An Open Letter to Music-Presenters

My January column for the San Diego Troubadour.


Dear Music Presenter:

Many of you–clubs, concert venues, private party-contractors–compensate us very nicely for the services we provide, and we spend much of our time feeling fortunate and valued. We are grateful to you.

However, as every working musician will tell you, there is no shortage of restaurants or bars or street fairs or private gatherings or public performance venues that seem to view us as necessary evils for whom compensation is optional or extraneous. Their offers fall more in the “be grateful we are offering you the chance to play” category.

These are the folks I’d like to talk to today.

First, the underpaid elephant in the room:

Yes, we love what we do. But you still have to pay us.

We understand the impulse: You have a need to fill, you are tasked with saving yourself/your client/your business money. You think, “We need music. I bet there are lots of people out there who would love the chance to play, so we don’t have to pay (or pay sufficiently) for this. Win-win!”


Your doctor loves what she does. Your chef loves what they do. Yet you do not connive to have them provide their services for free or take the first person willing to work for a plate of popcorn shrimp. You pay a professional-level wage in return for the assurance of professional-level service–because you need them, and you need to feel confident in the job they do.

You need us, too–or else you wouldn’t be looking for us. You have clearly decided our services add value to your business or event, and you are further aware that one way or another, we reflect on you.

Now, remember: instruments make noise and the people who play them have amplifiers and microphones. Are you really willing to hinge your entire event or business identity on someone whose only qualification was “available and willing”? In fact, the precise difference between a professional and a non-professional is the confidence you can have that the person you are hiring, who you don’t know, will be up to the task.

Sure, we are independent contractors, so it’s a slightly different situation than the chef. But too many people skip the second half of that clause. You are contracting us for a service. That means you have both a moral and professional obligation to pay us like any/every other person whose services you use. Once you have asked someone to be at your business or event at a certain time and to provide a certain service for you, you have entered into a professional engagement. 

And even then, it’s not enough just to toss a couple of bucks at us and call it a win. Some of you (looking at you, bar owners) haven’t raised your pay for musicians since the 1980’s. That is 40 years ago. The 100/man bar-gig minimum from the 1980s should be $250/man today. And yet I see y’all sticking to that number like it’s the FreshenUp gum under your tables. Even the wage of the person who cleans your bathrooms has gone up in that time span. Why are you still using the pay scale from the era of the Reagan Administration for us? 

I know it’s tough to hear, but not paying sufficiently is stealing; if you keep for yourself money that should have gone to others for a service rendered, you have stolen from those people. This is not the approach any business or event should favor. If you recognize the value of live music for your endeavor, then you should not just be prepared but want to pay accordingly.

It’s time to step up on this one, folks. 

Meals and drinks are a courtesy, not pay.

It’s nice of you to offer us food or drinks, and most of us would agree that you have no obligation to supply us with alcohol. However, remember: feeding the people who work for you is a courtesy. It is not a replacement for professional pay. Would you try to give your obstetrician nachos instead of money? Would you ask to pay your plumber in pasta? You might offer those to both, but you would not insult them by pretending it is a take-it-or-leave-it substitute for cash.

Remember, the only reason we are there is because you hired us to be. It is nice to offer food if you have it. But it is not ethical to say, “You will eat this meal you didn’t ask for or you will not otherwise be paid.” Can you imagine what would happen to your business if people started determining their own terms for how they will compensate you for your product? “Here, I am paying with this dream catcher my niece made, it’s that or nothing, don’t be ungrateful.” Chaos.

Plus, remember too: we were sitting in a place with food in it before we came to play for youInstead of leaving us to eat the food we already have at home, in the place we already were, you requested that we load our equipment into a car, drive it to your location, unload it, set it up, exercise our profession over several hours at time periods that you determined, then load the stuff back into the car and drive it home to unload. The food is not our pay for that, it’s an even swap for the food we already had and could have eaten at home. The pay is for the rest of what you asked us to do.

If you would like to show us the courtesy of feeding us, that is nice of you–truly. But it is solely an act of generosity. It is not a substitute for compensation. 

“Exposure” helps you, not us.

You would be surprised (or maybe not) at how many people feel they are doing us a favor by offering “exposure.” Let’s be clear: exposure helps you, not us. By having all those people walk by or see a band of live musicians, you are making a statement about your business or event. You are lifting it to a higher level and telling people something about yourselves, with us as the means. Simply put, you are using us. That is fine, it’s our job. But it doesn’t help us, it helps you. Paying us is what helps us.

