The Economics Of Gigging

I “turned professional” as a musician in 1991 & since that time I have scratched a living from music in one form or another. I found out pretty early on that the most reliable source of income from my skills was to teach. This is quite lucky for me as I enjoy working from home and setting my own hours. I also get a real thrill from seeing a fellow musician overcoming their difficulties, progressing towards their musical goals & knowing I’ve played some small part in that. I’ll be honest, though, I’ve really never enjoyed gigging. Yes, that’s right I DID just say that! To some musicians, gigging is their raison d’etre – it’s how they define themselves & in their eyes, a musician who doesn’t regularly get out and play in public is somehow not a “proper” musician. I beg to differ.

Don’t get me wrong, I have gigged (quite extensively, in fact) in the past and I would happily do so again, with one proviso… I want to earn money doing it. I don’t think this is unreasonable, do you? No-one would expect any other skilled artisan to ply their trade at a loss, but somehow being a musician is to be expected to perform “for the love of it”. Just out of interest I sat down with a pen & paper and a calculator the other day and ran through some numbers to see if it were a viable option to gig for a living. This is what I found out…

OK, so let’s start with defining how much a musician should be able to earn. I decided it would be reasonable to expect an income roughly on a par with any other skilled tradesman. A bricklayer can expect to earn (if my research is correct) an annual salary of around £24,000 so let’s use that as our baseline for calculations. 24K a year breaks down to two thousand quid a month, right? Well, let’s put that into the perspective of gigging. Let’s assume you play ten gigs a month – a couple of weeks where you get a Fri/Sat/Sun run of gigs on a weekend & a couple of weeks where you only manage to play Friday & Saturday. This, in my experience is pretty normal. Sure, you’ll occasionally get a really lucrative period which exceeds this, but you’ll also have fallow patches too, where the work isn’t coming in. We’ll assume these periods cancel each other out.

Assuming the average number of gigs per month is ten, then in order to hit the target of £2000 per month, you’re going to need to earn on average £200 per gig. If you’re in a fairly typical four piece band this means the band has to show a profit of £800 per gig. That’s what has to be left over after all the overheads are taken into account. Let’s take a look at what those are…

Well, for a start off you’re going to need a van to get to & from shows. A quick search reveals that a decent, reliable vehicle is going to run to at least £100-£150 per month in HP payments. Then you’ll need a full PA system with decent monitors, a lighting rig of some kind and a backdrop. All of this equipment has to be bought (probably on credit) and represents a bill landing on the doormat every month. Let’s assume that the total monthly cost of outfitting the band with all the necessary gear comes to £250. Which if you’re playing ten shows a month represents an overhead of £25 per gig.

What other expenses are there? Well, you’re going to need a couple of roadies. I’ve been in bands in the past where we’ve tried to do without them, and sooner or later we always relented and went back to having that extra couple of guys on hand to pitch in. You simply need (in my experience) the mixing desk out front being controlled by someone who can actually hear the front-of-house mix, rather than just having it on stage and going with your “usual settings” which may or may not be right for the room you’re playing in. Also, some of the venues in my part of the world are a little erm… “boisterous” if you know what I mean. I’ve had items stolen from the dressing room whilst I’ve been on stage and I’ve experienced hostility from drunks at gigs many times. Just the security of knowing you’ve got a couple of big chunky lads looking after things is worth every penny. So… how much do roadies cost then? Well, if we assume that we’re doing this as a business, and everything is above board, then you have to pay them minimum wage. Let’s say you’re paying them from the moment they get picked up from home (usually around 6pm) until they get home, sometime around midnight. That’s six hours at £6-50 per hour meaning that two roadies are going to cost £78 in total for the evening. Add that, along with the £25 for equipment overheads to the tally.

Another good idea is to keep a petty cash balance for things like fuel costs and those emergency equipment repairs that any band has to cope with. Let’s say each band member chips in a fiver per gig to keep this topped up. In my last band we used to do this & then share it out once a year around Christmas if there was a surplus. OK then… that’s another £20 per gig to go into the expenses column.

And finally we come to the question of getting the gigs. The scene in my part of the world is pretty much sewn up by various entertainment agencies. Sure… some bands manage to gig without using an agent but these are the acts who’ve either been on the circuit for years (decades in some cases) and have enough of a reputation to not need representation. Most of these bands began by using an agent anyway so it’s unrealistic to assume you can earn good money as an unknown quantity without one. The other kind of acts who eschew representation are the kind of amateur, hobby bands who simply play for the enjoyment of it and don’t care about covering their costs. If you price yourself cheap enough, you can always find work but that’s not what this is about, remember? So, lets accept that an agent is a necessity. How much does one cost?

Well, the fees vary, but I’ve never, ever, paid an agent as little as 10%. I mention this number because the popular myth is that the agent is “Mr. Ten Percent”. In my experience, it’s often between 15% & 25% of your earnings as a band. Not your profit after overheads, they take a cut of the gross earnings. There’s also VAT to put on that, but we’ll assume that the band is being run as a business and is VAT registered so you can claim that back. Let’s say for the purposes of simple calculation that the agent is taking 20% of everything the band gets paid. OK let’s add up the numbers:

Payment to musicians commensurate with a professional salary : £800

Equipment costs : £25

Roadies : £78

Petty cash fund : £20

Total before agency fees : £923

Agency fee of 20% : £184-60

Total band earnings per gig for each member to earn a professional salary : £1107-60

So, there you have it. Eleven hundred quid per gig is what it would take for each member of a typical four piece band to earn the same as a bricklayer. And this doesn’t take into account the cost of getting a group of four musicians ready to hit the road, either. There are going to be expenses for rehearsal studios too, but even without these factored in it’s still a pretty tall order to command this kind of money. Even the best paid bands in my area – the ones who’ve been at it for years, slogging away building a reputation are lucky to earn half of this figure. Sure… you can cast your net further afield (I’ll admit that my little corner of the world isn’t the most affluent place) in the hope of getting better paid work, but that, in itself, will increase your travelling costs & even lead to accommodation expenses if you’re touring the country. It therefore seems unlikely that a professional musician will, by playing gigs, be able to earn the kind of money that their artisan skills should command in an ideal world.

What a good job I enjoy teaching for a living.

Until next time… Have Fun 🙂

John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project

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