27 July 2015


Should traditional jazz musicians be paid for giving a performance?

If so, how much? What a thorny question this is.

In New Orleans and Chicago during the 1920s and in England during the 1950s, traditional jazz musicians were young people (mostly men) playing for large, excited young audiences, usually with many of the customers vigorously dancing. Provided that the musicians worked hard and took plenty of gigs, they made a living - enough to support a family. Jazz was their full-time career.

But in the last fifty years, with the oppressive rise of other forms of popular music, only a small number of 'big names' have continued to make a living by playing traditional jazz.

However, traditional jazz has continued to be played by hundreds of amateur musicians, mainly in pubs and clubs. The musicians have had to earn their living from 'day jobs'. Jazz has been to them a wonderful hobby, not a profession. Once a week, they have turned out with their pals to practise their craft in such places as the back-rooms of pubs. The audiences, like the musicians, have grown ever older and their numbers have dwindled.

The kind of chaps I have known in such bands over these years include a plasterer, a dentist, an electrician, two doctors - one of them a heavy-smoker(!), two maths teachers, a laboratory technician, a car dealer, a builder, a construction engineer, a music shop salesman, a school caretaker and a telephone engineer. On one night a week, they would come together and make pretty good music. Their reward? Nothing, other than a 'first drink free' from the bar.

But wait! Being a traditional jazz musician requires hundreds of hours of learning, of practice and of perfecting your art. A competent traditional jazz musician is a highly-skilled craftsman. And you wouldn't expect a highly-skilled craftsman such as a plumber or car mechanic or doctor to spend three hours working for you in return for one glass of beer. So why does this fate befall jazzmen?

Alas, the laws of the market place apply. You can't expect a pub or club to pay musicians a decent fee when there are fewer than 20 paying customers on the premises, as is often the case.

Here in England, the gigs that survived month after month were those where the musicians were happy to play just for the love of it. The gigs that did not last were those where the musicians asked for a fee of, say, £25 or more each and this proved to be unaffordable.

Many of the pub and club musicians of the 1970s and 1980s are still alive and still playing - though long into retirement from their 'day jobs'. So playing traditional jazz has become the major pastime of some elderly pensioners. Some are devoting more time and effort to it than ever and a high standard is being achieved. But there is still no money to be made. Their bread and butter are paid for by their pensions, not by their music.

I recently heard a band playing at a pub in the English Midlands. It was a six-piece and the pianist - now well into his seventies - was a man who in his prime had been famous as one of the best in England. He was still playing brilliantly. But there were only 15 people in the audience. How sad. Money for the band was raised by passing a collecting box among the customers. The bar manager himself made a decent donation. £72 [making £12 for each player] was raised for the band. When the pianist had received his £12 [that's about 19 US dollars or 16 euros], I asked him why a great musician such as himself had been willing to work so hard for so little.

He said playing the music was what he loved and that he would rather do it - even for a sum that would not quite cover his travelling expenses - than sit at home in front of the TV.

Of course, it's not all bad news. Occasionally bands attract bookings that bring in more than enough money to cover travel and related expenses. Bands can and do charge more for weddings, where they have to be flexible about timing, music styles, costumes and venues; and where they will often have to shrink into the role of 'pleasant background music' during a drinks reception.  And there are in England still plenty of rich people who like to give garden parties. Jazz bands are sometimes invited to play and of course can expect an appropriate fee.

There are also jazz festivals. I have spoken to several musicians who have played at these and what I learned is this. The headline acts can attract quite a high fee. But most of the other bands taking part - though reasonably well rewarded - end up out of pocket after forking out for travel expenses and at least one night's hotel bill. So musicians who play at the festivals tend to do so for the prestige and for the camaraderie with other traditional jazz groups.

One of the very best bands in England has a leader who - when asked to quote for a 'serious' gig - replies '£450 negotiable'. [This is to cover his six-piece band.]

I think this is quite clever. He is saying in effect, 'We would like to receive £450 but if you can't raise that amount and want to offer us - say - £300, we may possibly accept it.'

That would give each of his players £50 [79 US dollars or 70 euros] - not too bad, perhaps, but no great reward for giving up a day of your life to travel 50 miles to the venue and working hard for three hours when you get there.

