Sometimes musicians are asked to perform without being paid, whether live or on an album. The request can come from a venue, other bands, or musicians, and can stipulate (or not) what they get instead. I can’t address every situation here but can give some perspective on what is okay and not okay to say and do.
If you’re asked, I recommend asking why they’re requesting that, not to put them on the defensive, but to avoid a misunderstanding. You don’t want to end up resenting them because you’ve gotten it into your head that you’re being taken advantage of, for example. It may help to understand their situation. Maybe they’re already spending all they can on the album, for example, and will never recoup anyway, so they’re trying to mitigate losses, not maximize profits (for themselves at your expense)
When I Ask
If you’re asking someone, you may want to tell them upfront why you’re asking. Here’s some of what I tell musicians:
- I’m a solo artist and therefore pay all studio costs (rehearsal, recording, mixing, mastering), which is typically over $5000 per album
- If this were a band with four equal members, I’d only have to pay $1250. You’d be paying $1250, too. Instead, you pay nothing.
- I pay all manufacturing, distribution, and promotional costs (which can vary in cost but is typically thousands more). You pay nothing.
- So while you’re not being paid, you’re also not paying anything.
- If I also had to pay each performer, let’s say $1000 to perform on all tracks, that would be an additional $3000, making the album cost over $10,000. I simply can’t afford that. I don’t recoup costs from sales because that’s very hard to do with instrumental music (or even other genres). Here’s how it would look financially:
- Each musician’s figure: plus $1000
- Studios figures: plus thousands
- Cover artist’s figure: plus $1000
- Photographer’s figure: plus $300
- My figure: minus $10,000
In other words, everyone profits but me. I need to mitigate my losses. The musicians no longer profit up front but get to be on an album (assuming they want to be) without having to pay to be on it, and I lose less. Personally, I feel that either me and that performer are doing each other a favor, or neither of us are.
To be honest, this is a great reason not to be a solo artist!
Once You Agree
If you agree to perform for free, you shouldn’t bring that up again for that project, whether it’s a show or an album. An agreement is an agreement. In some places it’s a verbal contract. Asking to be paid, or complaining that you’re not being paid, is not only putting the other person in a terrible position, but is just not right.
Of great importance is that contributing your services for free does not mean being unprofessional or acquiring special privileges unless those were also agreed upon in advance. For example, a singer who was very far behind on the recording schedule once resentfully told me he’d take as long as he damn well pleased to complete the project because “you aren’t paying me”. He wasn’t around much longer.
It always pays to behave professionally and like an adult, even if you are neither. Money is a frequent subject bands can fight over, so being upfront about expectations and the reasons for everything will help you keep projects moving forward while not ruining your relationships with people.
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Sometimes musicians are asked to perform without being paid, whether live or on an album. The request can come from a venue, other bands, or musicians, and can stipulate (or not) what they get instead. I can’t address every situation here but can give some perspective on what is okay and not okay to say […]