Industry news & advice blog

Musicians’ Union offer advice on getting fair pay for gigs, recording contracts, finding music managers & PR, plus loads more!

Last month we conducted a live Q&A on our blog, welcoming emerging and independent bands and musicians to get in touch with their questions for the Musicians’ Union. The questions ranged over a variety of topics including getting fair pay for playing gigs, getting funding for music projects, advice on contracts, and of course how the MU can help unsigned bands and artists. 

We’ve summarised all the questions posed and invaluable advice provided by Jo Laverty of Musicians’ Union in response, so if you missed the live chat at the time, you can bring yourself up to speed now…

 

Q. Please can you provide us with a quick introduction about what MU does and how they help unsigned bands & artists.

A. Well that’s a big question! We’re a trade union, the only one for musicians working in the UK. We’ve got 30,000 members, representing every corner of the industry, and we help them with every aspect of their work. So all the things you mentioned above – pay, gigs and festivals, copyright, contracts, promotion and anything else our members need. 

We can help unsigned bands and artists make sure they're starting out with good advice behind them, so they can build a solid and successful career.
 

Q. How much does it cost to join the MU & what do members get?

A. Students can join for £20 a year. Full price is £213. You get a lot for that – legal advice and support, contract advice, career advice, help protecting your rights, insurance, and experts whenever you need them. We also lobby government for policies that support musicians, and negotiate terms and conditions with the major employers of musicians in the UK. We listed all the benefits once and got over 40! But there’s a summary online here.
 

Q. How do you go about asking for a fee at a gig and how much should I be asking for?

A. It depends on the kind of gig. We have different advice for different kinds of work. The first thing is to never be afraid to ask for a fee. That’s really important. Don’t be scared of doing it. Our Fair Play Guide gives advice on how to maximise the gig experience in terms of making money from it even if you have a low fee. Whether that’s by a percentage of ticket sales or some other means like selling merchandise. You should never buy tickets to sell upfront. MU members can get in touch and ask us if they aren’t sure, or want advice about a particular set-up. 

When you do get an “opportunity” but it’s unpaid, you should look at our ‘Should I work for free’ quiz  

Then our national gig rates cover you for pubs and clubs, that kind of thing. It changes between venue / function and for groups. We’d say £117 per person for casual engagements for groups performing in pubs and clubs of up to 3 hours. That will change if it’s a function or you’re in a concert hall. These are minimums for pros. It’s important for professional outfits to work out what’s worth their while – but that’s something everyone will learn over time. The rates might seem high to emerging artists, but they can really help you negotiate a fairer fee for yourself. You can find the guide and our rates here.
 

Q. How do promoters get away with not paying unsigned talent and even forcing artists to sell tickets for them, giving a band £1 profit out of that?

A. I think it’s important to remember that in a lot of cases, promoters will have budgets for music. So there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be paying. 

Ticket deals aren’t always a bad thing, as long as you’re not being forced to sell a certain amount of tickets to be able to play, and you’re able to make some profit on what you are selling. Ideally, you should always have agreed a guaranteed fee and have a contract. 

We’re also working with venues to make sure they follow the principles set out in the Fair Play Guide we mentioned earlier. Those Fair Play Venues will not be allowed to rip off the musicians. We’re actively signing up venues across the UK to our Fair Play Venues scheme. We’ve got about 100 venues signed up. If you know of venues that treat musicians well, or you’ve had a good experience, let us know and we can see if they belong on the list.  

We’re currently developing that into a tool to help members plan tours, so keep an eye out for that.
 

Q. There are more festivals & opportunities for new young up and coming bands like us which can only be a good thing. Including a lot of city wrist-banded festivals, which again for us is a good thing - if we want to play in Leeds for instance, it's better to be part of a bigger event with lots of people than to have to go and fight for an audience in a small venue. However, promoters/bookers of these events get in touch and brazenly from the start say "Look lads, I really want you to play my festival, I'll give you a good slot but because I have to pay all the bands with booking agents - I can't pay you a fee OR expenses" This even happens at smaller stages at big festivals now like Reading/Leeds. We then have to make a decision between a rock and a hard place.

As a union and organisation representing musicians why can't the MU work on creating a situation where anyone who puts on a festival has to meet the minimum requirement of at least covering 'expenses' for ALL the bands/musicians participating? Even if it started with an MU campaign so there was a kind of sticker that festivals should stick on their publicity saying 'MU approved' or something?

