When Should You Pay Your Musicians?

musicians playing in bandPHOTO: helpmusicians.org

by Dom Jones

We’ve all had those calls for gigs that will supposedly give us great “exposure,” but which offer no pay. Honestly, most new musicians who are just starting to gig have probably taken one or two of these offers before realizing how much it can devalue them as a service provider. It’s constantly being drilled into our heads that music is a “service industry.” We’ve got the goods to provide the services, especially having been trained at one of the top music schools in the world. We all want to make money, and we all want to get paid, but as peers, when should we pay each other? This is a sticky subject because any show costs everyone involved time to learn and rehearse the material, and ultimately, perform in the show. Let’s talk about four categories of performance:

On-Campus Shows

This includes Caf Shows, recitals, shows in The Loft, Red Room, or David Friend Recital Hall. In these instances, I don’t think payment is necessarily required. These kinds of performances are all a part of our learning experience, much like ensembles and private instruction are actual classes that we get credit for. I also don’t think anyone should expect payment for these shows. I know that sometimes The Red Room will have students open up for bigger name acts performing there, but if the student isn’t getting paid, the musicians who play behind them shouldn’t expect payment, either.


Here, I’m talking about auditions for non-Berklee opportunities, and I do think that you should offer your musicians some sort of compensation, even if it’s just travel costs to and from the location of the audition. This shows respect for their time, and makes it so that helping you out doesn’t cost them anything out their own pocket. Also, for auditions, unless you’re required to bring more than one musician, I would keep it simple and just bring a guitarist or a keys player. You really don’t always need a full band in these situations, and it’ll make compensation easier on your pockets. If you can, try to throw in a meal in addition to travel costs.

Studio Time

PAY. YOUR. MUSICIANS. It’s all fun and games until you release that album, it unexpectedly blows up, you get signed, and now everyone who played on it wants a million dollars for that one lick they came up with in the bridge. Unless your musicians are composing the music being played on your project, I would suggest a Work-For-Hire agreement. This means that while your musicians have been hired to play the music, they are being compensated for playing in the session, and retain no ownership to the music thereafter (meaning you, the artist, retain all copyright ownership). If your musicians ARE helping with the composition of the music, you should still pay them for playing in the session, but make sure that you do a split-sheet with them before releasing any music, so that the percentages of ownership are contractually clear and agreed upon.

Off-Campus Gigs

This should be a no-brainer, but if you’re getting paid for a gig, and you bring an accompanist or a band, YOU SHOULD PAY THEM! Even if you choose to take one of those golden “exposure” gigs, you should be prepared to pay your musician out of your own pocket. Ultimately, we’re all trying to pay the bills by using some facet of our musical ability. Showing this respect to your musicians will build rapport, and should there come a day when you have a really important audition, but no funds to pay your musicians, they’ll be more likely to do you a favor because you’ve consistently respected their time and talent in the past. A good rule of thumb is to set expectations when asking someone to play for your gig. Send them the time, location, length of set, how many rehearsals you think you’ll need, how much they will be paid, and let them decide whether or not this is something they’d like to participate in.

In a perfect world, every musician would be getting paid every time they picked up their instrument, but that’s not realistic for the time you’ll spend at Berklee, learning to perfect your craft. Hopefully, this is a helpful guide to keep you in the good graces of your players.

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About the Author

Dom Jones is a dual major in Music Business and Songwriting, and her work has been published in Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, Blavity and Ebony.com. She released her debut album, Wingspan, in 2014 and her follow up EP, Blackbird in 2016. Find out more about her at iamdomjones.com