Should freelance musos be naming their price (Update 9 – January 2022)


Look, it’s not my intention to be Jerry Maguire here.

This moment will be the moment of something real and fun and inspiring in this God forsaken business, and we will do it together.

But from time to time I’m going to float a few ideas about this little chunk of the music business and the way it works, and today I’m going to be talking a little bit about why I think it’s worthwhile for us as musicians and bandleaders to ask ourselves some questions about the way we do things, and I’m going to suggest one small, optional change, which might nudge things slightly in the right direction, as I see it.

We don’t have a conference every year where we get together and discuss this stuff, so I’m doing what I can to get a conversation started, and we’ll see what happens.

Not too many musicians, it’s fair to say, have a taste for finances. That’s probably just as well, because let’s face it, if money is your main jam, then probably better professions. But while we’ve been preferring not to think about money, I think we’ve allowed ourselves to slip into a situation where the profession, as a full-time proposition, barely exists.

Now maybe that’s okay. Lots of people would say, well, the demand for live music is not high enough to sustain lots of full time musicians. So it’s totally fine for it to be done by part timers and hobbyists. Now, I have nothing against part timers and hobbyists. I certainly don’t think that anyone owes me a full time living just because I choose to call myself a musician. But I do think that being able to sustain a tier of full timers is a good thing, not just for the people doing it, but also for the part timers, the clients, the audiences, possibly even for the society as a whole (stick with me!) It’s just because it keeps us off the dole.

I want to think about the way that the food industry in Australia has professionalised itself over the last thirty or forty years. We started out with steak and black bean sauce, and we’ve ended up with this massive diversity of really high quality things to eat, and customers have been prepared to pay higher prices as a result.

Think about where that growth has come from. Generally speaking, it hasn’t been driving by high end restaurants, and it hasn’t been driven by fast food. It’s been driven by relatively simple but creative food, like street food, which is designed to have a really broad appeal, but it also uses really high quality ingredients, really tasty and really well put together.

Now, I think that for music to thrive as profession, we need to achieve the musical equivalent of what the foodies have achieved. And to do that, we need to cater to the same kinds of desires. The musical equivalent of nouvelle cuisine: fanstastic, but it’s always going to be a niche for people who can afford it, and for people who want to be challenged by something new and something innovative.

The equivalent of McDonalds on the other hand: it’s always going to be popular, but it’s going to be overplayed to the extent that people find it hard to get enthusiastic about.

What I think we need is the musical equivalent of that really fantastic food truck, where people will queue around the block and pay twenty bucks for an entree size of something that tastes so good that they will go and join the queue again, and then they’re going to bore their friends about it for weeks afterwards.

So, for us to achieve that kind of success, it requires lots of things, but thing it requires is high level players, and it really needs them to be able to devote themselves full time to their craft. Now, if we’re going to have those people doing those jobs, and building the profession in the way that I’d like to, not just in some future when this musical renaissance has happened, but now.

I want to talk about one little change that we can make, if we want to, and might make it a bit more possible.

Now, I’m both a bandleader and a freelance musician, and I take both those sides of my career seriously and rely on them I think more or less equally for my income. So I think I’m pretty well placed to understand the relationship between those two roles.

As a bandleader, when a client contacts me, they’ll tell me what they’re looking for, give me a date and a time and a venue, and they’ll ask me for a quote.

What I do then is come up with what I think is a reasonable fee to offer the musicians, then I multiply it by the number of musicians on the gig, including myself, and then I add a percentage fee to cover my time in organising it and providing PA, advertising, all that sort of stuff.

If the client is happy with the quote, then they’ll go ahead and they’ll book the band, and if they’re not, then they won’t. Now, I obviously put a fair bit of thought into choosing that number, and most of that thought is about trying to balance the value that I’m offering the client against my own need to make a living.

An important part of that calculation is my own opportunity cost. I only ever book my band for one gig at a time. Now, I know there are other bandleaders take a different view on that, but that’s a separate discussion for another video. Now, if the client wants to book, say, a band 18 months in advance, sometimes happens, for the first Saturday night in April, then I can be pretty certain that whatever price I charge, if the client goes ahead and books it in, then by the time the gig rolls around I will have knocked back several other gigs to do it, so if I don’t quote enough, then I risk cheating myself out of income. If I overquote and miss out on the gig, that’s probably a better result for me than booking it in too cheaply.