If anything, it tells whoever might want to hire us that we can had for cheap or free. That is not the kind of exposure any professional needs. 

Now, to be sure: there are gigs a musician might take because of “exposure.” But there is an easy way to know if yours is one of those gigs: if it is, you will not have to say so. We will know. It will be at the private home of a record producer or at a gathering of festival bookers or party planners, or it will be a chance to play with Someone Great, or it will be a high-profile show on the stage of a legendary venue. At any rate, we will know by the nature of the job any potential ROI of giving our product away for free that time. That is for us to decide, and it will never need to be said, because it will be inherent in the opportunity. 

Also, for what it’s worth: those opportunities tend generally to be the ones who most value the work we do, so they tend to pay us accordingly. “Exposure” in those cases is usually a bonus, the courtesy meal of the professional world. If you are offering “exposure” as pay, you are almost certainly not offering either.

We should not be your business or event’s marketing department

Look, we get it. Whenever you hire an independent contractor of any kind, you want to know how their service will benefit you. So you (mostly bar owners in this scenario) want us to “draw” (i.e., bring people to the venue), because you benefit from that. And we want that too! But real talk for a second: we are not qualified to accurately market your business, and you should not want us to. You hired us as musicians, and that’s what we are best at being. Sure, we want people there too and will work to bring folks in. But don’t leave your business’s most important function–communicating with the public–to people you hired to play Pearl Jam covers for the night.

You, owner or manager or representative, are the world’s foremost expert on your own establishment. You make decisions about its success and brand and what is necessary for both. At some point you decided that it would benefit from presenting live music, so you hired professional musicians to provide that service. Excellent decision…but also, loop closed. You decided you needed professional musicians, and you got them. That part’s done.

You don’t want us also being your entire out-of-house marketing department. Would you ask your dentist also to come get you and drive you to a bunch of errands on the way to her office? You want them doing the thing you hired them for. Yes, we both benefit from a large crowd. But too many restaurants and bars and clubs have decided to outsource their entire marketing plan for the night to the three guys in the ska band they hired. Nothing about getting good at playing Mighty Mighty Bosstones songs on the bass, qualifies someone to professionally and accurately advertise your business. 

We’ll do our part, of course. Always! We want you to be happy you hired us. We’ll make sure that people who know us know we’re there, and that whoever is there, is glad they came. We want that, too. But you shouldn’t want us to do your part too, any more than we want you to play harmonica with us. (Which we sort of do, but not for the right reasons!)

We know: lots of people play music. But that’s precisely why you need professionals.

Music is a unique endeavor. It imprints on those who play it in ways few of our other human endeavors to. If I ask you if you’re an athlete, you are unlikely to mention that you played rec-league soccer for a year in grade school, except as a joke to point out that no, you are not. If I ask you if you are a musician, though, you are actually pretty likely to report on having played trombone in 5th-grade band. Some part of you still associates as a person who plays music. 

There are many, many people who get pleasure from playing music as adults, but do not work as professional musicians. This can represent a range of abilities from completely unskilled to highly adept.

And there are professionals. I’ve often felt we need a different name for the thing that “everyone” does, and the thing we do as professionals. The practice can look the same. But the ones you are picturing, when you imagine musicians at your event, are professionals. 

We know that you, music-presenter, know 50 people in your life who would be thrilled to play at your event or venue. Of course they would! I would be thrilled to play in a major-league baseball game–or even a minor-league one. But just having played shortstop, does not mean I would serve a team well by showing up to play for them.

So it is with music. 

With professionals, you can trust that we will show up on time, dressed for the event, with the proper equipment for the job. You can count on us constantly reading the room/venue, adjusting sound levels and repertoire, and monitoring to ensure we are representing you and your venue/event well. You can rest easy that we will be flexible enough to calibrate for unknowns, and more to the point, if someone does hire us because they saw us there, we can adjust to and play their event as well. Imagine how it reflects on you if they hire the musicians they saw at your event, and those musicians ruin theirs!

Just because our profession has been plagued by underbidding and underpaying, doesn’t mean you don’t still get extra value from using professionals. The ripple effect of treating all the people you contract, for jobs big and small, at a rate that respects and acknowledges their time and talent, will serve your business or event far better in the long run, than the few bucks you save by trying to pay your cousin in kettle corn.

Now get your harmonica ready, this one’s in F# and the bridge is in 5. Go!

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