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The MU’s Fair Play Scheme was set up as a response to concerns from MU members about the poor treatment and pay that many musicians were experiencing when performing in grassroots venues.

So, in 2010, we hosted a panel discussion at Manchester’s In The City conference, entitled ‘Pay to Play. Okay?’. It was our response to a spate of complaints around unfair pay to play deals that artists were encountering, and was provocatively titled 'Pay to Play. Okay?' to demonstrate the unfairness of and real anger towards these deals.

Pay to play deals could involve artists buying several tickets upfront, and largely taking on the role of promotion in order to try and make their money back. There are also deals that require artists to sell a minimum amount of tickets before they receive any of the money back, by way of a ticket split deal. Often these deals leave artists out of pocket, despite their best efforts to promote their shows.

Birth of the Fair Play Scheme: researching unfair deals

As part of the conference panel discussion in 2010, there was a suggestion from Guy Garvey (the frontman of Elbow, who spent many years working their way round the UK grassroots venue circuit), that these deals should be policed, and that the MU should play a part in ensuring that artists didn’t get ripped off.

In the months following the panel, the MU continued researching ‘pay to play’. We found that in some cases, they were clearly just bad deals, and were being offered by external promoters who were hiring venues and then expecting the artists to fill them, neglecting their own role in promoting the shows.

However, there were some deals that were less clear cut. Some relied on co-promotion, and they factored in a way of artist and promoter sharing both the profit and the loss, but these still needed some tweaks to make them more mutually beneficial.

We decided to create a resource that dealt with the pay to play issue head-on

Realising that artists weren’t quite sure how to understand what represented a fair deal, and that many venue owners/promoters wanted to do the right thing by performers, we decided to create a resource that dealt with the pay to play issue head-on, and that allowed both parties to understand how to strike a fair deal.

We felt this was a positive and pragmatic approach, rather than mounting a naming and shaming campaign against those who were offering unfair deals. Ultimately, we knew how valuable the grassroots circuit was (and still is) to touring artists, and we wanted to keep the two parties working together to put on great, successful shows.

We consulted the MU’s Gig Committee (now the Live Performance Committee), looked at all of the examples we’d been sent by artists and took the opportunity to write guidance around pay to play, as well as other factors of gigging, such as merchandise and showcasing.

We worked with artists like Dave Arcari, Jay Taylor (promoter at the Ruby Lounge and Night & Day venues in Manchester, and more recently a rep with Music Venues Trust), and created what we hoped would be a key, educative resource for artists and promoters, the Fair Play Guide. The Guide explains how musicians can recognise and negotiate fair deals and subsequently work with promoters to ensure that shows are successful, and that they are appropriately remunerated for their efforts and performance.

Beyond the Guide: what else the MU is doing to support grassroots venues and artists

We published the Fair Play Guide in 2012 and in the years following, have also released the Fair Play Festivals Code with the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), and our Fair Play Venues database, which allows artists to search for venues that have committed to engage with the terms of the Guide (i.e. no pay to play).

We’ve had a presence at Venues Day and Independent Venue Week to promote the Guide, and continue to distribute it to the gigging community through industry events and as part of MU advice to members.

We’ve also lent our support to other activities, like the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC)’s 100% Venues initiative, which tackles the issues of venues taking merchandise commissions from artists - aligning with the messaging of the Fair Play Guide.

What’s next for the Fair Play Scheme

Going forward we are keen to continue recruiting venues to the database, which currently holds over 100 entries. We are also planning to expand the information that the database includes to reflect all relevant parts of the live sector, such as environmental policies and equality, diversity and inclusion matters. This will ensure that it remains a useful tool for touring artists all across the UK.

Signing up to the Fair Play Venues database is an easy decision for most venue owners, and won’t usually require any changes to the way they engage and contract artists.

Ultimately this is a resource that relies on feedback from musicians, so we'd love to hear from members who've had good experiences at a venue and would like to nominate it as a Fair Play Venue.

Visit One Of Our Fair Play Venues This Autumn With New MU Event Series

Learn how to protect your rights and your wellbeing with the MU's new series of events and masterclasses, taking place in independent Fair Play Venues across all four nations of the UK.

Each event is different and will look at varying aspects of the live sector, for example: getting the most from your gigs; looking after your health and well-being; external masterclasses with industry experts and more.

Read more and book your place

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Kelly Wood

Get involved with live performance issues across the UK

The MU is a democratic organisation and we are always looking for new voices within our member community.

Be a changemaker

Have your say on live performance issues across the UK, such as international touring issues, festivals, street busking, parking in city centres, and sexual harassment.  

If you are a live performer, gigging musician in a band or a busker, join our Live Performance Section or a Section Commitee.

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Get involved with live performance issues across the UK

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Deadline Approaching for Funding From Alan Surtees Trust 

The Alan Surtees Trust makes up to four awards of £2,000 annually to support performers aged 16 to 30 with projects rooted in, or influenced by, folk or traditional music of all cultures. The deadline for applications is April 30.

Published: 15 April 2024

Read more about Deadline Approaching for Funding From Alan Surtees Trust