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All work and no pay: is working for free always wrong?

As working musicians, we are performing an increasingly hard balancing act. I have always found it difficult to think of music as 'work', and this has challenged my working life. Through the SOS forum I recently found, a site dedicated to naming and shaming companies and festivals that don't pay for their musicians, and it made me want to defend people who work in all areas of music, most of whom are not money‑grabbing swines.

I have frequently found myself saying yes to everything, much of which is for free: a day here and there, a play here and there; a bar gig, for example. All are interesting projects that I thoroughly enjoy being involved with, but increasingly they come at the expense of my own projects. Over the last few months I have decided that there are three types of time for a musician: relaxation, development and paid. In practice each feeds into the next and we must ourselves decide the importance of each. We must relax to enthuse us to work hard and develop. We will then develop our skills and projects to equip us with assets that can be translated into paid time — we can never have enough money, can we?

 I am not expecting millions, but the music budget should always be fair and proportionate to the overall budget of the project and time requirements. To demonstrate that I am not one of the aforementioned money‑grabbing swines, I would like to refer to a couple of projects that I've been able to justify working on for next to no payment.

In January of this year my finances had crossed the negative border 10 times over as I was hard at work in the latter stages of two minimal‑budget film projects. I had been involved with both projects for over a year and they were both approaching the final stretch. The fee for both projects combined would struggle to pay a one-week bus fare, but I was happy to put in the hours on the basis that (a) I was learning invaluable lessons, (b) I admired the teams behind them, (c) financially speaking, we were all treated equally and (d) I felt that people would enjoy the end product that would also augment my portfolio. The small budget that was being shared equally with me was a gesture at most, but an appreciated gesture. We were all in the same boat. As musicians, when we are asked to work for free, should we assume that all others working that day or night are being equally generous with their time?

To further tip the balance, I still consider music my hobby and I feel strongly about retaining my enjoyment of it. I accept that I will have to take on some musical jobs that are less fulfilling than others to pay the bills, as is the case in any line of work. This is fine, but I remain acutely aware of the distinction between music made purely for financial gain and music for self and artistic fulfilment. When the balance is tipped I know about it instantly, either through a higher income and lower musical yield, or a higher musical yield but having no money to fund it — or myself for that matter. Like so many others, music equipment still seems to come before living!

To conclude, we can't say yes to everything. As much as we might want to help, taking on unpaid work can increasingly eat into our own relaxation and development time. If I'm infringing upon another musician's development time, I will always offer to pay them what I can. So, as someone figuring out how to be a working musician I urge myself to think about those three aforementioned types of time when considering a project. And I urge others to take a step back and do the same. When you get the balance of these right, the balance of income and passion is also right. These, after all, are the modern musical scales.

We shouldn't work for free on projects unless we can really justify it. For me, the artistic benefits have to overshadow financial considerations, and everyone involved in the project has to be in the same boat, as far as payment is concerned. There is no reason to feel guilty declining a project if it tips those scales. Remember to keep the musical balance: relax, learn and earn.

About The Author

Richard Norris is a London‑based musician who is trying to figure out life as a freelance songwriter and composer of classical and experimental music. Richard is always interested in