I have had the bones of this blog post almost ready to go on the site for some time, but hadn't gotten around to posting it. I was also a little unsure as to how it would go down, but wanted to share some views on performing with the ukulele and the dreaded issue of the cold, dirty cash.. File this down in another of my 'rant' posts that tend to put the proverbial cat amongst the ukulele playing pigeons! (I fear these are becoming a regular feature!!)
What prompted me to write it however was that I had been speaking to some gig and festival promoters for The N'Ukes and came across the increasingly common response of 'oh no, we don't pay the bands'. I had a bit of a moan about this on Facebook, and what followed were hundreds of responses all supporting my point of view. Since then I see regular rants about the same subject (in fact one is running today where the same point of view is being agreed with). But do all ukulele players share that point of view? I am not so sure. And if there are so many people who agree that bands and performers shouldn't be ripped off, then why is it still happening?
So, back to the post...
If you are developing your uke skills and your club is looking at getting out there and performing, you are taking a step into a wider musical circuit in which ukulele players form only a small part. How should you approach that? I must say at the outset that you are all, of course, entirely free to approach such things exactly how you want to. It is not for me to tell you what to do. But, I hope reading this may give you some things to ponder.
So what is a gig? Pretty basic starting point but an important one as I see a lot of reports of bands playing gigs that are not really that at all. I personally think that a 'gig' is the step up you take beyond busking at events or in the local town. I am also not talking about club nights, jam nights and general get togethers - they are something else entirely. I would class a gig as being booked and billed in a pub, venue, function or event in your own right (or perhaps part of an event), but definitely something that was arranged by not just the band themselves. Something you promote, something you work up a set for, perhaps you take your gear and rig with you. Something where the venue see the 'value' in you being there and perhaps do their bit to promote you as well. I am seeing more and more uke players taking these steps now, and that has had me thinking on the issue of, 'should we charge'? Quite simply - yes you should.
As I said in the opening, it is becoming increasingly common that venues are expecting the artists at their events to perform for nothing, not even expenses. In my experience this tends to be backed up with comments such as 'we have no budget' or, 'no, this is a free festival or event'. Both upset me greatly. The reason is simple. What they actually mean is, 'we don't value the musicians in this, but of course we had to pay for the stage guy, and the promotion, and the security staff etc'. Even if an event is a no profit affair, I would wager that there are very few that have no people on their books being paid for their services in some way. With pubs and clubs it's a slightly different affair, but the same thing applies. A pub introduces extras such as entertainers to their venue to bring more people through the door and to make more money. It is simply business. So, they may hire a fruit machine or a pool table. They pay for that. They pay for them in the hope that they will keep people in the venue, spending more money. Why is booking a musician different?
For our band, the only times we will play for free is where the event is a genuine charity affair - and by that I mean it is a charity where everybody involved - crew, staff etc are giving their services for free as well. I mean, if the bar staff are getting paid, why shouldn't the entertainment? Sadly I have come across a few events we have initially considered where the excuse for no pay comes on the back of a very vague reference to charity. What it actually amounts to is that the bands are expected to donate their services to charity, but nobody else. Don't get me wrong, charity events can work, and we play them regularly. But don't insult me by saying that the musicians are the only ones in on the charity thing. Charity events can work in pubs too and we have played for nothing, but on the strict condition that our normal fee goes in the charity bucket. At our annual N'Ukefest we charge the venue a fee, and our fee goes into the charity bucket. I know lots of venues who are pleased to do this. Playing a charity gig in a pub passing around the buckets, but the venue not contributing is NOT the same thing. For those venues, they are merely getting more beer money over the bar at your expense. And don't tell me their contribution is the venue - they are delighted to have live music in - it means more punters and more sales. Think about that a bit more. If you play a charity event in a pub that normally has live music - if they put their normal band fee in the bucket then everyone is a winner (they would pay that to another non charity act anyway). If they don't, then they are getting a free band. Ask them - if they refuse, find another venue!
In one of the comments on my post on Facebook, one chap said that it should be about the love of music, not the money. That is admirable and if only life could be like that. What it should really be about is being 'fair', and not having the musicians being taken advantage of. Sure - if nobody got paid for anything at all, then fine, but that is ultra utopian! How about this - I know some chefs whose sole passion in life is cooking, but would we expect them to give their meals away for free? Of course not. Just like that, playing music comes with costs. Not just the physical - the cost of gear, strings, fuel to get to the venue, but also time and effort in preparing the set and delivering it. Would you expect a plumber to fix a burst pipe for nothing? No. The examples are, of course endless.
Another increasingly common response I am seeing from venues is, "you have to do the first gig for nothing, and if we like you we will book you again". On the face of it, that looks like an audition, but I am not so sure. Put it another way - try responding to that pub and tell them "I will be in your pub next Friday and I am going to sample your beers, perhaps have a bite to eat. I am not going to pay you though, but if I like what I try, then I may come back...."
