Eight Days a Week
How much do musicians really earn? The rich ones (ahem) the poor ones (definitely).
How much do musicians really earn... The rich ones and the poor ones? Is an appearance at the Rock Garden worth more than 45p each? Is it true that the right session at the right place could bring 1,000 notes to the skinny wallet? Dave Sinclair looks at some wage packets.
It was once reported that John Lennon and Paul McCartney could have retired and lived comfortably for the rest of their lives on the proceeds from the songwriting royalties of "Yesterday"; just the songwriting royalties of that one song, a tiny fraction of their total earnings, would keep you and me in caviar and guitar strings till our dotage.
Sting's songwriting royalty cheque for the year 1982 was in excess of £1 million. Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, who write very little for the Police, have to make do with their performance royalties – (ie a percentage for each record sold (which Sting gets as well of course).
The Rolling Stones recently secured a well-publicised advance of £25 million from CBS for five albums that they've yet to make. Goodness knows what they've made on the last 30 odd albums, none of them deleted, and that's not even considering the incidental earnings that accrue from being the biggest grossing live band in the history of the Universe.
When Ron Wood joined the Stones in 1975 he was initially put on a wage of £1,000 a week (I wonder what that would be now after nine years of inflation?). However, Wood now gets an equal split and would doubtless consider his original salary as very small beer.
Music has earned the Jaggers, Stings and McCartneys of this world riches beyond belief. But what about the rest of us? What can a good musician reasonably expect to earn from plying a trade in music?
Firstly, we must attempt to understand the nature of the beast. Basically, the music business is laissez faire gone mad. Did you ever hear of a musician being reinstated in a band after taking a case of unfair dismissal to an industrial tribunal? Ever come across a music industry code of business practises? Or how would you rate the likelihood of a musicians' strike ever occurring? Symphony orchestras, BBC employees and similar groups operating in a controlled, protected environment are exceptions, but the vast army of session players, songwriters, gigging musicians and would-be musicians of every sort operate in a dog-eat-rat situation that precludes any possibility of a formal, structured employer/employee relationship. People get what they can when they can, and often it's not very much.
The lure of the possible fortunes that can be made, and the supposed glamour of the work, is such that everybody who has even the slightest aptitude (and many who lack even that) would like to be a musician, and most of them have a go at it at some time or other. My cousin, a successful and embarrassingly wealthy lawyer is currently teaching himself to play bass and is installing a 16-track studio in the basement of his opulent Edinburgh residence. Meanwhile, a drummer friend I know has spent the last two years running two jobs – in a hotel from 8am to 4pm, and a restaurant from 6pm to midnight – as well as juggling his shifts to accommodate infrequent gigs with his band, in order to finance a two-year music course at Berkley College in the States. You all know someone trying to make it in music; you probably are someone trying to make it in music. I sometimes think there are now more bands about than punters.
The upshot of this tremendous bulge at the bottom of the profession is a situation of woefully imbalanced supply and demand that can leave the musician in a sorry financial state. The real pits, of course, is the dreaded pub gig. Out Bar Squeak, a nine-piece jazz-rock band, secured a total payment of £4 for a night's work at the Rock Garden in central London, calculated according to that venue's notorious "free ticket returns" system. (They give the band free tickets to distribute and pay them according to how many tickets are used.) Still, Out Bar Squeak did better than Lots of Zebras who came out with 80p from the same venue.
It doesn't stop there. At the Greyhound in Fulham the band pays out £55 for the use of the house PA and lights. The band is then paid a percentage of the door takings, so it's quite possible to end up owing money to the venue at the end of the night. The Red Guitars, who come from Hull, played their first London gig at the Greyhound in August 1983. They played support there the week that "Good Technology", their first single, was being played to death on the John Peel show. They'd also done a session for Kid Jensen, and had a small feature in "Sounds". The whole group was paid £5 total for the gig, enough for their petrol back as far as Watford.
