On Ukulele Performing, Gigs and the dreaded Dirty Money

5 Dec 2013

On Ukulele Performing, Gigs and the dreaded Dirty Money

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 my band 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.

Have fun!

AND! Be sure to check out my other ukulele RANTS - where I explode the many myths and bad advice that surrounds the instrument - CLICK this link! http://www.gotaukulele.com/search/label/rants


  1. Something I've had to explain to people many times before that expect me to play for free is that there are only so many nights in the week (and to be honest, most gigs are later in the week/ weekend)- if I play for free for someone, not only am I not earning, I'm also giving up the opportunity to be playing and earning somewhere else.

    I was even asked to play on a major TV show for free (not a music show- I'd consider that if it got me in front of a huge audience which would in turn possibly lead to more paid work). No, I would have been expected to dress up in a costume they would supply and play the music they wanted. In every sense it was a professional engagement, except the only 'pay' was my name in the credits. For this I would have to make a 400 mile round trip and arrange my own accommodation. Not surprisingly I told them that they should not be asking professional musicians to do this, and that a show of that size and popularity should at least be able to offer to pay the performers the going rate. Apparently it was an amazing opportunity I should have been glad of...

  2. I absolutely agree with every word of this. Musicians who do favours and freebies are leaving themselves wide open for not being taken seriously and make it difficult for professionals to earn an honest living.

  3. I reconcile the whole 'playing for the love of it' vs. 'money' argument this way. The music is free, however I require paying to pack up my gear, fill up my car with petrol, drive to the venue, set up, soundcheck, sit around for several hours, pack up at the end, load the car, drive home and unpack at the other end. After all, I regularly play for say an hour and a half but spend 8 hours+ on the other stuff!

  4. Well said Phil! Thanks mate! The costume proposal intrigues me!

  5. At the moment, I play Uke for fun and still class myself as a beginner. As I improve I would certainly expect a minimum of expences if playing a 'booked' gig, this increasing as I improved and therefore hopefully brought more people into the venue.
    By profession I am a freelance photographer and over the last few years I have lost all my jobs for the local press due to new or hobby photographers offering their services for free. The attitude seems to be digital photography is free, so why pay for it? Ignoring the years of experience, hours spent processing etc images and of course thousands of pounds in pro spec equipment. The same arguments could relate, to a certain extent, to music. It is only when EVERYONE makes a stand that things will improve.

  6. unfortunately, that's life , I run a carpentry and joinery business and anyone and everyone will embark on DIY improvements around their home on friends and families houses too , then I have to deal with people with no trade background setting up as handyman services etc , they book me cos I'm a professional and good at my job .And here's a thought, would people rather see an amateur outfit for nothing at the pub or pay too see the uke orchestra of great Britain? I would suggest that 9 times out of 10 the latter . So my point being if you are playing for a living then you should be playing at a good enough standard that booking paid gigs shouldn't really be a problem. I also play the uke but alas I'm not the best , however I don't mind going to my local and playing for free from time to time , for me its a fantastic night out we all have a good singalong and a few drinks and being as how I know what a struggle it is for most pubs to turn a profit these days I'm only too happy to do so . Maybe we shouldn't worry too much about what other people are doing and concentrate on our own thing

  7. I agree with much of that. Certainly when I made the point in the article that if you can't get paid, then you perhaps were not good enough to get paid, I was aware it may offend.

    But the other side of that is - I have spoken with a few well established and extremely tight acts on our local circuit and they have a genuine concern about free performers devaluing the business. They are increasingly facing venues trimming fees or expecting free gigs because ' the band we had last week did it for nothing'. Easy to say pick another venue, but as we all know we have lost so many in the last few years and it is hard in the pub and club trade.

    Thankfully there are still good venues out there who recognise the value in getting good music and pay fairly for it, but there are far fewer than there used to be

  8. Non-expiring Beer tokens!

  9. I fully understand. It's the same with many things. I get it with photography. "If we publish your pictures, it gives you exposure" (pun intended). "A digital picture costs nothing".

