Post SLAM: musicians need sustainability too

The inspirational turnout at yesterday”s SLAM rally shows the depth of love Melburnians have for their live music. But its focus on venue sustainability is only half the story.

Over the last couple of decades there has been a massive decline in average payments made to musicians in live venues. In my view, any project which aims to enhance and support live music must address this most basic form of recognition and respect.

SLAM’s recognition of the economic contribution made by live music suggests an additional aim of achieving equity in how musicians are paid. For live music to be sustainable it is necessary that musicians survive too.

The MEAA (Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) already supports musicians working in theatre, orchestras and other commercial settings. It seems to me that the logical way forward would be for the MEAA to extend that support into the live scene.

But however it is to be achieved, the objective is simple: to lift the pay rate for live-scene musicians from the current typical range of $30 to $60, up to the award minimum – around $160 – and for this to be the accepted non-negotiable minimum in commercial settings.¹

I envisage a campaign which would involve at least the following elements:

– Identification of live music “precincts”, such as High St Northcote, Brunswick St Fitzroy, Sydney Rd Brunswick, the CBD, and so on.

– Identification of commercial venues in these areas which present live music regularly, and conversely, venues which present music on a non-commercial basis.

– Identification of the relevant employer groups in these precincts (for example, in many cases this would simply be the local Traders’ Association, in others it may be a much larger employer group).

– Approaching these employer groups with the following negotiating tools:

– a gentle iteration of the fact that a musicians’ award already exists which they should technically be meeting just as they do with their other staff, combined with a recognition that everyone needs to make a living.

– a similarly diplomatically-worded pointing out that the use of sub-contracting, A.B.N’s or so-called “hobby forms” does not obviate the need to meet the normal set of employer-employee obligations in terms of remuneration, tax, WorkCover, superannuation etc. This is because over 80% of a musician’s “contract” consists of their own labour, as per IR law on this subject.

– a recognition that it would be onerous to require full employee paperwork every time an individual musician is engaged by a venue. Many venue managers rightly fear this administrative burden, and any such campaign should include a mechanism for simplifying it, for example, by doing as much as possible on an industry-wide basis, like superannuation, or by using buy-out provisions in the award.

– pointing out that the whole precinct benefits from the presence of live music, not just the particular venue which presents it.

For example, customers often visit such a precinct without a specific plan, and may patronise several businesses in the course of a visit: a movie, dinner, some music, a few drinks, etc. The live music is part of the general attractiveness of the precinct.

This suggests the possibility that Traders’ Associations could contribute to their members who present music a portion of the expense they incur in meeting their obligations under the award.

There is precedent for this is the form of trader contributions to promotional campaigns, festivals, signage etc., which are also justified in terms of mutual and overall shared benefits.

– Appeals to fairness: current practices which involve so-called “door-deals”, or payment which is contingent on results such as bar takings or number of patrons, unfairly shift the entrepreneurial risk to the musicians, who have a saleable skill like other employees and should not be expected to sign up for this type of risk – that is the role of the business person who stands to benefit from it.

One cannot choose whether to pay the bartender or the plumber according to the night’s profits; the musician should be no different.²

In tandem with this, we need campaigns aimed at the music-lovers, musicians, and venue managers, emphasising the following points:

– Melburnians have been accustomed to getting their music for nothing for some decades now, often baulking at even a small door charge, and that culture needs to change. The campaign should compare the “boutique” experience of watching musicians work up close, hearing the sound raw and unfiltered in an intimate setting, with other mass-produced entertainment modes, like D.J.s, nightclubs, stadium shows, cinemas etc., and make the argument that such an experience is very good value, typically costing only as much as a drink or two.

– The advantages of Alliance membership for live musicians (particularly if the above campaign were in progress), and the need in any case to insist on award minimum payment; the short-sightedness of doing discounted “try-out” gigs, of undercutting one’s colleagues, and of doing gigs for “exposure” should be highlighted. There is a saying in show business: “People die of exposure”.³

Some more general points:

Such a campaign is not aimed at venues or events whose presentations of music are genuinely amateur – in the sense of “for love”, without any implication of poor quality. There will always be room for small niche forms, like experimental or little-known styles, and it would be inappropriate to impose award terms on them.

This is already the case for actors: any actor may appear in a small arthouse production or an amateur play; but if the same actor is engaged in a commercial production they must be paid appropriately.

At the moment, almost all live music is presented under this “amateur” system, regardless of the professionalism of the musicians or the commerciality of the venue. This is the heart of the anomaly this campaign would seek to rectify.

Some musicians shrug their shoulders, saying that all this is simply a consequence of an oversupply of musicians, and it cannot be denied that there is intense competition for the gigs that are available. But to again draw an analogy with actors: while many struggle to find work, when they are professionally employed they are well paid. In contrast, musicians have no shortage of live work available, but it is so badly paid that even working seven days a week does not raise a decent wage.

Surely it makes more sense to manage a shortage of work by doing fewer, better-paid gigs (and pursuing other options in between), than to slave away constantly for a pittance?

