The issue of playing for free or even in some cases paying to play has raged for many years and is a complex one. Times are hard, venues are struggling and paying a band is often not a viable option. I can understand the venue wanting to test the water perhaps, by having a reduced rate to begin with to see how the punters take to a music night. I do think that musicians should be appropriately compensated for their time just like anyone else, the risk of suggesting that if they really wanted to play then they would do it for nothing does negatively impact the market and makes it unlikely that the venue will pay any bands in the future. If a venue cannot take enough money over the bar to make it viable to put on a band then perhaps they should stick with a solo singer and an MP3 player.
So, should we expect to be paid? I think if you are a professional outfit (by that I mean one that provides a professional service) then you should be paid appropriately. If you are a few mates who just pitch up and jam then I can see how that might be done for free (I say might because a jazz/blues outfit probably jams most of the night away but is no less professional or worthy of payment) , but other than that then your services should be paid for.
We have not played out as a purely originals band and it appears to be very tough to find paying gigs for originals and these are often the events that are likely to include a pay to play element. If we were trying to break into the big time then perhaps we would have to go down that route but I think that in all cases someone is making some money and that should be shared appropriately amongst all parties, which includes the bands.
One area that does stick in my throat slightly is the charity events. Now don’t get me wrong, I support charity fundraising and putting on a music evening is a great way to get people together and raise some cash but it seems that the performers are the only ones that are pressured into providing their services for free. I do feel that many venues take advantage of the bands when they create an event under the guise of a charity fundraiser and then the only people not getting paid is the entertainment. In most cases the venue takes a considerable up-lift at this sort event and could afford to pay the bands, even if all they do is cover expenses and ensure the bands are fed and watered. In my experience this very rarely happens. I think it is always overlooked that bands are effectively donating hundreds of pounds to the charity by not charging a fee, without doubt the largest donations that will be made at the event. I think a fairer option would be to spread the usual performance fee between the performers and then leave it to each individual to donate back what they see fit. That being said we do support a few charity events during the year where there is no payment. These are either for charities very close to our hearts or venues that we have had paid gigs at during the year and we see it as returning something to the venue for their support.
I do hear the argument occasionally saying that if you don’t like it then don’t play and let someone who is happy to play for free get the gig. As mentioned previously, this does negatively impact the market and undercuts the ability for musicians to be properly recompensed. Whilst this may not affect the majority of gigging bands there are those that are doing this as a full-time occupation.
Personally, we have not paid directly to play at an event (all events cost money due to travel etc so playing for free is actually a cost to us) and I don’t see a situation where we would pay to play. We are also reviewing where we play for free and whether an amicable arrangement needs to be reached with a venue beforehand, to ensure that a paid gig is offered in return for us supporting a charity event. I guess it comes down to each band deciding what is appropriate payment for their services but we need to be mindful of the precedent that might set.