A. We do have a code of practice with the Association of Independent Festivals that outlines how we expect engagers to treat musicians at their festivals. It doesn’t cover fees, but it does cover all other aspects and is a good starting point for that discussion. You can read that here.

From experience, I know people who bring lots of merch with them on a good day sell loads of stuff and make some profit that way. It’s an immediate point of sale to an enthusiastic audience. I’d definitely be ready for that. You also want to push for the best possible slot in those instances. 

The fees side of it is covered by our Fair Play Guide and Work Not Play campaign. Work Not Play is our campaign for fair pay. No-one should ask a musician to work for no fee. I like to send people the ‘Should I work for free’ quiz to understand what it really means when they’ve been offered that. If you do get asked to work for no fee, tell us. We need to know – email [email protected]


Q. I’ve heard a couple of stories from other friends in bands who’ve paid for PR campaigns & been promised radio play but nothing has come out of it & they’re out of pocket. Should PRs make promises like that & how do my band avoid getting into the same situation (other than avoiding the companies my friends have used in the past!)

A. Looking for PR companies is something you need to be really careful of. The problem with PR companies is that legally, they can do the absolute minimum, so it’s important to work with a PR company that you feel believes in you and your music. 

A lot of the smaller PR companies will work with whoever approaches them, so it’s always a good idea to look at who they’ve worked with in the past and whether they’ve worked in a similar genre or with similar artists / bands. 

Talking to your friends is really important. That’s a good starting point. You can also post on the MU Forum and musicians’ groups. 

If you get in touch with us when you’ve made a decision, we can let you know if we’ve had any issues with the company before. Always get a written agreement first. Some PR companies might give you a brief agreement that’s light on details, many won’t give you any agreement at all. Whatever you get, it’s really important to come to us and we can give you advice on what you need to include. 

We’re actually running a PR workshop in London in September, so look out for that. Our Midlands Region ran the same event and a couple of members found work as a direct result of what they picked up in the workshop!
 

Q. Any advice/info on how to apply for funding? i.e. business plan layouts & the best thing to write when applying to land funding.

A. We’ve got lots of advice online here, which is a great starting point. Then there’s The Unsigned Guide's Essential Guide to Funding which you should take a look at. There’s also the Help Musicians UK funding wizard, which is really useful.

Every funding application is different, there’s not much blanket advice we can give. Choose the right opportunities for you, be realistic in applying, make sure you do have a full business plan, refer to MU rates as a minimum if you’re hiring other musicians or paying yourself, read the application carefully and answer every question clearly. 

If you’re applying to a funder like the Arts Council, you can speak to them directly about what they want to see in your business plan and how you should lay it out. And if you’re still stuck, we can advise on applying for funding too so you can always give us a call.
 

Q. My band has been offered a deal by an indie label. Do you still offer a contract checking service to members? Is there anything in particular I should be keeping an eye out for in a recording contract to ensure it’s fair?

A. Yes we do! It’s our Contract Advisory Service. You send a contract to us via your Regional Office, it goes to a firm of solicitors. Then we put you in touch with the solicitors directly for an hour’s free legal advice – written or verbal. When you get that feedback from the lawyer, you can come to us to clarify anything you don’t understand. You don’t need to speak legalese! That’s what we’re here for. In many cases, we have helped our members re-negotiate contracts with the other side. 

The terms of recording contracts are so varied. You can look at our sample recording contracts and notes for help, but you should come to us for Contract Advice and send your contract in. It needs a professional solicitor to look at it really. You can find our specimen agreements and more about contracts on the website.
 

Q. Do you have any tips on the safest & best way to copyright music?

A. People ask us this all the time! And as archaic as it sounds, the best method is registered posting it to yourself, not opening it when it arrives, and putting it in a safe place. You must include something to prove the date, like a copy of that day’s paper. 

Copyright exists as soon as something has been created and recorded in some way. What you’re establishing is that your copyright existed on a particular date, in case someone tries to copy your work later. 

We also have a Copyright Registration Service, which is a good back up. You can ask your MU Regional Office about that.

