Students and gig pay

Over a year ago I wrote about responding to free or underpaid gig “offers.” A commenter asked a fair question, which has haunted me since:

I was wondering how much of this still applies when taking on gigs as a student.

I’ve wrestled with this a bit and I’m not sure I have a real answer, but I do have some thoughts. (As usual, I’m talking here about markets that don’t benefit from a strong union presence, such as most of the USA.)

For someone hiring musicians for a gig, I don’t see a good reason to consider student status at all. You should hire musicians who can do the job, and should pay them fairly. If they are students, what does that have to do with anything?

photo, Ryan Hyde

But the Right Thing to Do seems a little less clear from the student perspective. In a situation where someone is attempting to treat student musicians (or anyone) in an exploitative way, the options are to accept, to attempt to negotiate better terms, or to refuse the gig. The problem is that freelance careers depend heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations, and being “easy to work with” is a prized quality. A student musician trying to get a foothold in the business could hurt his or her cause by complaining about unfair pay, or by staying home instead of playing.

Student musicians have to find the best balance they can between advocating for fair treatment and going with the flow. It’s not reasonable for the least-experienced musicians to have to navigate such a complicated thing with their careers hanging in the balance, but it’s the way things are.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself if you’re a student musician and think you’re being undervalued in the professional freelance marketplace:

  • Who else is on the gig? Would this be a genuine opportunity to make some connections and let some other musicians hear what you can do? Are those musicians the kind who might be able to offer you future opportunities in the near term, or are they others who don’t have much of a career yet?
  • Do you have peers who have taken this gig in the past? Did it pay off in terms of “exposure” or future gigs?
  • Is the experience something that would look good on your word-of-mouth “résumé,” or would it be kind of an embarrassment?
  • Do you have a trusted friend or mentor who is more established in the business, who can advise you on this specific situation? The music world is a small one, and someone who knows the local freelance scene might be able to offer some background.

Be careful of talking yourself into free or below-market gigs because you “just want to play.” That kind of attitude serves you well in school, but not so well when you’re trying to make a living, and it drags down other musicians’ ability to make fair money and pay their bills.

A parting thought: I certainly did some free and underpaid gigs as a student, and in some cases that may have opened doors to better opportunities. (It’s hard to connect the dots definitively.) But I think those of us who are established as freelancers should be careful about treating unfairness as a “paying dues” rite of passage. Shouldn’t we be using our success to make things better for the next generation of musicians?


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