The True Cost of Gigging

BB King really said it best, when he said he’s “paying the cost to be the boss,” and in the “glamorous” lifestyle of the working musician it rings true. And yet, when it comes to taking a gig and getting out and playing, we sometimes forget those costs and just agree to the gig, only to find out that the paying gig really cost you $$$. So with that, what’s the best way to be the businessman and musician at the same time?

Street MusicianBefore we go any further into this, let me be clear: this is for educational purposes. If you want to take a gig and realize the monetary payout is going to be lacking, by all means take it. This is meant more as a guide to help those musicians that may be new to gigging in general, or are wondering what someone else considers when taking a gig.

Travel: This is probably the biggest cost that you will run into, because you HAVE to get to the gig. Travel expenses are any amount of money you’re going to spend to get to the gig. Whether it’s gas for the car, maybe a rental, money for the train/bus/cab or even a flight, it has to be factored. Remember: if you’re carpooling with a bandmate (or on the tour bus), while your expense is less, it’s still there. Factor it in.

Another thing that is often overlooked in this is car maintenance. If you’re driving a substantial distance (for example, out on the road for a tour), things such as oil changes, tires, wipers and other types of things need to be considered. You may not need them right away, but for a tour you will. Make sure to put away a certain amount after every gig to make sure that those needs are covered, whether they’re planned expenses or those wonderful surprise ones.

Rehearsals: One of those things that can be seen as a grey area. You have to rehearse for a show, right? Well, if you’re hired to play a show and they mention rehearsals, that should be taken into consideration when you’re looking at the final amount. If you’re offered $100 for a gig which also includes one rehearsal, you can think of it as being paid $50 per service. See how that breaks down?

Gear: I had a guitarist that always changed his strings before every gig. So it was no surprise that when he turned down a gig one evening, his rationale to me was “The amount I’d spend on guitar strings alone wouldn’t be worth it.” It’s another of those things that we may not consider (because really, we HAVE to change strings at some point), but can be a very large expense when all is said and done.

Miscellaneous: Anything else that you might have to acquire for the gig. Playing a musical theatre gig and don’t have dress blacks? That goes here. Playing a Halloween gig and have to rent a costume? That goes here.

acc0rdionThese are the basics that I will mentally go over when considering a gig. Here’s a quick example of how this works out, with a real offer that I was given (and turned down).

I had a gig offer for New Year’s Eve. It involved two rehearsals (an hour drive one way) and the gig (that was a half hour away). The gig paid $150. Here’s the breakdown.

The Gig Breakdown
Pay: $150
Travel: 5 hours for rehearsals/gig. At roughly $3/gal (oh, those were the days…) it would be about $30
Rehearsals: Two of them, meaning three services total.
Gear: One set of bass strings, for $25
Miscellaneous: Need a tux shirt and black bowtie, for around $35

Total Cost of Expenses: $90
Pay of Gig After Expenses: $60, or $20 per service (1 performance and 2 rehearsals)

street musician2
There are other things to definitely consider when taking a gig (and as said before, if it’s something you’re interested in, GO FOR IT!), but in this case it was strictly a monetary proposition. And one that I politely turned down.

When it comes down to gigging, we’re all “paying the cost to be the boss.” We’ve got the final say as to whether or not we want the gig, but knowing your expenses can help you make a more educated decision if that’s the prime motivator. What are some of the things that you take into account when you’re offered a gig?

Jon Moody

About Jon Moody

Jon is the Asst Manager of Marketing & Social Media at GHS Strings, a staff writer for Bass Musician Magazine, freelance bassist in the West Michigan theatre circuit, husband and father. Occasionally, he sleeps.
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  • keepitreal

    I only take into account the amount of fun I’ll have. I mostly play house/basement shows so there is rarely any money involved. Changing your strings EVERY gig is such a ridiculous waste, that shouldn’t be factored in ever, unless you don’t have any strings on your guitar/bass. Even then, call up a buddy and borrow a guitar for a night. Crazy.

    • vibro

      Depends on a bunch of things – right now I change every 3rd gig. When I was in a showcase band chasing a record deal I changed them every gig.

      • keepitreal

        yeah I guess I’m not being totally fair, I mostly play in shitty punk type bands, we like cruddy strings haha.

        • Paul Green

          I bet The Clash, Flogging Molly, Greenday, The Hives, The Melvins, Bad Religion, Social Distortion, Drop Kick Murphys, and Blink 182 all hate cruddy strings.

    • RHN

      Well, the article says that you have to do any gig you want, but if it costs you more than a reasonable amount of money, or you have to do a string of money-spending gigs (a tour with long dinstances involved,, rent stuff for playing far away..), you’d consider that if a venue is making money with the music you play for them, you should be earning some too, instead of spening.
      The changing strings for every gig is too much, i agree with you there, but that should still be factored, according on how often you change them.