    So, what about the equipment, computers, Terabytes of file storage I have, with backups on RAID, travelling, printing, not to mention the time I have spent developing a skill?

    Of course, it's all free. Yeah right.

    When I sell a print for £20, it's entirely justified.

  10. If it makes you feel any better, I attended the Christmas 'spectacular' in question as a guest, with free access to all the chargeable areas, including food and drink: And yet I was still close to complaining about the food; the (lack of the promised) live music; the pathetic 3D 'cinema'; the broken snow-globe experience (with a man holding the roof up with a length of timber)...

    You did well not to be associated with a cynical commercial mockery of Christmas, and I was glad to get home and practice Christmas Dream on my uke - singing in mock-German makes playing uke seem terribly easy.

  11. I am looking at getting into gigging (or at least performing) in the coming future. Previously I have only really had public performances in community bands (playing the trombone, not the ukulele). I understand that performing for free is bad for other musicians and is undesirable. I want to get myself out there though, and I'm just a bit unsure about approaching venues and asking if they'll have me play and pay me for it. Would you say there is a price too low to be asking? Would it be unacceptable to do a couple of unpaid gigs to start out with?
    I'm just unsure what to do about it all.

  12. Don't think there is one size fits all, and the article isn't intended to instruct people what to do - but you need to play it by ear. I've nothing against a 'loss leader' to get on the ladder - not a bad idea. As a minimum - work out your costs to get there, be there etc and come up with a price.

  13. Totally agree! We get many enquiries in a similar vein: the genuine charities are often most generous & offer cash when we don't expect it from them, as they appreciate the time & expenses incurred.

    We're often approached about a week or so before - sometimes major (usually annual) - events & they seem surprised we aren't able to drop everything & play at short notice. Again, always for free. I'm sure everything else was probably booked well in advance but musicians clearly don't warrant similar consideration.

    People planning weddings seem most unwilling to actually pay much for the performers (though I'm sure they had ample budget for the rest of the function); TV companies definitely have the money but make every excuse to beat expenses down, whilst messing you about greatly, thinking that 'appearing' is worth al the time & aggravation.

    If we've been unable to offer our services, folk ask you to provide alternative options. After giving info on any likely suitable local acts & links of all the usual handy websites containing uke groups etc they rarely acknowledge & thank you for your trouble. So you never find out if any of your suggestions worked out / if you managed to get someone else a paid gig (aside for the obvious lack of courtesy).

  14. I do understand this article and where you're coming from, but I don't charge very often. That's because, like you said in the article, that's the worth I'm giving to my skills. I don't want to charge until I consider my playing worth the 20-30 dollars I could be earning. When I consider my playing and performance worth the fee, I'll charge. Until then, I'm free.

  15. My ukulele band plays for money, we will not play for free, unless it is an event for a charity, or a fund raiser for a library or a museum or such as that. Sometimes even they will give us money. Today we played for a memorial service in a church, intending to play for free, and they gave us the take from a tip jar. They insisted. So we sheepishly took it and had lunch.
    I know a man who takes his small ukulele group around to play for money, and he pays them each $10 for the gig, no matter what it pays, and keeps the rest. I think this is a rip off, and I told two of his band members I'd quit. I think they did.
    A few months ago a group of elderly ladies told me they play for other groups of elderly people and won't take any money. They don't think they're good enough to charge. I told them to at least ask for a donation, because if they're good enough to play, they're good enough to have money for it, plus, they could be hurting us, who depend on that money. They said it gave them something to think about.

  16. I will be perfectly honest here and say that I’ve run pubs for the last 35 years in 3 different counties and not once expected any band or individual to perform for free or even just expenses.
    And, I’ve never come across even hearing this before.
    I have on the odd occasion seen bands perform for a lesser fee than normal because of a charity fundraising night that they want to be part of and who volunteered themselves rather than being asked.
    I would never have the front or cheek to ask anyone to perform for free or expenses only. I know it must happen or you wouldn’t of mentioned it Barry, but It’s something I’ve never encountered, and would advise strongly to anyone who is a performer NEVER do any gigs for free unless you 100% want to.
    Dave Whitcombe.


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