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In the weeks and months following the lifting of Covid restrictions across the UK in July, a number of posts began appearing across social media detailing various offers of “opportunities” for musicians. The posts promised much – connections, exposure and valuable experience. What they didn’t mention however was the one thing that freelance musicians would want after 18 months of little or no work: payment for the work they were being asked to do. Sadly, such incidences are nothing new.

In 2012, the MU launched Work Not Play, a campaign to fight against the view that musicians should work for free. A decade on, this has made a difference. “The Work Not Play campaign allows us to ‘name and shame’, and it provides a signpost for us to bring attention to the message,” says Dave Webster, MU National Organiser, Live Performance. “I think that because everyone has suffered there is a false expectation that musicians may be able to offer their services for free. But it’s the many musicians that fell between the gaps of government support who have been hit the hardest.”

As work opportunities slowly open up across live performance, sessions, writing and education, the MU is urging its members to remain vigilant about offers of work for no pay. The MU is also keen to highlight advice on this issue to help empower members as they begin to resurrect their careers in a post-lockdown world.

Calling out on those who ask musicians to work for free

Encouragingly, musicians and the general public have been quick to call out companies and individuals offering work for no fee. This was highlighted in late September when the Scottish Rugby Union was lambasted on social media for attempting to get performers to play at its Scotland’s Playlist initiative in exchange for free tickets and social media exposure, but no financial gain.

The announcement prompted outrage, with many people taking to social media to vent their feelings. Scots traditional singer Iona Fyfe called out the Scottish team in a tweet:

Iona’s tweet was one of many that tagged in the MU and prompted the MU’s Scotland and Northern Ireland regional office to write to the SRU. This dialogue led to the SRU announcing that it would pay musicians for its Scotland’s Playlist initiative.

Iona_Fyfe_MG_Alba_Scots_Singer_of_the_Year_2018
MU members such as singer Iona Fyfe tweeted about the Scottish Rugby Union's attempt to get musicians to play for no fee at its Scotland s Playlist initiative. The MU intervened and the SRU agreed to pay the musicians. Photo: Ian Georgson

A spokesperson for SRU said: “We have had an amazing response to this initiative and we are happy to take guidance from the Musicians’ Union to ensure that the acts participating are appropriately supported and their professional work is paid for accordingly.” The MU thanked the SRU for “the positive manner” in which it had engaged with the MU. Barry Dallman, MU's Acting Regional Organiser said, “I’m very pleased that following a productive discussion, Scottish Rugby has confirmed it will be offering payment to all bands performing on the ‘Scotland’s Playlist’ initiative during the Autumn Nations Series.”

Despite the positive outcome, the practice of musicians being asked to play for free is rife. According to MU research, 71% of musicians have been asked to work for free, and ’exposure’ is cited as the primary ‘benefit’ on offer in 54% of such cases. The MU will always intervene in such cases and support and advise its members, however we encourage members to place more value on themselves and develop the confidence to say ‘no’ when it is appropriate. “Sometimes musicians, especially early in their careers, feel they’re missing out or being arrogant if they don’t accept every opportunity to perform,” Barry says. “It’s not arrogant to expect to get paid when you work and yes, somebody else may well do the gig if you don’t, but if there’s no fee and no value to you, you’re not missing out on anything. It’s also important to realise that not all ‘exposure’ is the same, and that playing for free makes it harder for everyone in the industry because it spreads and reinforces the idea that there’s no financial value attached to live music.”

For musicians being asked to play for free, the MU offers this advice:

  • Call the organisers out on it. Ask for a fee – it works surprisingly often.
  • If they don’t budge, tell them about Work Not Play. Talk to them about what performing for free really means for you, and your industry.
  • Let the MU know. Your MU Regional Office can help you work out a fair fee as well as give advice on negotiating a deal, what to get in writing, and how to go about it.

For those musicians who do not feel confident calling an engager out, the MU can always do it for you anonymously. It’s always worth remembering that as a member, you have the power of the Union behind you. The MU urges members to use this power to end exploitation and make fair pay a reality for everyone working in the industry.

The power of saying NO

Dave Webster highlights the importance of educating hirers who offer no fee. “Its often a problem with engagers who have no understanding of, or work in, the industry. We produced a guide – bit.ly/3ECif6u – for those hiring a band, musician or music teacher. However, as they are not our members its unlikely they will have seen it, so it’s a question of having a public-facing awareness campaign, which is what Work Not Play does.”

It’s not arrogant to expect to get paid when you work.

Dave highlights the importance of musicians standing their ground, setting out their fee and saying ‘no’ to offers of working for free. It’s a view echoed by Barry Dallman, who advises musicians to really focus on their career objectives. “You should never even consider playing for free unless you’re 100% sure that the ‘opportunity’ you are being offered will significantly develop your fanbase or career – if it won’t, then don’t do it. Instead of playing random events to people who aren’t your target audience and will never become fans anyway, musicians would be better off investing that time in activities such as contacting venues and festivals that do pay, writing, rehearsing, creating quality social media content, engaging with their existing fans and so on. These will all do much more for their career in the long run.”

Take action when asked to work for free

The most common incidence of musicians being asked to play for free is at charity gigs. The MU’s advice is to always ask for a fee. “If they personally wish to support the charity, they always have the option to donate that fee back, but requiring a fee helps reinforce the idea that live music should be paid for,” says Barry Dallman.

It’s not only the live sector where musicians are asked to work for free, but in sessions, writing, education and on panels at events. Report any incidence whether you are our member or not.

Report now

Barry Dallman advises musicians to work out in advance what to say if they are offered work for no fee.

“It’s always much easier to handle situations in the moment if you’ve considered what you will say in advance when you weren’t under pressure or feeling awkward. Try not to lose your temper, be calm but firm, and approach the situation as the professional that you are.”

Photo ofNeil Crossley
Thanks to

Neil Crossley

A journalist and editor who has written for The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Financial Times. Neil also fronts the band Furlined.

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#WorkNotPlayMU

This is not a hobby - it's our profession

No-one should feel guilty about turning down unpaid “opportunities". Have you been asked to work for no fee?

This is not a hobby - it's our profession