Sometimes a person who wants to book a jazz band (perhaps for a wedding) has no idea how to find one, so he approaches an agency. Through the agency, he books a band. The agency adds its own commission (typically 25% more than the band would normally charge). So it's not a good deal financially for the customer; and it puts the band at the disadvantage of having to communicate through a third party with the client - and perhaps having to wait for quite a while after the event to be paid. However, ultimately the arrangement benefits the customer, the band and the agent.

Should traditional jazz bands register with such agents? On the whole, I think they should, provided that the agency is reputable. From what I have observed, the best agencies are small businesses (a husband and wife, for example) and they set up very effective interactive web-sites with plenty of information about the artists available - usually including videos. The agencies also advertise in Yellow Pages. They supply very detailed contracts for both the booker and the band to sign: this ensures clearer and firmer arrangements than those under which most bands usually operate. For example, the contract may stipulate how the band should dress, what breaks the band will be allowed to take, and whether drinks and other refreshments will be supplied to the musicians.

A flourishing agency will represent many musicians and other entertainers - not just from jazz - so it is the size of its portfolio that keeps the agency in business.

A typical traditional jazz band in England will not get many bookings through its agent (perhaps half a dozen in a good year) but they may be its only lucrative gigs.

If you are a jazz band looking for an agent, do not assume the agency will automatically take you on. The agency has its own reputation to consider. It will need first to be convinced that your band is good, smart, well-behaved and reliable. But once a band has been accepted and a rapport has been established, the relationship between the band and the agent is likely to benefit both sides for years to come.

Several bandleaders have told me they frequently receive invitations to play for nothing at events which are 'for charity'. The bandleaders regard this as unreasonable. Would you expect six plumbers to travel a considerable distance and then work for three hours 'for charity'? Or six doctors? Or six bus drivers? So why make such a request to six musicians?

This is not to say that bands are unwilling to play once or twice a year free of charge in aid of good causes. Most of them undertake an occasional engagement of this kind - but it is for a cause of their own choice. An example is the Prostaid Cancer Fund-Raising Jazz Day in Leicester, England, when bands throughout the day play for nothing. This annual event was started as a tribute to a local popular jazz musician, who died of prostate cancer.

I'm not arguing that traditional jazz musicians should be paid more, even though I think they deserve more than they get. (You could say the same about people in many other jobs.) I am simply describing how things are.

I must finally mention the horrible 'Pay To Play' system. The Musicians' Union is vehemently opposed to this; and rightly too. What happens is that a venue invites a band to come along and play and then reveals that it expects THE BAND TO PAY for the privilege of 'hiring the floor space' on which to perform! I have come across only two examples of this and I'm pleased to say the bands firmly refused the invitations.
I have received this email in response to the above by a man I greatly respect and admire, Fred Burnett.

Hi Ivan
Interesting blog about payment to musicians.
Not sure it’s fair to compare trad jazz musicians with doctors or plumbers.  You mention two doctors who you have known could play jazz, but how many full time experienced jazz musicians have you known that could do the job of a doctor or fix their own plumbing?
"A competent traditional jazz musician is a highly-skilled craftsman."  So tell me?  How would you describe a competent brass band musician, and how much do they get paid? How much does a  skilled St John’s Ambulance volunteer get at a football match, or a cave rescue or mountain rescue member get?  Surely they are as skilled in their own field as a musician, they turn out in all weathers and face incredible danger too.
Is it fair even to compare hobby musicians with full time professionals?  I’m reminded of a band leader who was complaining to his wife about how much they’d been offered for a gig, so she turned round and said, “You only do it for a hobby, if you were playing a round of golf and someone stuck a tenner in your pocket for doing it, you’d be over the moon!”.
How many full time professional musicians whose livelihood depends on music lose work, because some people on Company pensions plus old age pensions do it for a hobby and can undercut them and do it for beer money? 
I’m not trying to state an opinion one way or the other, I’ve no axe to grind, and I’m not a musician, but just trying to show that there’s more to it than a simple comparison of a part time musician and a highly paid full time professional worker.