 

Q. Is there a way to avoid any disputes with gig/festival fees?

A. If you mean disputes over fees unpaid after the event then the best way to protect yourself is to have made sure you have clearly agreed terms in writing before the event, so that if a fee remains unpaid or a gig is cancelled you have clear proof of the booking and how much you were due to be paid. We have a number of template live agreements available which we would advise you to use when confirming live bookings.

If you’re a member of the MU and have an unpaid fee or cancellation case then you should contact us as we offer assistance and advice in recovering fees.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to agree all terms of your booking in writing, as if an unpaid or cancellation dispute occurs it is much easier to recover the fee when you have. Unfortunately these disputes do occur, so it is better to protect yourself with a clear agreement.

If your question is about avoiding disputes when agreeing fees before your booking then this will come down to negotiation. It is important to find a balance, making sure you are not pricing yourself out of the booking but also making sure you are paid fairly. If you have a standard fee you charge then let the promoter know as soon as you have first had contact. Do not feel as if you have to agree to whatever they offer and take into account other aspects of the booking when negotiating, including for example the rider and set time/length. If it is not the right booking and opportunity for you then do not feel as if you have to accept it.

Please see further information on dealing with fees and promotors in the previously asked question: How do you go about asking for a fee at a gig and how much should I be asking for?
 

Q. What’s the best way to split songwriting royalties in a band?

A. Our advice would be to begin discussions on song splits as early as possible and to ensure that an agreement is signed that all parties are happy with, ideally at the start of the writing session before the creation of the composition.

Those involved in the writing session are free to negotiate song splits as they feel necessary, and as long as everyone is happy with the deal, it’s the right deal. Negotiate what you think is fair. Some will base it on how much input each person had on the song and some will decide to split it evenly.

We strongly advise our members to obtain written confirmation of all engagements and we offer a contract advisory service on any music contract. You should look at our template Song Share Agreement. 

 

Q. We've been doing everything ourselves for a year or so in terms of booking gigs & generally managing the band, but at what point should we start looking to get a manager on board?

A. It’s not absolutely necessary for you to have a manager if you’re coping with doing everything on your own, because they do take a commission of around 20%. 

If you’re at the point where balancing your creative side with business has become too much then that may be the time for you to seek management. Also, as you become more in demand, mangers will often come to you. 

If you want to actively look for a manager you should choose someone who is passionate about what you do. It could be someone new who you are building a relationship with or possibly somebody who has advised you in the past, certainly though it should be someone that you trust. You should never work with a manager who you feel doesn’t believe in your project. Think of it as if you’re hiring them to help you. There’s a really good section on management on our website, so take a look at that.

There is also the MMF Music Management Bible, which I would suggest you check out as it includes a list of contacts and advice. It may also be worth looking out for MMF (Music Managers Forum) events which provide the opportunity to network with managers. There are also a number of management companies out there and you can search for similar artists to yourself, or artists who influence you to see who they are working with.

Invite potential managers to your live shows and get to know them and their background. Be realistic about what they can achieve for you and come to us before doing any deal. I think trust between you and the potential manager and having a clear passion in your musical project are two of the main things. The deal you agree must suit you and we can help with that. Details of what a management deal might look like are explained in the management section on our website.
 

Q. Could you give me some info on public liability insurance & at what point is it necessary?

A. For a musician, Public Liability Insurance (PLI) basically protects you against damage to a person or their property while performing or teaching.

It protects you from the financial consequences of claims against you for bodily injury or damage to property of any person not your employee, whilst performing either solo or as part of a group. This could also be whilst teaching in a public or private place, including at home.

If you’re performing live or teaching music then I would advise that you get PLI, and if you are a member of The MU you get it included with membership.

 

Q. Do you have any advice on taking your instruments abroad? When we’ve checked this out in the past some airlines make this very tricky and expensive.

A. We always advise to check with the airline before you fly and we have extensive information on our website including our airline policy guidance with a link through to all the airlines instrument policy pages.

A sturdy flight case is likely to have to go in the hold unless there is space within the cabin for it to be stored, which we’re aware has happened on occasion. Unfortunately, a lot of this falls down to who is on duty on the day and whether they are willing to allow it through onto the plane.

 
ALSO READ:

The Basics: Advice on making sensible decisions & avoiding getting ripped off as an unsigned artist

Finding funding for your music: guidelines from Musicians' Union

Advice on artist & band management contracts from Musicians' Union

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