One can be over enthusiastic when offered a gig, especially young musicians entering the professional ranks. Without thorough vetting of the employer’s offer, the fee you agree upon can easily fall short after the expenses of the job are subtracted.
I wrote this following a discussion with a student who has been studying with me since the age of twelve. He is twenty two now and venturing into the professional ranks. He is becoming “in demand”. My protective instincts compelled me to have him write down these questions.
Remember, you are getting paid for the time you are there, not from the time the band leader counts you into the first song. There is much more to know before you go.
Professional contractors/band leaders know the answers to these questions and have priced their gigs with the following factors in mind. Ethically, they should have priced the gig correctly and included any extra funds beyond your base price in your share of the payment.
Most contractors/band leaders are trustworthy however I have learned to be as thorough as possible to get all the data. Some may leave out details unintentionally which can can recoil on you later. If they are true pros they won’t become irritated when you ask these questions.
If the contractor/band leader does become irritated it is not a good sign. Be careful. Get all your questions answered and if they don’t agree to your price, you decide if you want negotiate. If not, thank them and tell them you’ll pass.
You must decide what your time and skills are worth. Your local musician’s union has all the information to cover the points below. You should get familiar with the union wage scales where you live so you know what a fair wage is for a three or four hour gig and other types of gigs.
These scales are considered the minimum wage rates. They are the “base rates”. You should include the extras outlined below.
I use an excel spreadsheet to compute different scenarios of gigs so I can pull it up and quickly give price without much thought.
You can avoid any traps by asking the following questions.
- What is the date of the gig? – the vetting could end right here. You may be booked. If so, thank the person and tell them to please call you again.
- What are the hours? – Most club performances and private parties are priced for three or four hours. You should have a “base price” for these durations.
- How much do you pay for overtime? Beyond four hours, overtime rates kick in. Overtime rates are higher and should not be the same rate per hour you are paid for the four hour duration. The next questions you must ask. The answers can change your price.
- Is parking free? – many jobs will have validated parking. It is the contractor’s/band leader’s responsibility to pay for parking if it is not free or available on the street. Valet or public parking can be expensive at some hotels and night clubs. If you don’t know before you go it can be a rude, costly awakening. Also, how far away is the parking from where you are playing? I have had to shuttle my equipment from parking areas to the job site which added more time and effort to the set up time. Make sure you find that out. You will have to allow for the extra arrival and set up time.
- How long are the sets? – the standard duration of a set in Los Angeles is 45 minutes on and 15 minutes off. There is also a duration called “continuous”. You play 55 minutes and take off 5. “Continuous” increases your price. Ask if the gig is continuous and if it is, you charge more.
- Is there an early set up? I allow myself an hour to set up my drums. I don’t like to rush. I like to arrive early to unload and get set up so I have some time to relax and warm up. That is my choice. If you are asked to be set up more than an hour before the gig starts, you must get paid for getting there early. Always ask if there is an early set up. You are charging for how many hours you are required to be there, not how long you play. Some clients want their guests to walk in with the band fully set up in the room. An early set up and waiting time must be factored into the price.
- Is there a rehearsal before the gig? – rehearsals add to your price. Don’t agree to a price before you know this.
- Where is it? – in Los Angeles any gig that is beyond a 30 miles radius of the union or Central L.A. gets paid milage. Currently that rate is 57.5 cents per mile which is set by the IRS. Add this to your price. Gas and wear and tear is expensive. If other musicians want to ride share, have them contribute to the gas costs.
- Cartage fees – certain instruments have cartage fees that should be charged. Think about how much equipment is involved to move and how long it takes to set up tear down. A trumpeter with a music stand vs. a drummer with a drum set, should they make the same amount of money? They are not there the same amount of time. The trumpeter can walk in 10 minutes before the gig starts and be set up and leave at the end of the gig quickly. Also if you are asked to bring a P.A. system in addition to your instrument add the P.A. system into your price.
- What does it pay? – Notice where in the order of questions this one is asked! You must include all the additional expenses of the job into the base price. Feel free to charge more if your skills are worth more. For example, if you sing as well as play asking for more money is not out of the question. You may be carrying a lot of the vocals. If you are asked to play more than one instrument that can also factor in. You can adjust your own price.
- When and how do I get paid? – getting paid the night of the gig is the safest way to ensure that you actually get paid. You can make this a condition if you accept the gig where trust is questionable. Put it in email or text if possible. Some employers may have a payroll schedule and will send you a check. The standard wait time is 15 business days from the date of the gig.
- Is there food for the band? Always eat before you get to the gig. Not every client has food provided for the entertainment. There are guidelines in the union scales covering meals and travel time if you have a long travel time to the gig. Get familiar with these.
- What is the load in like? At some venues you may be required to use the loading dock and navigate a maze to get to the stage. This has caused me added time and aggravation to rush my set up to start on time. Once it made me late setting up because I did not ask. I have been on a few gigs where the load in was nearly impossible. I once carried my drums down three flights of narrow wooden steps on the side of a hill overlooking a beach to gain entrance to the venue. Another time I had to drag my trap case a thousand feet over dirt and sand to get to the stage. Try doing this with an oversized trap case with eighty pounds of hardware. I should have asked and charged more.
- Who is leading the gig? Someone has to lead the band! If the bandleader/contractor is not going to be on the gig you find out. I have been told more than once, “You all can just play what you want”. This is a set up to avoid paying a leader fee or the bandleader/contractor is ignorant! Someone has to make announcements, call tunes, corral the musicians to start, deal with the client, collect money, distribute tips, time sets and breaks, etc. Someone has to be the leader! You don’t let a ship drift in the water. It will crash into the rocks! If you are going to lead the gig you must charge for it. It is a larger responsibility that must be compensated.
- What is the band wearing? – Although this has nothing to do with money, it has everything to do with professionalism. Actually it is related to money. You don’t want to walk into a formal affair wearing jeans and a tee short based on lack of data from the bandleader/contractor or an assumption (notice “ass” in this word). Both you and the bandleader/contractor will look like an ass if this happens. If it is your fault for not asking because of inexperience then you may not get hired again because of lack of good judgement. To cover their own ass, the bandleader/contractor will say it was your fault but the client will blame him/her. Not a good situation. You will be the fall guy. Ask!
Although not a question, beware of “it’s for charity and a good cause”. Someone is going to make money. This has been a ruse used to lure musicians into playing for free.
If you feel passionate about the cause and want to do this, good for you. Make sure it is a 501c organization. “Although you cannot deduct the value of your time or services, you can deduct the expenses you incur while donating your services to a qualified organization.” – IRS. Otherwise you should be paid. When you see an orchestra or band on TV or at live charity event backing an artist, the musicians are getting paid.
Lastly, I find it amusing when I am offered a low ball gig with the carrot, “it will be great exposure for you and the band, maybe you can make some connections and get more work”. I chuckle at that and say, “I have had enough “exposure” in my career, I’ve been “overexposed”. But I still thank them for thinking of me.
Always be kind. Some people are just ignorant of what a professional musician should charge. On the other side of that, you don’t need to work with anyone who is trying to rip you off.
You will find it very difficult to get what you deserve once you compromise your rate. Be firm, not antagonistic or argumentative with whomever you are negotiating with. If they get upset, you have caught them in a deceit.
All these scales and rules came into being because musicians were and still are taken advantage of. You may not want to join your musician’s union. However, they can protect you when there is a union contract involved. Also the musician’s union is the resource for all the rates I mention above and more.