Presumably the Red Guitars are doing a bit better now, but fame doesn't necessarily equate with fortune. Take the Belle Stars. After their second hit record, "The Clapping Song", but before "Sign Of The Times", the band were all on a wage of £70 a week. It was widely reported that after the release of their first album the Clash were able to award themselves a rise, increasing their weekly paycheck from £40 to £60.
In the Eighties, successful groups are generally a bit better organised and less at the mercy of unscrupulous management. In fact many groups or artistes are themselves employers of musicians, creating a curious situation where certain members of a band may be on a percentage of royalty receipts (the passport to millions if the act is big in the States) while other members are on a fixed wage. This is the case with the Human League where Phil Oakey and Adrian Wright (who doesn't even play an instrument) are on a percentage of the profits while the rest of the group, including Ian Burden and Jo Callis, are paid a wage from those profits, making them in effect employees of Oakey, Wright and the management. To my mind this is a thoroughly iniquitous arrangement. We went through Woodstock for this?
Still, a wage is a wage, and for some the rewards are high. I'm reliably informed that the Thompson Twins pay their musicians £400 a week (each), though a different report has it that they only get £50 a week. This disparity is probably explained by taking into account which week and what the band was doing. £50 is a probable amount for a minimum retainer, when the band is not working but the Twins nevertheless want to retain the players' availability and a prior claim to them for future work. The £400 figure might be for a rigorous touring schedule in America. Generally, musicians on retainers are free to pick up whatever other work they can, provided it doesn't clash with the itinerary of the group paying those retainers.
The going rate for a job in Gary Numan's band is £800 a week, while the Animals paid their additional musicians $1,000 a week each when they were touring towards the end of last year. A recent applicant for a job in Thomas Dolby's backing band wanted £500 a week to do the job. Dolby was only prepared to offer £300, so the musician turned it down.
The wage bill for Whitesnake (paid by David Coverdale) amounts to £170,000 a year, between the band. A rudimentary grasp of mathematics, and a passing familiarity with Whitesnake's repertoire, will enable the reader to appreciate why a recently deposed Whitesnake bassist was heard to remark afterwards that he did the gig principally for the money. Also, one can begin to picture the enormity of the overall financial picture when bands and artistes are prepared to pay this kind of money as basic wages to their employees. It is estimated that all the members of Culture Club and Duran Duran, where profits are split equally, are well on the way to being millionaires (if they aren't already).
Still, we're floating off into the realms of fantasy again – easily done when discussing this kind of subject. What can a regular musician expect for an honest day or night's work? Musicians' Union rates vary according to what kind of work is involved. For a pub gig a musician should get £2.40 per half-hour or a minimum of £14.40 for one performance, whichever is the greater. On this basis, the Red Guitars should have been awarded £72.00 for their Greyhound gig, while Out Bar Squeak would have been in line for £129.60 from the Rock Garden. It doesn't take a genius to see that on this basis neither gig would have been staged in the first place (Red Guitars were supporting another band, remember). And this is the crux of the problem. As the MU representative in charge of rock, Mike Evans, points out. "If musicians are prepared to play for less than our minimum rates then there's not much we can do to stop them." But if rock musicians did refuse to play for less than these minimum rates, most of them would never play at all.
I don't say that this excuses the shoddy behaviour of venues who in some cases are ruthlessly exploiting the musicians' desire to play. It is impossible to believe that the presence of any band at the Rock Garden, widely known for many years specifically as a rock music venue, is not going to secure net earnings for the management considerably in excess of £4. The guy who washes the glasses behind the bar will get paid more than that. But the fact is that a central feature of the laissez-faire-gone-mad syndrome is that regulation, by definition, is impossible.
To their credit, the Musicians' Union took a stab at the monster a few years back, making vigorous representations to such London venues as the Marquee, Upstairs At Ronnie Scott's (a vile rip-off), and the Kensington (now known as the Ad Lib). In all cases, assurances of future improvements were given and promptly forgotten.
However, a gigging musician working the pub/club circuit as an individual – ie depping, or playing with two or three bands picking up what work is around – can earn a bread-line living of between £50 and £100 a week. Wine bars have been a relatively recent addition to the stock of places putting on live music and often take guitar and bass duos or solo singer/strummer/plonkers for which they will pay between £10 and £20 per musician per night.