A little crystal-ball gazing: It is possible that the success of such a campaign could result in some venue managers taking their bat and ball home, and simply doing without live music. The trend may be towards fewer dime-a-dozen gigs of mixed quality, and more high-quality, better paid gigs, possibly more expensive for patrons. This would be balanced by clearly delineated cheaper amateur gigs, where patrons could take a chance on something a little less mainstream.

This distinction is clear in some cities; for example New York, where two different venue types have evolved, the more commercial type a blue-chip business, and gigs in them highly sought after; whilst the amateur type are a grab-bag of treasures and duds.

It’s also possible the overall quality of the scene would improve – for forty bucks, you might show up late, unshaven and drunk; but for two hundred, you’ll practise before the show and you might even iron your shirt!



1) An increase of around $100 per performer per show is insignificant beside the increase in real estate values alone in the tracts of inner Melbourne which have become entertainment precincts in recent decades – conservatively in the tens of billions of dollars (leaving out the value of the businesses themselves, which would be at least commensurate). If even 1% of this increase is attributable to the attraction of live music, we are talking about a contribution of hundreds of millions of dollars.

2) A frequently-heard employer viewpoint is that if they only make, say, $100 more during the three hours the band plays than they would have anyway, how can they justify paying any more than that? But this micro-analysis is flawed, and is not the view the same venue manager would take when assessing the value of their five-figure renovations – in both cases the overall attractiveness of the venue is improved and cannot be judged on a night-by-night, hour-by-hour basis. Having a reputation as a good music venue is valuable in itself.

3) Many venue managers are very adept at exploiting these schemes – one infamous 1990’s South Melbourne publican had a different band “trying out” every night and consequently never paid anyone!

5 thoughts on “Post SLAM: musicians need sustainability too

  1. Bradley James

    Great article/blog! This is something that patrons, venue managers and musicians could benefit from. I cant believe I’m the first to comment on the blog, let alone how accurately and intimately the subject matter has been addressed. A lot of very good points raised!! Very impressed.

  2. Brian Snowden

    A lot of common sense here John, but how do your suggestions get implimented?
    You may have noticed that this is an era in which everyone in general, not just unscrupulous publicans, want their music for nothing. I started in bands in the sixties and while there is always a lot of who-ha about the good old days, not mush has changed over the years. The artists who have made money, let alone a living, have always had competant management, and even that is no guarantee of survival. Sorry to come across as a sceptic

  3. johnohagan Post author

    I think I spelled out in a fair amount of detail how my suggestions could be implemented, all that’s missing is people to do the (potentially unpleasant) leg-work: me for a start, If someone would pay me (I can’t afford two jobs that don’t pay!). I’ve offered my services to the MEAA and to Music Victoria a few times, no joy so far…

    Sure, people want their music for nothing; they also want their dental work gratis, doesn’t mean dentists are going to give it. In fact, if one did, the other dentists would be waiting for them in the carpark to give them some free dental work of their own.

    A more realistic comparison would be the thousands of backpackers who are willing to do bar work for below minimum: while I’m sure it happens here and there, it is constrained by the fact that everyone involved knows it is illegal, and law-abiding employers do not exploit the willingness. For some reason the same exploitation is shameless, public and blatant, and often consensual, when applied to musicians.

    But I’m not suggesting a descent into baseball-bat unionism, just the legal, firm but gentle, non-compulsory but effective style currently deployed for actors by the MEAA, which could be summarized as informed selective enforcement of existing awards.

  4. Bradley James

    @ Brain

    I think John is speaking on a for ALL musicians, wether they have agents and management or not. Melbourne consists of 1oo’s of musicians who work for each other, signed and unsigned artists, Bands (both cover and original), so the problem isn’t localized to just artists with management. It affects all those who choose/want to make a living from music (live performance being a percentage of the monthly/annual income)
    I think John is just trying to open the eyes of musicians and music lovers alike. The ABS (australian bureau of statistic) suggests musicians have the skill level of surgeons and engineers. The ABS also suggests musicians make a weekly income of $500 per week. The minimum wage (nationally) is $569 per week, for a low level labor/retail/service assistant.

    EVERYONE who enjoys, works and participates in the performing of live music in melbourne should read this blog.

  5. heather

    Hi John,
    Excellent article. I thoroughly agree with your points about minimum wage and acknowledging the greater value musicians add to our shopping/restaurant/venue precincts. I have attempted in my years of gigging and booking my bands to pay all my musicians the maximum I could. It is impossible working alone to get a negotiate a amount from venues, unless you accept next to no pay, many simply will not give you a gig. I have attempted supplementing gig fees with corporate or private function gig fees and some with cd sales though this once again transfers the costs of live music solely to the punter which should be recognised as not entirely fair. Venue owners do need to recognise and be made to acknowledge the value of live music in their venues and their precincts. There is a minimum gig pay established in SA, what are the moves for establishing one in Victoria?


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