For What It’s Worth: Valuing Your Work As A Musician

We can get this out of the way right now. Most people who play guitar are not professionals. The musical instrument and accessories industries realized several years ago that in order to be successful you have to market to pros, semi-pros and hobbyists alike. No matter where you put yourself in the Venn diagram of the music business, you probably care about the music you make and the gear you use to make it. You probably spent hours practicing, maybe even getting a band together, and hopefully doing a few gigs. This article isn’t really aimed at the working pros; they have already made the choice to put a value on their musical work. This article is for the current and future hobbyist and semi-pros who are either thinking about entering the world of musical commerce, or have already dipped their toes in the water.

It Ain’t Easy

It's funny 'cause it's true.
It’s funny ’cause it’s true.

Deciding to play music for a living (and get paid for it) is a difficult one. There certainly isn’t guaranteed success, and most likely you will have to live a lifestyle which goes along with your income level. Not all professional musicians are rock stars, and diversifying your income stream can certainly net you a comfortable if not extravagant living.
People compare it to running their own business, because of course, it is. Not only do we have to learn a skill (like playing a musical instrument), but we have to understand the business end of it. The more we understand, the more money we can make, and the more in-control of our career we are.
Basic skills for a successful musician to have are good communication and networking skills, the ability to adapt, the ability to get along with all kinds of people, being able to be direct without coming off as a jerk, and the ability to be somewhere on time. You know, the kinds of skills you need for any job.

What’s all this ‘value’ stuff? I just wanna rock, dude.

Zephyr Silver Humbucker, which you can buy with your gig money.
Zephyr Silver Humbucker, which you can buy with your gig money.

Ok, I get it. Let’s take a cabinetmaker for instance. His dad always had a wood shop downstairs, and he worked hard to learn a trade. When he strikes out on his own, he charges a fair price to make and install cabinets. But there is a catch. There are people in town who are willing to do the work for free. They worked hard too, and learned the trade. They do this for fun, you know? They aren’t trying to make a living at it. Just a few guys making cabinets in their spare time. What’s wrong with that?
Well, we can see the end result here: within a few years, there will be no cabinet makers in that town. If the people making the cabinets don’t value what they do, no one else will. People will expect their cabinets to be made and installed for free, because they don’t perceive there is actual value. This ends the allegory part of this article.

Don’t play for free? Is that what you are saying?

Well, not exactly. I donate my time as a musician for worthy causes, much like any business might donate goods or money. If it is a cause that is close to me, or if a close personal friend is involved (and I’m not booked already), yeah, I donate my time. This is different from setting up a show, promoting it, practicing like crazy and filling up a club for little or no pay. But a lot of musicians do this. Worse still, this practice not only hurts their value as musicians, but indirectly diminishes the value of all other musicians that also work hard and deserve to get paid.

Pay from an average club gig*. *Visual approximation
Pay from an average club gig*.
*Visual approximation

If we all work to keep the going rate for live music at a fair wage, then there will be a more vibrant music scene filled with pros and semi-pros alike, with more money in their pockets to buy things like new guitars and pickups. If you are a band that has worked hard, bought good equipment, wrote or learned songs, practiced every week (not to mention personal practice), and go looking for a gig, you have something of value. Believe it.

It isn’t that easy with an original band, you know…

gigmoneyYeah, I know. I play in an original project, and it is a much slower road than an amazing cover band. Great cover bands are essentially guaranteed bookings, and while no one in a cover band ever achieves fame on a rock star level, it is certainly hard work that has value. Great cover bands who dissect every tone, backing harmony, and breakdown keep the parties going and the drinks flowing, and there is certainly an art to that. There is lots of competition out there playing covers, but the people who do the work get the most work out of it. Serious cover bands I know treat it just like any other business. Original bands can learn a thing or two.
Yes, original bands are often asked to showcase (play a set for free), or worse still, pay-to-play. I know no shortage of musicians that will push each other out of the way to play a show that is a ‘great opportunity’ but little else. New original bands sometimes have little choice if they want to get out there and play a show. But, there is always at least one other option. Original bands can concentrate on recording, shooting videos and attacking social media. They can get together with other local bands and share the risk of putting on a show. That is a better alternative than watching someone else make money off of your hard work. A club that doesn’t pay for entertainment will probably shut down if people refuse to play there.