And then there is the huge corporate event type affair - totally driven by money, and during the planning someone thinks it would be a good idea to have live music on, but the committee agree that 'bands don't need paying'. Sound crazy? Earlier this year we were 'booked' at a pretty large Christmas Extravaganza to play on a couple of days. The event was expecting a footfall of about 500,000 people, and every one of those people pay £5 to get in (do the maths). Beyond that, activities inside such as ice skating, santa etc were charged extra. They put up stages, hired security, bar staff, promotion, glitzy brochures, websites, and took sponsorship money from one of the leading High Street Department Stores. What part of that (huge) budget did they put towards musicians? Not a penny. News on this broke and they faced a backlash from musicians in the UK. They suddenly changed their position claiming that the musicians they had booked were just amateurs, schools and the like. Were that true (it wasn't - they went on a drive through various Facebook music groups looking for 'bands'), I am not entirely sure it makes one jot of difference. This was a high turnover, totally corporate event that simply did not assume that bands should even get their costs paid. Their response to me was that it was their 'policy'. Laughable. We pulled out, though sadly I am aware of a ukulele outfit who are agreeing to play it on those terms...
So why am I having this rant? Well it goes back to the reason I posted on Facebook. It is becoming increasingly common that venues are expecting performances for free. Perhaps it started with Open Mics (something I am kind of in two minds about, but will save that for another post), but I think it is also fuelled by performers who are willing to play for free. Think about it. If you play venue X for nothing, those venues DO talk to each other and when you approach venue Y, they may well think you are free as a matter of course. This then builds and builds. In our locality there are three fairly sizeable music festivals. In one (the one we play at) every band is paid by the individual venues. It isn't a lot of money but it does cover the costs. At another festival the bands are based in very similar pubs, but because they bill it as a 'free festival', the bands don't get paid. Therefore the venues, which are packed with revellers are getting free promotion. At the third (and this one really irritates me), they put up stages in a village (stage crew get paid) they provide PA (engineers get paid), they have traders and stallholders (who pay the event). The bands on the other hand get nothing. Not a penny. Quite ridiculous I am sure you will agree. The festival we agree to pay at proves it can work.
And why does that matter - 'who cares?' you may think. If I want to play for free, I will do so - not up to you Barry.... Well, sure, but I'd suggest you bear in mind other performers. As I said above, performing in local venues puts you on the circuit with other bands. Some of those bands perform for a living. I mean it - that is their JOB. Gig money pays their bills and puts food on their table. If you support going in to venues and playing for nothing, that venue may start to realise that, 'hey - this is good! Free entertainment!!". And then that spreads. For the band that gig for a living, opportunities for them to make a dollar and keep gigging get squeezed out. It's actually happening, and if you are playing for nothing in a pub then I am sorry, but you are part of the problem no matter how you dress it up.
I could get a bit more deep and meaningful too. I could point out that playing for nothing means you are placing zero worth on your skills and talent. That you are worthless. Is that how you feel about yourself? Perhaps you don't think you are ready for a booked live performance - that is fine - but don't go and take a slot that a band that relies on payment could fill by playing for nothing. (In some of the responses I have seen online on this subject, many people point out that if you are in a band that are continually playing venues for nothing, then you probably shouldn't be playing live in the first place..). And if you don't think you will get the money or are 'worth' the money, then, well... that is kind of the same point.
In that regard, one comment I have had back on this subject represents an understandable concern many new bands or performers have. 'If I give them a price, they won't book me... I need to start somewhere'. Maybe, maybe not, but I know many venues that DO pay, and WILL give new bands a chance. If you are good you will get more bookings and get paid again. If you are not you won't. If you are in a band and cannot get a gig that pays you then as I said above, I would respectfully argue that you are probably not very good. That may sound blunt, but I can't see it any other way. Getting that first gig can be tough and that is where a website, Facebook page and sound recordings / videos will help you. All of that said, I am not against a loss leader if you are desperately looking to get that first gig. Reason with the venue if they reject your price. Offer perhaps a cut rate, or to get drinks and expenses. Then after performing go straight back (assuming it went well!) and ask for another booking but at the original rate you first asked for. If they like you I am sure you will get it. And remember if you step on the ladder and perform well, you will then get the very best form of promotion there is. Word of mouth.
But hang on Barry - you are sounding a little obsessed with all this - very Capitalist of you .... is it all about the money?? Well that is unfair. In our band, we are never going to be rich doing this as there are 7 of us. In fact we do well to break even. But if we take our full set to a venue, it will involve hiring a van or taking three cars (and the fuel). We carry gear worth a few thousand quid, and we give our time. Those are actual costs. If we do make a profit, it gets ploughed back in to the band for improved gear. I see nothing wrong with that, and everything wrong with a venue who expects all that cost to be taken on the chin by the performer.
So yes, this all concerns me. I know a lot of clubs who are performing for nothing. That coupled with the common misconception of the ukulele as something of a novelty is only adding to the struggle for it to be taken more seriously. If you think about it, it makes sense - 'oh yeah we had this band in, playing these little toy guitars... good fun, and they are free too of course...Just a bit of fun... You should book them at your place! (free of course). That perception IS out there. I have had it thrown back at me when trying to get a gig booked.
So. Please don't devalue yourselves and exacerbate the problem. The point of this post isn't to criticise, but to make you think about what is fair. If you are playing your 30th gig for no recompense then that is surely nowhere near as impressive as being on your third that you are being booked and paid for in my view. In those cases the venue wants you and values you and that means something. And no, this isn't about holding venues to ransom, or money grabbing whilst forgetting the fun of playing the music. It's just about not being taken for a ride.
(And if you would like a little more bile with your coffee, have a read of some of the other 'rants' HERE ) ;-)