This was originally going to be in my first newspaper column of the New Year but I decided that it was a little too ‘down beat’ so I’m going to put it here where no-one will read it.
I was planning to speculate a little on the future of professional live music in the UK. A pretty worthwhile exercise considering I’m on the Executive Committee of the Musicians’ Union (MU), a body that is dedicated to help improving the employment prospects of the 30,000 or so musicians who are members, and incidentally the unknown number of gigging musicians out there who aren’t members. It’s also what I do for a living so I guess it’s something I should be thinking about anyway.
So what it is about music anyway…
The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously said “The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.”
This may be well the case but are they prepared to pay for it?
And if they are going to pay for it, how?
As a professional musician myself, I’m looking for gigs that’ll help me pay the rent, feed my family and generally keep the wolf from the door.
On the ‘up’ side there is a pretty healthy ‘function’ music scene for weddings, parties and corporate events where the fees paid to bands tend to reflect the actual worth of work put into the gig. This kind of music is ‘functional’, i.e. it fulfills a function that can therefore be assigned a value. Looking through the website of an agency that has a pretty high profile on the web it seems clients are prepared to pay for gigs of this nature. Rock & pop function band fees range from £4,000 (for a ten piece) function band down to £350 for a solo singer/keyboardist. For ceilidh type work the prices tend to be somewhat lower ranging from about £2,500 down to about £800 for a four piece band. These prices are for gigs in London for professional bands. Amateur bands and gigs outside London will be somewhat cheaper than this.
Another source of income for a working musician is the theatre world, which is not particularly well paid outside the West End but can provide employment over a period of time, especially during period when other gigs are scarce (for instance around Christmas). The TMA rates for touring shows which are negotiated by the MU are at least £500 per week for the commercial theatre work or £400 for the subsidized sector (these are minimums). London theatre rates are somewhat higher if you can get the work. Or if you want to do cruise work then the you can expect at least £400 per week (plus food & board). While these fees aren’t going get you a Ferrari, they do make for a modest living.
But what about the forge of new music and up-and-coming bands – namely the pub circuit?
I’ve just been doing a few calculations on the relative worth of money since 1971 and searching the internet for gig fees paid to bands during that period. What I turned up was that fees ranged between £25 and £50 for a four piece band which is the equivalent of £260 and £520 in today’s money. Currently you’d be lucky to get £100 (worth less than £10 in 1971 money).
I was chatting recently to a local publican who puts on live regular live music in his pub and mentioned that he payed £300 for a particular 10 piece soul band, which is less than £3 in 1971 money and only £30 a head today. After taking out travel this would probably just about cover drinks. The give you an idea of the proper going rate for a band this size (assuming that they’d be getting the pro rata income of a teacher) the fee should be at least £650, and that’s assuming they all live locally to the gig and have no PA hire costs.
And this is for ‘covers’ bands, originals bands usually don’t get paid anything or even have to pay to play…
Looking back at ticket prices, in 1975 you could’ve seen Led Zeppelin at the Earl’s Court Arena or Procol Harum for £2 (£15 in today’s money) or the Rolling Stones at the Empire Wembley for £1.65 in 1973 (less than £10 today). Today you can’t get people to pay £5 to see a bill of 3 or 4 bands (less than 50p in 1971).
Well, you get what you pay for. Next time you complain about the crappy music from X-Factor or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ remember, you made it this way by refusing to pay towards the next generation of talent in this country, out there where it matters, in the pubs and clubs of ‘Cool Britannia’.