A good idea? Or crowd-sourcing payment? I wonder if the musician gets to look at the computer at the end of the night...
A good idea? Or crowd-sourcing payment? I wonder if the musician gets to look at the computer at the end of the night…

If you are a cover band, research what other bands in the area are playing, and find that hole and fill it. If your set list is the same as many other bands, you diminish your standing in the market place, and jobs will go to the lowest bidder.
Original bands are similar, in that you should make sure no one around is doing the same type of thing. With so many original bands out there, even music that makes it to the radio can be accused of sounding alike. You will have to offer something different to have an advantage in the market.
Original or cover band, make sure whatever you do is done well. When clubs want to hire what you do, give them no choice but to come to you. You might not look at this as a professional endeavor, but the clubs do. Many venues take advantage of this imbalance, so work hard to set yourself apart, and keep the odds in your favor.

And in the End

At no other time in history have we had access to the entire world at our fingertips. Bands don’t have to live on the same block anymore, and musicians in every town work hard to keep the money flowing in their direction. By valuing your part, your sacrifice, and your tears, you can not only help yourself and bandmates, but every musician in your area. We owe it to the musicians that worked hard before us, and the exciting new ones that come after us.

Do you remember your first gig? What songs did you play?

Join the Conversation


  1. The tip is a great idea. Good luck getting bars to sign up for it and good luck getting them to actually tip you out.

    1. Yeah, this is my point. The musician has no way of knowing what was tipped to them. I doubt they have access to the computer, and I certainly wouldn’t trust that they tell me the truth. I’d rather that they just pay you a living wage (and their normal employees too!).

  2. Tip jars are probably the best way of getting that tip then and now. Though these days you could put up a QR code on something and have people send you tips that way. It could even be bitcoins.

  3. It’s better than nothing. In Chile it is very common for bands to play for free, and that kills the market

  4. Totally agree with you on this article! Your cabinet maker analogy is a perfect example of what’s happening in the guitar teaching industry as well. The internet is a great medium for exposure but when the novices jump in on the arms race for attention they end up greatly hurting the industry they’re trying to support.

  5. The problem lies in the “less-than-pro” segment of musicians, more than likely, musics largest segment.
    Pro’s have the AFM in the US & Canada and the MU in the UK & Australia.
    Non-pros and pro’s working in non-union states, have nothing but what the market and a musician’s ego and attitude will bear.
    Anxious to play and get their name/face in the public-eye, as the article states, an amateur musician(s) will give the farm away for exposure. Where as the pro’s at this level, are left to the machinations of sleazy managers-booking agents (if they have one) and bar owners. I’ve lots of friends who have played for so little, at the end of the night, the gig cost them money.
    Maybe a graduated scale of compensation should be a gentleman’s agreement (don’t laugh) for the non-union musicians. Or move to a union-state.
    Some may think the above will produce an environment less likely to hire musicians and this will result in bar/venue owner’s emitting the proverbial “fuck it” and using the house PA to broadcast music from a professional source. The problem here lies in the fact that pro-musicians do not get paid for a recorded performance, that is, musicians whose songs are played on the radio only get songwriting and publishing compensation, meaning, if you wrote the song, good for you, if you “only” played on the song, tough shit. I’m no expert, so I don’t know for sure if musicians are supposed to get paid every time their song is played anywhere, but even if it is so, good luck enforcing it.
    In other words, envision a bar owner stating he will refuse to pay a decent wage to a live band and he will play recorded music instead, since he is paying nothing for the music, even if he is supposed to pay for it.
    Yeah, OK, but we all know, a party with a live band is likely to draw a bigger crowd and live bands make for a better party. (Electronic music and a celebrity DJ don’t count)
    If given the choice of, “Tonight- music, dancing and free snacks with $10.00 cover charge” or “Tonight- “Old Fart & The Walking Canes” play live with opening act, “Joe Blow & the Hand Jobs” $25.00 cover includes one free well-drink with ticket stub.”, Which party would you attend? (Well, maybe not those bands, but…)
    For more on the subject see the link below.

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