August/September 2015

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Making Sure You Get Paid

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Making Sure You Get Paid

There’’s a natural enough tendency for young musicians to be rather awed and thankful for whatever performance opportunities are presented. This is because dreams are starting to be fulfilled, and an often long held passion is becoming a reality – playing your music on stage. You grab every offer and don’’t look too closely at the details. In fact, you may even be worried that if you get to the question of payment too quickly you’’ll create unnecessary tension, or even spoil your relationship with whoever’’s offering the chance to play.

But here’’s the truth: the slower you are to bring up the question of payment, the more of an amateur you will appear in a professional situation. (The exception here is if you have a manager to take care of these details – but that’s unlikely in the early stages of the game.)

This doesn’’t mean that you should demand all the details in an arrogant way. Experienced musicians develop different casual ways of coming to the topic in the first conversation, like, “Is this a paying gig?”” or “What rate are you offering?”” If you honestly take it as a given that the purpose of the conversation is to offer you paying work, then it’’s only natural that the question of compensation should come up.

What you need to know, along with the amount that you’’ll be paid, is the process that comes with it. There are several different ways in which this works, and the same venue can have different procedures depending on the type of gig and the popularity of the headlining performers. Below are a few things you can expect in your local scene.

Headliner fee-for-entry:

This is a very common type of arrangement between venue and performer. The headlining band is essentially throwing a party at the venue and inviting their followers to attend. The band charges a cover fee at the door, and the bar sells drinks. It’’s a great deal for a venue on an off-night, because they have to pay staff for those nights anyway, and they’’re likely to sell more drinks than if they simply tended bar. On top of this, the music is for free from their standpoint.

As for you, here’’s a chance to test the ability of your band to pull in a crowd. I strongly advise new bands not to attempt such gigs until your following has grown enough to pack your supporting appearances. Which brings up the next category…

Support act fee:

In situations like above this is a percentage of the door take. A strong supporting band can be key to the success of gig, so their cut should be at least 20% of the door. A lesser-known opening act might get 5-10%, or sometimes nothing at all, just the chance to play.

Personally I wouldn’’t hire a band to open for me unless they were worth paying, even if it was their first gig. If you’’re the headliner, don’’t do this to your fellow musicians. Cut them in for something. Support bands might alternatively be paid a set fee, or a minimum fee that ensures some of their costs are covered if the gig tanks.

Be warned of the double-edged sword. A set fee can cut you (the support act) out of greater profits if the gig proves a well-attended success. On the other hand, a percentage means you’’re working for the headliners in getting your fan base to attend, and they’’ll take 80% of what your fans pay at the door. Imagine if only your fans showed up – then the headliners have profited off of you directly – and may not have done any promotion themselves. These are the conundrums that often lead to fights in a local scene and even longstanding feuds.

Avoid such pettiness at all costs though. It’’s a sign of professionalism to make the best out of a bad situation, but then disengage from further activities with those who’ve proven themselves unprofessional.


There are several situations in which bands are paid a set fee by organisers or venues. The dream gig is a large, well-attended concert headlined by an immensely popular international band. In these cases, fees are negotiated by band managers and promoters, but often local heroes get a shot at warming up the crowd.

More typically, though, fee-for-service work includes parties, private and public events, school appearances and covers gigs. Big acts can also be paid a straight fee to play a top venue, in which case the club also pays supporting bands directly as well. These gigs can be terrific, or they may be a grind, but at least you know you’re getting paid at the end of the night – or do you?

Receiving payment:

It’’s pretty much a given that money will be paid at the end of each night. Sometimes organisers will pay musicians at the start – usually just to get it out of the way so they can forget about business and enjoy themselves for the rest of the evening. But that’’s rare. Most likely you will have to wait until the tills have closed and the receipts are being added up.

All too often I’’ve waited around after closing, knowing full well that we were going to be paid out of what the bar earned that night. That sounds kind of crude, but sometimes it’’s the only way a club can afford to pay musicians, and it’’s symbolic that part of the drinks earnings is going directly to the talent.

Don’’t leave without getting paid:

Musicians who don’’t know the ropes may just head home, tired of waiting or needing to get up early the next day etc. Don’’t, because that can lead to extra hassle and even possibly bad feelings. Just stick around, or if you have a manager this is where they should prove their worth and collect for you, so you can go get a good night’’s sleep.

Some venues may have different times to collect –– not at the end of the night, but the next morning. Whatever the case though, don’’t be afraid to ask and don’’t let your band get messed around. It’’s a question they’’re expecting to hear. Never feel ashamed about asking to be paid. Don’’t ever give anyone that power over you.

The fees you can expect largely depends on state of your band’’s progress. Don’’t miss Building Blocks’ appearance in next NZM, featuring the start of a new mini series: Status in the Scene. See you then.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.