You’re a musician: can you paint my house for me ? Here’s nuppence!

So: you hold a party and invite a group of friends. Halfway through, you turn to one of them, who happens to be a decorater and say “You’re a painter: can you just do my hallway for me ?” Later on, you accost another friend – this time, a plumber – and say “Ah, you’re a plumber; aren’t you: can you just unblock my drains for me while you’re here ?”

Would you do that ? No. Yet, when musicians get invited to parties, people are always saying “Oh, you’re a pianist: can you just play while my daughter puts some jazz tunes to the sword ?” (I paraphrase here). Singer-friends of mine are always getting accosted with the phrase “Oo, you’re a singer, aren’t you: can you sing something for everyone whilst you’re here ?”

Even worse, musicians get asked to perform publically for an insultingly low fee, if they are lucky enough to be offered one. An acquaintance was asked last year to perform as a soloist in Brahms’ German Requiem for £70. £70! If you factor in a two-hour rehearsal, plus having to wait around for two hours between rehearsal and performance (they couldn’t exactly pop home and do something productive in between times: in the legality of employment circles, it’s called ‘trapped time;’) and then a two-and-a-half hour concert, that’s an hourly rate of just over £10 per hour. Instrumental and singing teaching fees vary, but are usually somewhere between £28 / hour for county music services, schools and colleges and anywhere from £40 upwards to astronomical prices, for private teaching. Either way, that’s considerably more than some fees for actually performing, in public – and that hourly rate of £10 doesn’t include the hours spent practicing and learning the repertoire for the performance; if it did, it would come to more or less f*cking nuppence.

It would be extremely rude of the host to ask one of his guests to clear the drains, or paint the hallway, or plaster the dining-room, for free, during a party. Yet people think nothing of asking musicians to undertake their vocation at a party – for nothing.

The misconception arises, perhaps, from the fact that you don’t appear to be using industrial tools, or need to wear overalls, in order to perform; you can just stand up and sing, or just sit down at a piano and play. You don’t need to have brought specialist equipment with you, perhaps, or have come round prior to the party, looked at the venue, scratched your head and given an outrageously inflated quote which you then follow up in writing or via e-mail. And anyway, singing or playing an instrument isn’t really working, is it ? Anyone can stand up and sing. Can’t they ?

No.

There’s a wonderful little video, via Alex Ross’ blog, from a professional singing group that encapsulates rather well the conception amongst most consumers that musicians – in particular singers – don’t get paid. Watch it and weep – with laughter as well as tears…

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