F*ck you. Pay me: Some Thoughts on Musicians and Money.

Yesterday morning, Ellen McSweeney wrote an excellent piece detailing payment trouble she and others are having with Chicago’s Beethoven Festival from 2013. (I would strongly suggest reading the article and glancing through the ever-growing comments before reading further.) There is no need to rehash those points here, but I do think it is important to address further some of the issues surrounding classical musicians and money.

Immediately after reading McSweeney’s post, I was reminded of a talk I saw a while back titled “F*ck you. Pay me.¹ In the video, designer Mike Monteiro and his lawyer discuss how to get paid for one’s work to what I presume is a roomful of mostly web designers. There are parts that don’t directly apply to musicians (payments in the tens of thousands of dollars not the least of which), but there are many points that every individual or small ensemble should take to heart. If you have 30 minutes (and don’t object to profanity), it’s well worth a watch, and I’ll try to pull some salient points that might help us all get paid in full and on time.

Money and Art

(If that isn’t a book-length topic, I’m not sure what is.)

In McSweeney’s post, she recalls an incident where she was offered a gig and after inquiring about a fee, was told to that she might not want to ask such questions in the future. As she writes, “When it comes to money and music, it seems we aren’t in agreement about what the norms are. How much is enough? What questions are we allowed to ask? And what do we do when the check never comes?” When she writes of “norms,” she seems to imply (and here I also draw from my own experience), that money is something to be tip-toed around, that there are tacit rules that must be followed, that handshake deals are the norm, and that money somehow sullies the purity of art.

This needs to end. Now.

Did you and others spend an enormous amount of money on lessons/education/instruments/etc? Have you invested countless hours honing your craft? Do you have debts and bills? Do you like to eat?

I get it. It is awkward to talk about money, and I don’t enjoy it anymore than anyone else. But when we sell ourselves short or pretend like money is not important, we do ourselves and our community harm. That’s a big part of a “F*ck you. Pay me.” attitude. It’s an acknowledgement that what we do has value and should be compensated fairly and promptly, but it’s also the extremely important recognition that when paid and paid well, we have the opportunity to do what we love at a higher level and for longer.

There are several things working against this, of course. Musicians are financially vulnerable, ours is an artistic pursuit and thus above such petty things such as money and, you know, rent, and at the end of the day, most of us would do it for free if we could. None of us (I hope) got into classical music for the money; ours is a labor of love. And yes, I think if we could make it work financially, we’d play for the pure love of it. But that doesn’t mean that we always can.

We must stop apologizing for discussing money. We must stop pretending that just because we would do something for free doesn’t mean that we are able to. Like it or not, artists need money to survive, too, and we can’t keep tip-toeing around the issue.²



I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve played gigs where an agreement was never formally put into writing. I’ve also hired people the same way. This should not be the norm. A great portion of the video is spent explaining what should be put into contracts and how that avoids problems. But the first big takeaway is that contracts, when done well, should protect everyone involved.

From the perspective of the hiring organization, rehearsals, repertoire, cancelation, promotion, etc. are all important issues that should be formalized. I once was on the verge of having to miss a performance due to illness, but the venue already had that issue spelled out, so I was not panicked. That, however, was a rare instance.

From the performers’ perspective, there are many issues to consider beyond getting paid. The following is just what I could come up with in a few minutes, and I’m sure there are many other points to consider:

  • Payment and due date
  • Repertoire
  • Comp tickets
  • Selling of merchandise (someone to help?)
  • Programs
  • Cancelation on the part of presenter
  • Late fee / lawyer fee

That last point may require some clarification. The example I thought of was something along the lines of, “if payment is not received within 120 days of the performance, the presenter will owe the performer 125% of the original fee and any attorney fees necessary to collect payment.” Keep in mind, I have zero training in law, and I have no idea what would or would not hold up should lawyers have to get involved, but if nothing else it shows the presenter that you are to be taken seriously.

The other caveat I have to add is that I have never tried this, but I plan to do this without exception in the future. I see no reason why a simple draft contract could not be at the ready for even a small gig. The fear, I think, is that presenting something like this will scare away gigs, and on that point my lack of experience with contracts shows. That said, if a presenter is nervous about being able to provide payment within four months, I’m not sure the gig is worth it. Moreover, I believe that even small-scale contracts allow us to lay all expectations on the table, protect all parties, and get on with the business of doing what we all love.


On final point from the video is worth mentioning. Monteiro, as might be inferred from the title, does not seem to shy away from being blunt. Yet when asked about his design firm firing clients, he had a somewhat surprising answer. He said that in all the years he’s had his own firm, he’s only had to fire two clients. He assumes, as we all should, that no one walked into the agreement wanting to be difficult or to derail the process. He suggested that a meeting over coffee or a phone call (never email) was almost always sufficient for resolving conflicts. We all, presenters and performers alike, want to bring the music we love to as many people as we possibly can. The contracts are there to protect us when things turn sour, as the case with the Beethoven Festival seems to be, but if we approach one another knowing that we are working toward the same end, we can hopefully keep these fragile and necessary relationships in tact.