    • SevenCarPileUp

      I like the sound of news strings but I play lead and hate having to tune every song

      • Paul Green

        You shouldn’t have to tune every song if you know how to properly stretch your strings after you’ve put a new set on. I change my strings every four hour gig. ( I sweat like a pig and bend the hell out of my strings in my country/rock hybrid cover band.)
        I don’t usually have tuning issues.

  • bb

    $150 for gig ?? The last gig I did i was paid $15 dollars.

    • CowboyKevin GuitarPicker

      You’re selling yourself too cheaply and it’s hurting all of us.

      • harrymallory

        Unless he’s not very good….If I played for $15 Id be greatfull. I could use the money for strings and continue to practice!

      • Victor Peru

        How is it hurting you? Yours is a clown act anyway…….

    • paul green

      Yeah, WAY too little.

  • John Paul Austin

    Stairs!!! Easy load-ins with a ramp make a BIG difference… If I gotta lug a ton of gear up 2 flights of stairs, I just price the gig out of reasonable range for the venue… like $600 for an easy ground floor gig, and $2000 for a second floor gig! If they can pay it, I could pay some strong young people to help bring in the gear!

  • Patrick Durham

    One piece of advice for those starting out to gigs: Never pay to play. This often comes up in so-called “talent contests” for local bands. Even if you have a great band, the club owner/sponsor will always remember that you will play for less than nothing.

    • CowboyKevin GuitarPicker

      Never pay to play.

  • Michael Ziming Ouyang

    When I was gigging regularly, I would change guitar strings before every gig, to have a consistency of sound and reduce the possibility of breakage during performance (bass strings I would rarely change because I liked the rounder, thuddier sound of dead-ish strings at the time). Now I pretty much only change strings if something breaks, but I only play out maybe once every couple of months. It’s different though, when I was younger it was all about the fun of having a band and trying to express yourself. Since that was the goal, we all maybe cared less about money. At a certain point it becomes professional and you HAVE to care about the money because it’s your livelihood. I mean, I work as a TV/film producer and I would certainly turn down anyone who wanted me to shoot their event or TV show for no money or crap money. But for a film, it depends on the film–if it’s an art project that I believe in, then I could consider it and maybe I would decide to do it. But if it’s a purely commercial thing, then I have to get paid, so that I will have the resources and energy to do the arty things I like (and buy more guitar strings).

    • Jon Moody

      Michael, you bring up a good point about taking on a job that you believe in. I have another article “in the queue” that focuses on different criteria to consider when taking a gig, that I think answers that a bit more.

  • JIMBOO

    Out here in Caly a bar gig is $300-400 so just divide by the people in the band. I tell people my min. is $100-125 then go from there but I am a PRO DRUMMER so have to lug alot of stuff around NO PROBLEM

    • CowboyKevin GuitarPicker

      I agree. Figure $100/hour and negotiate from there if you have to.

      Basically I get paid for risking my equipment, travel, and setting up and tearing down. That is why, if the venue is dead (and we’ve all played to a empty house at one time or another) and the venue decides they want to cancel the gig half way through, my deal always says that I still get paid the full amount since I still have to set up and tear down. The playing is the fun part.

      The first time I saw Joe Bonamassa in NY, there were like 12 people in the whole place.

      • Gerard Halloy

        I still remember touring with The Who in the early sixties when they were gigging for 75 British pounds a night. lived in the van and ate whatever was there at the venue because they were too broke to buy food. I remember Pete loosing his only guitar because he did not pay for it for three months…pay your dues guys and then you will earn the right to bitch.

        • St. Lugz

          It is all about paying Dues, I have one band that has been gigging for 20 years (old school Streetpunk), with several releases available world wide, we usually get our guarantee, food and beer, but our other band that has been around for 3 years, no official releases yet, generally plays for beer and gas money, just for the exposure (it’s essentially the same band, but with a as of yet unknown singer) and an opportunity to sell merch. It’s all about paying your dues, but we will never do pay to play, unless we’re absorbing our expenses, basically paying our selves (essentially losing money) to perform. But we’re good with that. All that will change after a while as long as we put in the work.

  • Papa John

    Truth is, at my age, thinking about the money is a bit pointless. There was a time everything mentioned here was all too often true, but today I accept the fact that I essentially “pay to play”. I do it because I love it and it’s still far cheaper than a shrink. And besides, who’s going to pay top dollar to an almost senior citizen bass player? I’m a recovering alcoholic, a recovering smoker, 60 years old, fat, grey-haired and single. Name me any other social activity someone like me would be allowed to participate in? I get to slam out some great tunes and act any way I feel because nobody expects much from us old farts. I would whole-heartedly recommend to any youngster that they dive right in and give it everything they have. Worst mistake I ever made in my life was not pursuing music as a career. Got too tied up in the responsible life. Better to have tried it and lost than to go crazy with the “I should have’s”.