Jazzers, with their basic instrumentation and knocked-together PAs, have established a small London circuit of gigs that enable them to eke out a living. But the rewards are scandalous when set against the talent on offer. John Etheridge, a guitarist of astonishing ability with a pedigree stretching back through innumerable bands, including Soft Machine, recently played a Saturday lunchtime at the Lyric theatre bar in Hammersmith with a pick-up band headed by Chucho Merchan. Etheridge and the other three musicians got £15 each. Drummer Nic France (a Cambridge University music graduate who featured on Billy Cobham's drum school on BBC2) and bassist Chucho Merchan were playing with Etheridge, and are both highly accomplished virtuoso players. That level of skill applied to, say, the medical profession would equate to the ability of perhaps the most experienced and accomplished neuro-surgeon, who would of course be earning a handsome salary for the work. France and Merchan by comparison are regularly to be found doing the £15 session at the Lyric (go and see 'em!).
At the top end of this gigging circuit are bands like Hank Wangford and Morrissey Mullen, acts who have built up a following to a point where that "percentage of the door" actually represents a reasonable return. Morrissey Mullen, a jazz-funk outfit popular in London, are able to pay their musicians at least £40 a night and sometimes more, and they play gigs like the Greyhound (though I should think they'd draw the line at the Rock Garden).
A far more lucrative area is session work. MU guidelines state musicians should be earning £37.20 per two-hour and £47.50 per three-hour recording session. And session players frequently earn in excess of this. Even at the bottom end of the business, recording advertising jingles for example, the MU rate is upheld, while a top session player like Simon Phillips may well be charging £200 a day for working on a Toyah album.
Session work, though, is phenomenally hard to break in to. Because there is such a lot of money riding on a commercial project, producers tend to play ultra-safe in choosing their session musicians. They will never try out someone unknown, and rarely use anyone other than the people they always use. This is a classic Catch 22 situation that is desperately difficult to break through. You also have to be an extremely good musician – versatile, able to sight-read, and blessed with nerves of steel.
Mind you, once a player does get in on the session circuit, chances are that the work will be constant. Many players flit around doing maybe two or three of those £50+ sessions a day, four or five days a week. This is obviously good money, but a difficult nut to crack.
Television and radio stick to the MU agreements which again are pretty reasonable: about £70 per musician per four-hour session on TV, and £27 per musician for a radio session. Many groups, having hacked their way up through the murky pub-rock jungle playing shit-hole gigs for no money, find, when they finally get a break, that they are in the ironic position of being paid extremely well for a gig (ie a TV slot) that they would probably give an arm and a leg to do for nothing. The increasing tendency for programmes such as "Riverside" and "The Tube" to feature unknown bands throws a ray of light on an otherwise gloomy landscape. Witness the good old Red Guitars who landed themselves an appearance on Whistle Test last January.
The earning capacity of most musicians is at best erratic and at worst pitiful. Sure, there are fortunes to be made, but it's not like a normal profession where you put your nose to the grindstone and work your way to reasonably attainable rewards. In the music business you undertake a long unpaid apprenticeship for a job whose ultimate attainment depends as much on a spin of the wheel of fortune – a pretty dodgy roulette – as it does on the amount of work put in. I would imagine only a tiny proportion of those who start out, perhaps even less than one per cent, make any sort of decent living as musicians during their entire working life. Anyone who decides to become a musician for the money needs their head examined.
BUT... having said that, there are few crafts or trades so completely satisfying to perform. A true musician, someone who is really born to play music, will somehow manage to play no matter what. Really, it's a profession to enter only if you love playing music and are prepared to put up with lengthy periods of severe financial hardship. As a musician, the dice are loaded at least 100 to 1 against making any kind of living, let alone a fortune.
But even now I can hear you saying, "Ah yes, but what's that little twinkle of gold I can see on the horizon, just the other side of that hill over there?" Well, go on then. But don't say I didn't warn you.
Feature by David Sinclair
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