Now on the other hand, if I’m contacted about a Thursday night in two weeks’ time, and I look and I see that there’s nothing else in the diary for that week, then I’ll discount that quote pretty heavily, ’cause I want to get that gig locked in, and I don’t really have to consider the potential cost of having to knock back a better paid gig.

Now, when I come to book freelance musicians to play on those gigs with me, I tell them the date and the time and the venue, and I tell them the fee, which I’ve already figured out. So the only control that the freelancer has over that transaction is whether they say yes or no to the gig, on the terms that I’m offering.

Now, as a freelance musician, the first challenge is filling your diary, and it’s tempting to think that if you can do that then you’re doing pretty well.

But there are some musicians, not currently including me, they’re in enough demand that their diaries do get pretty full, pretty consistently.

They’re good enough that as a bandleader I keep calling them, but for every four, five gigs that I’m offering them, I’m lucky if I can get them booked in for one, because other bandleaders also know how good they are, and they also keep calling them. So for those musicians, there’s a potential opportunity cost in almost every gig they take. If you offer them a cheap gig on a Saturday night in six months’ time, they should absolutely be saying no and keeping that date free for something better. Most of them won’t do that, by the way. As musicians, we’re pretty well conditioned to only say no if we’re already booked for something else. For those busy musos, that policy ends up costing them a fair bit of money.

The bigger problem is that the yes or no nature of those transactions puts a pretty strict upper limit on the amount of money that it’s possible for that musician to make in a year, even though the demand for their services is high and their diary is always pretty full.

The amount of that upper limit is a bit tricky to establish, but it seems to sit somewhere between about 30 and 40 thousand dollars a year, as far as I can tell, just from doing the sort of freelance gigs that you see on this channel.

That’s maybe just enough to live on if you’re not too fussy, but it’s not really a just reward for those players who worked hard to make themselves so commercially valuable that everyone wants them for every gig. If they were as good at cooking food as they are at playing music, then they could quite literally name their price.

I think there’s a case to be made for freelance players to negotiate their own prices with bandleaders, if they want to.

That would suit me as a bandleader, and potentially as a freelancer sometimes. At the moment it’s totally taboo for a freelancer to say “Look, I’d like to do the gig, but I’d need $x more than you’re offering.” That’s thought of as being greedy or ungrateful. And, it’s also not done for a bandleader, by the way, to contact a freelancer and say “Oh, here’s the gig, what’s your fee?”

I think there are one or two freelancers around who do negotiate to some extent, but it’s pretty rare, and I think it often makes people uncomfortable.

If you’re driving somewhere and you can’t find a park for your car, then that means the parking is too cheap. If you consistently can’t book the right musician for the job because they’re already booked, then it means that the musician is too cheap.

I think if that musician could respond by raising their prices, without bandleaders freaking out about it, then that musician could lower the opportunity cost that they’re taking on for that gig, and perhaps make something like an average wage, when you add together all those decisions.

Then the bandleader is able to book her more often and improve the quality of the sound sufficiently to justify the extra cost, and perhaps other musicians might look at the money she’s making and maybe consider whether it’s worth spending some of their practice time trying to sound a bit more like her.

Sam and Gianni and I played at this really fun wedding at The Prince in St Kilda a couple of weeks ago for Rebecca and Luke, and this is the music you’ve been listening to. While we were there, in a break, I took the opportunity to run the idea past those guys of setting their own prices, and look, fair to say, didn’t go down massively well.

Now if I came to you and I said “I’ve got this gig, what would you charge to do it, instead,” would that be a good thing for you, or a bad thing for you?

No, I’d rather just be told “This is what it’s paying?”

Okay, what about you Sam?

Yeah, exactly, I hate being asked “What do you charge?” I hate being asked that. If it’s too low, you can say no, if it’s too high, good.

Who’s coming with me besides Flipper, here?

I think it’s worth thinking about, and just to put my money where my mouth is, if any of the freelancers I work with would prefer to set their own fee, if you’re watching, then let me know and I’m happy to make that switch. As a freelancer, I’m not really in a position where I need to be setting my own fees just at the moment, but look, if there’s any bandleaders wanted to try it as an experiment, that would be cool too.

Now if you’re a musician, or an economist or whatever, let me know what you think in the comments, and I’ll catch you again next week.

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