If it’s worth it… then pay up

There are some arguments, I am sure most of us agree, that are worth having over, and over, and over again. They are usually arguments about things that strike us as personally significant, important, pertinent: perhaps about education, parenting, the economy, segregation in all its forms, healthcare, and so on. It is important that people keep arguing and fighting (verbally, at least) for what they believe, because it is these argumentative types that have pushed through the abolition of slavery; the end of apartheid; the foundation of a National Health Service; the right for same-sex couples to marry and have a family. We need them.

And then there is the argument which could be boiled down, in its most simplistic form, to this: good things have value, cultural and financial. So in an ideal world, you get what you pay for.

I’m coming at this argument entirely from the perspective of the musical world, and the endless and tiring conversations I keep encountering about musicians’ wages. Specifically classical musicians: instrumentalists and singers. Because there is a curious phenomenon here, and it seems to derive from the following (il)logical progression: classical music is elitist, therefore it is expensive… musical instruments and lessons are expensive… music college and training are expensive… if you can jump through all of these hoops you must have skill and, more importantly, capital… making it in the entertainments industry involves competition and sacrifice… which means all gigs are good gigs, because they are experience… which means you’re lucky to be offered this gig. Fee? What do you mean, fee?

Man relaxing on a pile of money

Now, I don’t consider myself an angry person, but this stupendously idiotic and insulting train of thought causes steam come out of my ears in seconds. Let’s divide my problems with it, for a moment, into tree and root. And we’ll start with tree.

This is the bit above ground, by which I mean the students who have slogged their way through lessons, exams, orchestral or choir rehearsals, concerts, tours, and so on for years. They will almost certainly not have done this unless they enjoyed it, and it was meaningful and important to them. But it will also probably mean less sleep, less social time, extra cost to their family (not just financial but also time – rehearsals, after-school clubs, and so on), extreme discipline, the need to focus and work when friends are relaxing. It will mean competitive festivals and scholarships – and take it from me, these can be emotional things if they mean something to you, because you want to do well and, as you get older, have a growing awareness of the price tag on your activities. Finally they have made it to music college, dealt with the shock of a whole new wave of competition, warnings from staff that making it the industry is getting tougher by the year and requires an ever greater and more wide-ranging skill set… and they get offered a gig at a good venue. This is brilliant, this is what they have worked to achieve. But there is no fee, or a pitiful ratttling brown envelope containing only the reimbursement of their train fare.

What on earth does this say to young musicians, and their value to society? Is it any wonder that they struggle, fall, give up, get angry and cynical? Like all cultural industries, every aspect of the structure is dependent on every other. No venue equals no platform… but no musicians equals no show, however shiny your events room is. Respect and professionalism alone should dictate better behaviour from those who hire performers. If you think you should get what you pay for, unpaid musicians should programme only successive renditions of 4’33”. I have exactly the same problem with unpaid internships. To say that you have to be prepared to do it all for nothing to succeed is insane. Can you imagine a hedge fund manager agreeing to that?

So much for the tree, wilting from battles with greedy agents, late-paying employers, the humiliating necessity of taking on free concert slots ‘because it’s good experience’ (and this is a phrase I’ve heard uttered by the most benign and unsuspecting of events organisers, who quite genuinely see no problem with it). What about the root?

The root, and the magic beans from which these promising young artists come, is in even more serious trouble. Because apparently there’s enough money for blustering Boris to propose building yet another concert hall in London which, as Ivan Hewett has so eloquently argued, we just don’t need… but the schools budget is such that fewer and fewer children have decent access to arts and culture, and James Rhodes has felt the need to launch his splendid ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ campaign. We complain that the arts are not sufficiently diverse, that the ‘big names’ are all white boys from Eton (thank goodness the government is such a picture of diversity to balance that out, then…). And then what do we do? Reduce arts in schools, insist on a STEM subject educational focus, increase tuition fees, and demand that to make it in the creative industries, you have to do at least a year or two in an unpaid internship, or perform for nothing, ‘for experience’. You get what you pay for, eh? Give me a break, guys. My blood pressure can’t take it.


If you need advice or support regarding appropriate fees or employer disputes, you can speak to the Musicians’ Union, the Incorporated Society of Musicians or Equity (the singers’ union). Membership of these organisations can provide much-needed back-up and help.

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