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Musicians Must Get Paid!

This article is a follow up to 3 Reasons Why You Need To Stop Playing Gigs For Free, in which I talk about how our musical economy has been severely damaged by musicians playing gigs for no compensation, ultimately devaluing the profession.

I read this ad on Craigslist recently:

Seeking jazz and folk musicians for our bar in Brooklyn. Musicians with a decent following only! Must be able to bring at least 10-20 people to your show to be considered. You will get a % of the bar profits made during your two sets and free drinks. If interested, please send samples of your music and how many people you can bring to your show.

Initially after I read this I was fueled with anger, eventually settling into a lull of depression. Here was yet another greedy bar owner who wants to pay insultingly low amounts of money for live music; who thinks a musicians’ talent is not enough and should be the promoter as well; who is naive enough to believe that someone with an actual “following” would play at his/her bar.  I mean, if I had a “decent following” like Pat Metheny or Bob Dylan, I definitely would not be playing at your bar! No, this is not my only gig this week, month, or year, and I don’t have the time or energy to beg all of my friends to come out to your bar. And do you really think free drinks are going to pay my bills?

However, when I get caught thinking these thoughts I have to stop myself.  The author of this ad is truly naive, but is that his fault? Is he/she really a greedy, take-advantage-of-others kind of a person? Maybe, maybe not. But at the end of the day whose fault is it really that restaurant, bar and club owners even think they can get away with this? Answer= Musicians.

Yes my fellow musicians, we are the problem! For far too long musicians have played gigs for free or for insultingly low amounts of money. We have conditioned the powers that be to believe they don’t need to pay much, if anything at all for live music. As a result, the going is tough for those who perform live as part of their living. The live music economy is in shambles, but the first to blame is not the establishments but our own kind. After all, these venues are looking out for their business. It’s not easy! I have friends in the restaurant/bar industry. But why is it that musicians aren’t looking out for their own business?

Let’s start a revolution.

Ever since I wrote 3 Reasons Why You Should Stop Playing Gigs For Free, I have received email after email from musicians telling me that they agree and they want to take a stand.  Musicians all over the world are starting to say: You know what? I do deserve better! I’ve worked hard to become the musician I am today.

Music is incredibly valuable to society. In order to make a change you have to start by believing that. We shouldn’t be cutting funding for music programs and the arts in our schools. We should be building them up! Yes technology and medicine are important and those who enter those professions should be rewarded, but what about art? Art is what drives culture forward. Art brings happiness and enlightenment into the dark corners of the world. Art moves and inspires us. A world without art is not a world worth living in at all! Shouldn’t we reward those who pursue art instead of making it impossible for them to continue to create it?

We all need to start believing that our talents are worth more. Music is worth more! If other people start believing that it’s worth more, they will value it more, they will respect it more, and they will pay more.

We need to demand a minimum.

It’s one thing to say that we want to change the musical economy and start getting paid fairly, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually do something about it. If we don’t take action, there will be no change!

I believe a good place to start is to set some rules or guidelines for our musical community. These may not be what we want our final destination to be, but they are a good step in the right direction; an improvement to the current state of things:

  • NEVER play gigs for free. There are no exceptions, unless of course it’s a charity event. This is the most important one to abide by.
  • Make $50 per musician the absolute minimum payment for a gig. For those reading this outside of the U.S, adjust the minimum to be an equivalent in your currency. I know I will get some emails in my inbox and some kick-back on this one! Some of you will say this is absolutely not enough and the minimum should be set higher. I know this may not be where some of you would like to see it, but realize that if everyone is adhering to this rule we will already have changed the playing field dramatically.  This is a good starting point, and by all means charge more! Keep in mind that for private events, parties, and non-casual gigs you should always make more than the minimum. But please, for casual gigs at restaurants, bars and clubs, don’t go below $50!

If musicians unite and stand together we can create change.

All of you know that just by setting these minimums for our community changes nothing. I know many of you are thinking: I’m with you, but not enough musicians will do this to make a difference. Quite honestly, I would have to agree with you. We need everyone to get involved. We need to get the word out to everyone that we are going to start respecting live music from now on. Without a large movement of like-minded musicians all being on the same page, things will continue to be business as usual.

Yes, there will be those who ignore the call. Though I would urge them to consider some of the things I have written in this article, hobbyists will continue to play for free. Though I would urge them to consider how they are damaging their careers, music students will continue to play any gig they can get their hands on. But if we can start a revolution by getting the word out to stop playing gigs for free and never accept a gig for less than $50 per musician, we can start to see a real difference in our musical economy. If everyone starts saying no to gigs that damage the music profession and yes to gigs that help bring back value, something extraordinary is about to happen!

What do you think? Leave your comments below.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. My drummer agrees! As a songwriter/guitarist (who mostly performs original music and has been gigging for years)- my fear is if I demand payment (apart from my "draw") I'll be playing mostly in my room. If people come to see me -i get paid-if not…
    If I built chairs and nobody bought them…
    Music is an invaluable blessing to myself, providing it is a blessing as well, recompense is deserved but alas the best things in life are free.
    Philosophy aside I absolutely agree with u- music and art in general should be valued and rewarded by the society it enriches


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