¹ Credit to David MacDonald for also noting the video and posting it in the comment section of the New Music Box article.

² I’m not at the moment wading into the other thorny issue of exposure in lieu of payment. I’ve taken several gigs at reduced rates either as favors or for exposure. Some paid off and some have not, but at issue here is the pretense that money cannot or should not be discussed openly.

  • Regarding foonote 2—I recently started being explicit about discounts. We all do projects for less than we might (for people we like, for example, or stuff that is useful, promotional etc.). So now at the offset, and written into any invoice (or contract here), would be the fee I think I’m worth, with a “discount as agreed” line underneath itemising what I’m actually charging.

    In the case of doing work for nothing, in the funded sector this 0.00 fee invoice is actually worth something… as “funds raised in kind”, so the promoter gets credit for raising whatever fee you would’ve charged.

    In the UK we don’t like to talk about money much, especially as you’ve outlined here. But this approach is working, and ultimately it allows me to express my worth, even id I’ve agreed to do something for less. And the next time I work for that person, they know I did them a favour, so maybe that discount is going to be less…

  • It’s surprising to read this. As a freelance writer, I’m used to difficulties in getting paid, but I’d have expected the creative endeavors to be better in such things.

    The fact that money is something that “is tip-toed around” is also surprising. Do musicians not value their work enough to be firm about money? It’s kind of like herd immunity; if enough people do it, then you all won’t have a problem any more.

  • Dotdotdotmusic Very cool! Have you used it?

  • Dotdotdotmusic

    Great article! Here’s something you might consider: an iPhone app through which you can create, sign, and send legally binding agreements “in seconds:” http://www.shakelaw.com/.

  • sanefiftyfour

    Forgive my bluntness y’all, but the idea of expecting to get paid as a performer of new music (or as a composer of any kind of music outside of Hollywood/Bollywood) is kind of laughable, outside of places where it’s being generously supported by the government or by super-rich patrons. If new art music is going to survive, it needs to acknowledge mobile playback devices, copy infringement, streaming audio, cheap music production and distribution technologies, the sonic and rhythmic innovations of jazz/rock/hiphop/electronica etc,  and the mass youth rejection of  the relevance of the European classical/orchestra tradition after the world wars. Virtuosos on instruments from this grand tradition can still expect to be paid as long as they are involved with re-creations, especially opera, ballet, filmscore shmaltz etc. The self-sufficient composer of new music, on the other hand,  has been an anachronism for decades.

  • janetbass

    Here in South Florida we have learned that individual contracts do not
    mean much.  We have a couple of orchestras here that owe years of wages to
    the musicians who are holding contracts that are not backed up by
    anything more than the individual musician himself.  We have been
    learning here that if a victim goes to court, the judgement hardly means
    anything to the offending company.  When the judge rules in favor of
    the employee and the employer is ordered to pay up, the employer
    typically does not pay but instead drags it on through the next courts
    keeping it going for years, costing the employee thousands of dollars.
    Of course a nearly bankrupt musician would not be able to go through all
    that on his own.

  • Pingback: Don’t stiff the musicians (The Internet explodes) | Chick with a Stick()

  • CompGeek

    Thanks for your thoughtful article. As a composer myself I need to add that success in composing classical music has become such a hereditary phenomenon that composer has always the lower hand in encountering performers and festivals. Either classical music industry is alive or dead. If dead, why so many people are getting paid to do administrate duties for artists when the artists themselves are getting paid so little if at all.

  • audiorat

    One thing worth noting is that it seems to me that this problem is worst in edgy, fringy music. At the higher ends of classical and non-classical music performance, contracts are 100% ordinary, as are technical riders and all the other paperwork involved in making sure all the parties involved are protected. No one at a major presenting organization or venue bats an eye when a contract crosses the desk, and a technical rider is de rigeur. There are many books out there about the business side of music, including how to deal with contracts, riders, and negotiations. Granted, most of them are written for a non-classical audience, but in exactly the same way that many classical performers/ensembles are starting to take lessons on marketing, crowdsourcing, brand-building, and other business approaches from the non-classical world, classical musicians can easily adapt that information to their particular circumstances.

  • chorpiano

    And thanks to Andrew for this next important chapter in the discussion. I think contracts are a great idea. If we all did this, the world wouldn’t end. They would get used to it and it would become the norm. All it takes is consensus on our part. This is where unions are great. That said, however, most of the gigs I have done in my career have been non-union. Perhaps it’s time for a different kind of union.

  • chorpiano

    I can’t read any further without commenting that the word missing before you even get to the contracts section is DESERVE. We deserve to get paid. End of story. We have something people want. Money is the agreed upon compensation is our society. We deserve to get money for giving art. End of story.

  • musicgeekage

    What a fantastic article – I wholeheartedly agree that as musicians, we need to get more comfortable discussing money. When we (as a whole) demand equal treatment to doctors, lawyers, etc regarding when we get paid for our services, then maybe clients and employers will start to see what we provide as something worth paying for.