Thursday, December 18, 2014

Don't Be Exploited! Learning the Lessons of Professional Music

When I was a young musician, still in high school in fact, one of my friends asked me to play a wedding gig with them. She told me that we'd only play for about an hour, and though the bride and groom didn't have much money, they'd give us "at least" twenty bucks apiece. That sounded good enough to my 16 year old self, so I took the gig. Except nothing went as planned. Because the ceremony was "delayed" several times, we ended up playing for nearly three hours. I wondered if the bride and groom would compensate us for all the extra time. Finally, the bride's father handed us an envelope. It had a single twenty dollar bill in it, which he expected we'd split between the four of us. I left the church shaking with anger, but with a hard-learned lesson. Never, ever play a gig unless you know exactly how much you'll be paid, and make sure you have a contract.

Since then, I've had countless brides promise that if I play their weddings for free, "they'll tell all their friends about what a wonderful musician I am!" Surely, no one would expect their caterer to serve free food in exchange for "publicity," yet somehow your wedding is so awesome that it's going to launch my musical career. I think not. Sadly though, some musicians get so desperate for work or an audience that they sell themselves short and end up exploited. So how can we avoid this kind of exploitation?

First, always have a contract! If I'm organizing a wedding, I have a standard contract, which requires an advanced deposit and makes it clear how long we will play. I've also learned to include policies on outdoor events (we must have shelter from rain and sun, and will not play if it's too cold), cancellations, and other contingencies. Every professional orchestra I've ever played with uses contracts, and most people are happy to write/sign one if they're legit. 

Second, never play for free unless it's for your immediate family. It's one thing to play violin for your mother's art show opening, it's another when your distant cousin invites you to her wedding, but only if you can bring your friends and play some string quartets. Likewise, I've seen many churches suggest that they only want to hire "good Christians" who are interested in making "music for God," and thus play for free. If a church can afford to pay a minister, rent a building, and has more than a hundred people in the congregation, they should pay their musicians as well. Don't let people guilt you into giving more of your hard-earned time, energy, and talent to their events for free.

Finally, if something sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Do your research about potential clients that promise the world but don't want to sign a contract or give you any hard guarantees (like a deposit). If a bar won't pay you, but promises you'll make great "tips," talk to other bands they've hired to make sure they're being honest. 

It's tough out there for free-lance musicians, but as tempting as it may sound, I've never known of a free gig turning into something more substantial. Act professionally, treat yourself like a professional,  and demand that clients treat you like a professional.  

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  1. Great post. This advice could really apply to any freelancer.

    You should always be compensated for your work.

    1. True. Artists, writers, there are too many people who get exploited for their time and talent.