Getting Paid as a Gigging Musician
Getting paid as a gigging musician, and getting paid what your worth is an exercise in asking for a fee and knowing your market. Relationships are key here (more on this later). A great way to survey your market is to know what other bands and musicians are getting paid. One of the easiest ways to know what bands are getting paid at a particular venue is to simply ask other bands what they’re getting paid. The ability to do this assumes that you’re well networked with your peers, the other bands that play the venues that you’d like to play. In my particular area, there’s an incestuous co-mingling of members among various bands. For example. I play in two different bands with a guitarist/singer friend. Two other members of the same band, play in a completely different band together. In addition, many of us, myself included, are frequently invited to substitute for someone in other bands. The means that some of us are well connected. This will be a recurring theme throughout this book, but I work with multiple bands and artists in the course of a given year. When it comes to finding out what venues are paying, it’s easy to know where you stand by talking to other bands. You may find that some bands are being paid more than one of your bands, while others are being paid less. If you’re not sure what you should be paid, give yourself a reality check by comparing your band to others. Your band may be a better group of musicians, but by virtue of your song selection or presentation, a band of lesser musicianship can easily command a considerably higher fee. A band with the right song selection can consistently draw a great crowd wherever they play. Pay is directly correlated to draw (and sometimes food & beverage sales), so don’t fool yourself into thinking your band is worth more just because your better musicians.
To get gigs month after month, you’re almost certainly going to depend on repeat bookings. The means charging a fair price. You may do a great job selling your band for a fee that matches that of another band that draws far better than yours; however, if you charge more than you deliver, you’re not likely to get repeat bookings. By deliver, I mean you either brought a crowd, or you held the venues built-in foot traffic crowd for most if not all of your performance time. The success of any gig is measured by draw and retention. If you’re playing a bar or restaurant, it’s also measured by sales of food and beverage. This is an important point. A good draw with audience retention plus a fair price (your fee) equals repeat bookings. Your band may play some or most of it’s gigs for tips. Guess what? Draw and retention matter even more. I’m going to focus on guaranteed fee gigs versus playing for tips, because the market that I’m in enables me to play for a guaranteed fee (plus tips). Your market may be different, but most of the principles and tactics I’ll discuss still apply. I would argue that in any market, if your band is capable of drawing a sizable audience, venues will pay a guarantee to book you. The better the draw, the more the venue profits. While your mission may be to expose as many people as possible to the awesomeness of your band, the venues you’ll play have a different core mission–to make money. By nature, your relationship with venues should be symbiotic,which is a good thing. They want your band, and your band wants them. Treat venues with mutual respect and appreciation, but by all means, set the expectation that they should do the same for you and your band. As a general rule, I don’t perform at venues that aren’t nice to me and my fellow bandmates. That may sound a little odd or egotistical, but we’re musicians, artists and entertainers. We by and large bring happiness to people’s ears and souls. In many cases, we help spark romantic relationships. I met my wife of 21 years at a live music venue. For all of this, you deserve to be treated with kindness and appreciation. Remember that you are part of the symbiotic relationship. Your music helps venues thrive.
What You’re Worth
What you’re worth in a debut performance at a venue is quite possibly less than what you’ll be worth in six to twelve months at the same venue. For example, two of my bands were hired to perform a venue for the first time this year. The venue’s budget was $300. This particular venue has a music season (Summer), and I have two more performances booked there this season. Both bands have done quite well so far, and I expect more of the same in the upcoming shows. I’ll most likely request a higher fee next year, and I’ll very likely get it. That’s the way almost all of my bookings have played out over the past three years. If by chance the venue pushes back on the fee increase, I’ll negotiate; and I’ll probably win. I’m not the best negotiator. I’m okay, but one thing I know how to do is to ask for money with confidence, and then keep my mouth shut. What I never say is, “We typically ask for $500, but we can work with you.” A statement like that opens the door to negotiation, and guess who’s in the driver’s seat. Not me! What I do say is something like, “We’re asking for $500 this season.” Then I wait for a response. There’s an old saying in sales negotiation, that says something like, after asking for the sale, or in this case, a fee increase, the next person to speak loses. This means all I have to do is ask and then keep my mouth shut. All I have to do is ask for the money and keep my mouth shut. All I have to do is ask, and shut up. Get it? I know you get it, but it was worth emphasizing.
Negotiating a higher fee can be tricky and for some it can be outright uncomfortable. So here’s a scenario to consider. You’ve been offered a gig and return engagement, maybe not the second booking, but perhaps the third or fourth. The venue is offering say $300, but you’re thinking it’s appropriate to ask for $400 or maybe even $500. Be careful and make sure you’re ready to deliver, and/or your band has already proven it’s worth more than $300. You, with a tone of gratitude, tell your booking contact, “We’re asking for $500.” Again, put it out there and then shut up. Remember, the next person to speak loses. The venue comes back with We can only go up to $400. You might want to take this offer, or you can counter in increments of $25 or $50. In this case, I’d likely choose the increment of $50 by saying, “How about $450?” Again, keep your mouth shut. If this is all happening by email or text, don’t add anything. Step away from the keyboard or smartphone. You may get your $450. If not, you still won at $400. It’s pretty simple really, but you need two things going in your favor, in order to pull this off. Your band needs to have a great track record with the venue, and your venue contact needs to genuinely like you. These days, people are getting smarter about working only with people they like or otherwise respect. Don’t be an ass. Gratitude is the name of the game. You should be grateful for the offer. Do so, and the venue will reciprocate with gratitude for a job well done.
The timing of asking for a raise comes into play when you are being asked to do a return engagement. You can know if the time is right by finding out what other bands and artists are charging at the same venue. While not all bands are created equal, you should be able to get a good idea of what your band is worth. Be careful, and keep your ego in check! Your ego might tell you your band is worth more than it really is, or conversely you may be inclined to undersell yourself and your bandmates. Some venues are going to be very set in what they pay. There may be little to no flexibility, due to budget constraints of the venue. Know your venues, by maintaining regular communication with your contact(s). Venue contacts are generally forthcoming with budget constraints. Remember to also stay in tune with what other bands are experiencing with the same venues. Are they being paid more, and if so, where does that leave you and your band. Depends. You’ve got to compare apples and apples, as the saying goes. Seasonal bookings are ideal for seeking a raise. If you’re being invited back for a second or third season of some annual festival or music series, chances are great that your band is looked highly upon. Time to ask for a raise!
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