    • CowboyKevin GuitarPicker

      I won’t pay-to-play.
      You’re selling yourself too cheaply and it is hurting us all.

      • W-D

        Sometimes you don’t have a choice. I live in a major metro area and the bars aren’t paying much more now then they were back when I was in my first band in ’75. Add to that statewide smoking bans causing bars to cut back on or completely drop live music leaving more bands for less gigs and there you are, go further out of town to find higher pay and jobs (adding higher expenses) or pay-to-play. Same difference.

    • Campbell

      Well said mate .. thank you for keeping it real , money is just paper , music is worth so much more to the soul , if your just playing to get rich then your not playing from the heart.

  • Perry

    It comes down to what level the band. Not even what level each player is, but rather the band as a whole. If you’re just starting out with a new-ish band, just rehearsing in a lockout room a few times a week will only get you so far. It’s easy to blow off mistakes there and to not be in the moment as much. But playing live is a whole different experience. It’s where the rubber meets the road and it’s not something that is refined after one performance. A new band may want to take a few free gigs at first just to get out there, get your feet wet and fall down a little bit as a team. You don’t get money for those gigs, but you do get experience. Think of the first few gigs that may not be paying that much, or at all, as kind of like an intersnship. You’re getting experience and that can be more important than money in the long run.

    Now pay to play… I hear so many people say never do it. Well good luck playing at the well known clubs in LA then. Remember we’re talking business here and a club or bar is a business. They want to be sure if they give you time on their stage, it’s going to be worth it to them economically. They’re not running a charity. If you can’t sell 75 tickets at $10 each, then you shouldn’t be playing the Whiskey any way. However, when you have the fan base and you’re confident you can sell that many tickets, then why not? The problem with pay to play is that so many bands do it when they’re not ready. They don’t have the fan base and can’t sell enough tickets and so they have to pay out of their pocket to do it. Young bands may think playing a popular club in a city is the magic bullet to getting them to that next level, but it’s not.

    • CowboyKevin GuitarPicker

      WRONG!
      First of all, who are you going to sell tickets to? You’re not going to sell them to your friends because they are your FRIENDS. And you’re not going to sell them to people you don’t know because they don’t know you. But let’s say that you do just that, the Whiskey sells out and there is no room for your friends!

      No, if you are paying to play you are no fucking businessman!

      You want to talk business? You say, ok, on an average night, you ring what? $3000? Well if I play there and you ring $5000, I am entitled to 10%-15% of that extra $2000…and if you ring more, I am entitled to a higher percentage.

      I am NOT a promoter and it is NOT my job to fill your club…
      MY job is to put money in your cash register! A mediocre band that generates revenue will get a gig over a spectacular band that doesn’t put money in the cash register every time.

      If you have too great an ego to agree with this, get yourself a manager because you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.

      • W-D

        Talk about an ego. Your only “entitled” to what you or your agent can negotiate with the club owner. As for it NOT being your job to fill a club, you couldn’t be more wrong. If you don’t have a substantial following and/or the ability to fill the club your first time there and keep it filled, you’re NOT going to be booked there again. Unfortunately, I’ve been in too many bands with your attitude. They didn’t work much.

        • Chrys

          I was a pro musician back when you could work 5 to 6 nights a week and stay working 52 weeks a year. I have also been a CEO at publicly held company and know a few things about business. I must disagree with the Pay to Play concept. Any business owner that would risk their success on the ability of a band to draw revenue to their club is a fool or working from another business model. Nobody can promote my company better than me! Nobody is responsible but me! Does a bar owner require the bartenders to presell drinks to friends and family? How about the Chef at the restaurant? Does the cook have to bring the food and the customers? Everyone gets paid except the band! Since the 80′s in LA, club owners learned that there were so many bands trying to break into the scene (and there was a scene then) that they could actually get free entertainment and remove a huge cost of doing business.Those days are over, but the die was cast! We don’t pay for music is the standard practice! Why, because we let them get away with it! As sad as it is, there will always be players with stars in their eyes that think the exposure is worth the cost of slavery. Tell those lazy bastards to get work and promote their own business and develop there own scene and stop running their clubs as if bands are strippers. Don’t play for free! If you’re going to pay to play make it your own show! Find a venue, get some bands that work well together and promote the hell out of it.

        • JCIII

          “Cowboy Kevin” never made 2 cents playing music.

      • Victor Peru

        You are truly delusional. You actually think that you are a musician. You are pathetic. You butcher 3 songs and here you are telling people what to do.

