The Pay’s The Thing

A musician friend of mine once said: “We don’t do it for the money. But we won’t do it without the money”

I’m paraphrasing. The original piece is here. But this is as good a start as any. I’m finally plucking up the courage to talk about money. I have to, everyone else does.

It is a subject I loathe. My bandmates know not to discuss the fees and splits when we’re at a gig, they know it makes me very snappy. I just hate putting a price on what we do, that’s for the booking stage, not the magic bit. Money is what I think about when the Council Tax second reminder comes along, or the red-bordered United Utilities threat, or when I’m in a shop trying to work out which milk bottle has slightly more in it. Money is what I think about when things are going badly. Money is an obstacle as much as it is an enabler. Playing with a band is a joyful thing that takes my mind off money. If money invades that special cathartic moment then something very precious gets a little bit spoiled.

I try to keep art and money in different compartments of my brain. If the two subjects get too close one will inevitably start bullying the other – like bored children in the back of a hot car on a long trip with no scenery.

I know the sort of tune that works for a program trail, I know that certain chord progressions are more likely to prick the ears of radio producers than others and I know what kind of gigs pay the best (weddings). And yet I stubbornly turn my back on this knowledge the majority of the time.

Because, quite simply, I do not want to be held hostage by those thoughts. I am an ambitious man but certainly not in terms of wealth. If I was I would be in a different business. The highest paid musicians still don’t even come close to the upper echelons of the financial sector. To them our success stories are nothing more than punchlines. The combined royalties of Bono, Elton John and Paul McCartney are peanuts compared to the annual takings of the big money pushers. If you want to be rich you’re much better off doing it with sums rather than songs. Music just happens to be the thing that makes having no money a little bit easier (though no amount of money would make having no music any easier).


Just because the motives behind my craft are not money-based doesn’t mean I’ll play a gig for nothing. If you want me to play some songs at your picnic I’ll be happy to, but if it’s in a bar or club then it comes at a price. If there is money in the equation then I want some. If people are buying booze on the premises then there’s money somewhere, if there are logos on the walls then there is money somewhere, if tickets are being sold then there is definitely money somewhere. I have only one rule when it comes to gigs and pay: DON’T BE EXPLOITED. Simple as that. I don’t search for the highest fees, I just search for the fairest. I’m looking for sustainability in what I do and that doesn’t mean squeezing the last penny out of a booking, it means building supportive networks with well-meaning promoters, keeping ticket prices reasonable for audiences and helping the wider scene stay healthy. It’s about equilibrium. Greed is not good.

I’m often asked for tips on how to make a living from writing and performing music. I suspect I often don’t say what people want to hear, advocating as I do the importance of lowering one’s outgoings rather than immediately boosting one’s incomings (because the latter tends to take a lot longer than the former). Then I tell them the thing about not being exploited – that’s a very important bit – after all, just because we don’t choose to pursue money at the expense of everything else in life, doesn’t mean we aren’t outnumbered ten to one by those who do. The creative sector is full of scuttling scavenging bottom-feeders riddled with underdeveloped imaginations and impoverished outlooks (don’t feed them any crumbs or they tend to multiply).

And it’s not very glamorous to admit but I’m really careful with money. Tediously so. That’s because I’m a full time peddler of relatively niche music. Most of the world does not want what I make and basic economics has taught me not to expect great wealth where there is little demand for the supply. It’s not the most comfortable way to live one’s life but this regime of art and austerity has made me pretty happy (for the time being anyway). What I do is incredibly rewarding… it’s just that the rewards in question aren’t always directly transferable for goods and services.

I’m now entering the off-season. Until February I’ll mostly be living on what I managed to squirrel away from the Summer festivals. These times of belt-tightening are typically when I do most of my songwriting so I guess that’s a sustainability of sorts. One could argue there’s something rather poetic about lean times producing fuel for the days of plenty. Hmm, maybe I’ll put that in a song… a niche one.

3 thoughts on “The Pay’s The Thing”

  1. It’s also great that you can write this way, explain your position and put some perspective on sustaining a creative life. Thank you

  2. Emma Harper: And I’ll make sure you get enough money to make it worth your while…
    Alabaster: That won’t make it worthwhile. The people make it worthwhile, and the music makes it worthwhile. The money only makes it POSSIBLE

  3. great piece, and nicking a quote

Leave a Reply to Darren Nesbit Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s