didn’t think so.” Although this can be deeply satisfying, it is your reputation you are building in the public eye, it’s best to do it right from the start. You can ask the same questions in a nicer way that don’t seem combative. We spend thousands of hours in the practice room, and the return on investment needs to be seen. To remain unrelentingly positive in the face of such requests is tough, but it’s important to always put your best foot forward. There are some folks with whom you cannot reason, and that is perfectly fine. Receiving pay for your art is not only a sign of respect, but it sets standard for what will be your entire career.

Respecting the Profession

Beyond not being able to pay your bills when you perform for free, you are devaluing the profession. When setting the expectation of pay, you’re removing the veil of a “young and inexperienced musician,” and building the face of a professional. When you set the expectation of pay, you set the expectation of mutual respect. This respect goes beyond you and the venue, it also extends to the musicians who have most likely already told these people no.

It’s easy to reason with yourself, “Well, if they said no I’m not hurting them, it’s my choice to play for free.” While this type of thought process is an easy route, think of the larger implications. By playing for free, you have implanted the idea for businesses that it’s OK to have musicians for free, particularly large businesses. It’s a big boys club, and they’re all talking, and we’re not in it. Frankly, I’m okay with that, but I personally won’t be taken advantage of. By placing a value on your art, you’re also placing value on the art of others, and we thank you kindly. Our profession is not your typical “9 to 5,” and we’re face with crippling self doubt, absurd working hours, and yet some how we love what we do. We have to put as much thought and care into building a career as we do when building a musical phrase, and this starts with being a good business man/woman. Beyond respecting the profession, it’s most important to respect yourself.

Closing Thoughts

When you being to perform for pay, you enter the circuit of those who respect the art enough to pay what its worth. These are the people with whom you want to surround yourself. Just as the those who want you to play for free are all talking among themselves, so to are those who are willing to pay what it is worth.  Believe it or not, performing for pay will provide you with far more exposure than free ever will.  The quality of professional performance draws in a greater crowd, and puts you in the sights of those who demand quality and respect what you are doing. Being involved with musicians who have established careers will lead you down the path of more paid performance if you are doing things the right way. The temptation is strong when starting out, but stick to your guns, and if you are working hard, smart, and setting the right expectations you will go far.

As always, happy trumpeting!