  • Campbell

    The first time I picked up a guitar was watching my uncles jam together at a family party.
    They had been in a band years before with moderate success in the local area , but that was enough they didn’t get huge pay and sometimes none but they loved the work .
    Back then a band could hire a dance hall and organise their own gig invite anyone , those were the days before speed and shit came on the scene , everyone was just happy to socialise and dance not pop pills till 5 am , too much focus is on the money hence the reason we now have a shit load of duo acts running MIDI backing tracks .. YAY !! Live music from a box , so I tend to fully disagree with this approach.
    If your band is good and you are fully passionate about your music then the money is nothing and should come naturally with the flow of things , if the money doesn’t come then I would return to the jam room and work on those skills till you got it down too good to resist.
    You are all more than welcome to disagree thats the power of freedom :) Music is freedom if your stressing about the pay you are not really free to play >

    • Paul Green

      You are a brand. No matter how good your brand is, it won’t make you money without some marketing…So, I would have to disagree with you.

    • Jon Moody

      While I agree that the music and enjoyment of it should be at the forefront, when your livelihood is dependent upon gigging or you are hoping to make music your livelihood, you have to look at playing music as a job and a career. There’s no way around it at that point.

  • Paul Green

    Let me get some ideas on this:
    I’ve got a great band. We get complements everywhere we go.

    The bars ask us back and the crowds love us.
    We get about $100-$150 per guy per 4 hour show about 3 times a month.

    Only real problem, the crowds are small. We can’t seem to create a steady following.
    We want to start making closer to $300 a guy. (or more eventually)

    How do we get more people to shows so that we can make money for the venues so that they have a reason to pay us more?
    Is it that we just need to play more often and advertise much more? Any other ideas?

    • Kimon

      Try to get a regular weekly gig at one place for a few months, so that regular customers of the bar know where and when to find you on a night out and hopefully become your fans too. Also let people at the show know where and when your next gig is so your fans can follow you to other venues.

      • Paul Gren

        Thanks! A regular weekly gig sounds like a good idea!

      • Jon Moody

        The only concern with having a weekly gig at the same place is that after a while, you will run into those people that will say “Oh, I’ll go check them out next week” and then not come. You don’t want to flood the market so to speak, but having a somewhat regular presence WILL help build on a crowd, especially if you’re known for putting on a good show.

        • Paul Green

          Good point also. Do you have any advise on how often is too often?

          • Jon Moody

            That’s one of those “whatever the market will bear” type of things. I know a band around here that gigs every two weeks at the same country bar and packs it every single time, so for them that’s the magic number. For smaller/bigger towns that may or may not work.

            I wouldn’t start right away with a weekly gig, unless the place has a dedicated following and you have enough of a following to make that work. Every two weeks would be decent, and then keep decent records so you can show that after a couple of months, it’s either worked really well (and going to a weekly gig would work) or you need to look at a monthly gig instead.

        • 504bass

          I know this all too well. Great article, Jon.

  • Zippy Wonderslug

    I’m one who won’t haul his gear to a club gig for less than $100.00.

  • Ron Rother

    After YEARS of playing for money…Now I play for ME! At 100.00/gig it just about covers the bar/food bill if my family shows up…I don’t care, I’m playing some of the best guitar of my life ( playing over 50 years) I feel bad for the younger players,
    they are not making what I made in the 60s when I made a living playing music on Long Island..
    Still, the deal is…play!..play everyday, play all the time..play, play ,play!
    I was asked” why do you still play in bars “..my reply was ” Because I can!”
    ROCK ON PLAYERS! PEACE

  • The Mighty Jerry

    Theres only one reason on Earth to play free; P..U..S..S..Y.

  • RHR

    I started playing music in 1968 at that time we had a 5 piece band. We played a night club in Panama City, Fl right on the Gulf of Mexico we made $125.00 each for 5 nights plus 2 motel rooms. Our age ranged from 16 to 20 years old. This was our first time ever playing in a club where they sold alcohol. We played that club for 3 months we left because some of us had to finish high school. It was a real learning experience for all of us, we had a blast. Today I’m still playing music been with the keyboard man for over 25 years I’m the drummer the bass man is my twin brother we’ve worked together all our lives, our guitar man passed away 2 & 1/2 years ago we hired a new guy 2 years ago and add our old sax man in January. We played the same club for 13 years playing 3 nights a week until our guitar man passed away and we left. Playing the same place for that many years can be good at the time but will hurt you in the long run.We learned this the hard way because we play one night gigs now and trying to get gigs can be hard at times the club owners always say I’ve never heard you guys how can you ask for so much money? Well it’s what we are use to making they always want to pay a lot less for the first time gig and promise to pay more if they like you for the next gig. The money has come back to what we were use to now and we have a steady gig every Friday night and a steady gig every other Saturday night and a once a month gig. We have opened for a lot of groups and played a cruise ship to Mexico. We are all in our 60′s now and we don’t try to keep up with the charts any more we are having some fun and making money doing what we love. I like to call the type music we play ( real good feel good music)

  • Anthony

    A very depressing article.And i thought things were bad in the middle east…