That awkward moment: waiting for your fee

Your performance is over, the concert has finished. You’ve been nervous about it for a while, perhaps, practiced fiendishly and learnt your music. You organised your concert dress, got yourself to the venue in the afternoon and rehearsed for several hours; kicked your heels between the rehearsal and the concert, got changed either in your car or squeezed into the toilet because there was no green room in which the performers could change, and done your bit.

Now comes the difficult part: asking about your fee.

The best performances are those where the fixer, or a representative of the ensemble or society that has hired you for the evening, greets you at the rehearsal and passes you an envelope straight away. (With a cheque in it, that is). There’s no shilly-shallying: you’re a professional, you’ve been booked, here’s your fee; thank you very much, you say, and you can now devote your full concentration to rehearsing and performing.

The worst are those where no-one greeted you as you entered the rehearsal, the concert has finished, and you’re waiting around – perhaps with one or two of the other musicians – for someone to talk to about your being paid. Money is an awkward subject for some at the best of times, but actually having to go, cap-in-hand, to ask is excruciating.

I once did a gig at a restaurant as part of a quartet; we’d diligently practiced our sets, arrived in time to set up and get a feel for the venue, and performed as requested. When we’d finished, we packed away and waited around for someone to come forth with the fee, or at least mention it. No-one. After a period of waiting that felt unending, I eventually went to find the restaurant owner, and bid him a cheery good-bye, thanking him for the gig, in the hope it might prod him into mentioning it.

He didn’t.

Eventually, when I realised he wasn’t going to, I managed somehow – memory has been kind, and erased the actual wording of this particular incident – to bring the subject up. He duly reached into the drawer and produced an envelope, which had been waiting there all the time, along with the wise words that people who don’t ask, don’t get.

(Insert your own adjective + noun here).

I learned my lesson. Make sure the matter is dealt with beforehand, so you know from whom you should be receiving your fee on the day, and when. And now, when I’m dealing with musicians hired for our concerts, I get the envelopes to them at the start of (or during, depending on how many there are!) the afternoon rehearsal. Do the same if you can: they’ll thank you for it.

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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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