by Christopher Marsceill

There is a great store up the street from my apartment called Mango. They sell this adorable “Philly Girl” shirt, one that can be bought elsewhere around the city, but locally it is a Mango exclusive.

Imagine someone going into Mango and informing, not asking, but informing the staff that he or she needed the shirt yet had no funds in their budget for the shirt. It’s OK, though, because when people saw them wearing the shirt they would know that it was from Mango. The person wearing it would even keep some business cards from Mango handy to give out.

Sounds inappropriate, right? It is something that I deal with multiple times a year as a full-time musician. What is even more amazing is that these requests for free services always come from groups that have members whose yearly income is double what I make as an independent artist.

I am not sure if a monetary value can be put on the training I have had: a couple hundred-thousand dollars of higher education followed by years of performing six days a week in and around New Orleans honing my craft. Add to that a few hours a day I currently spend practicing, composing or arranging new material. Then there is the maintenance on equipment, upkeep on my physical appearance (you gotta look good if you want to get hired), hours – I mean hours – on the phone booking new venues, meeting with potential brides and grooms to help plan their big day, plus dealing with hotels, township offices (if the performance is outside and a variance is needed) – the list goes on and on.

Did I mention that to stay competitive and be able to put bids in for jobs, I need to have the same liability insurance coverage that a caterer or general contractor has? Places like the Highlands Historical in Ft Washington won’t hire me without it, and it isn’t cheap.

A study from 2015 found that the average yearly income of a full-time musician in the United States is around $20,000. I mentioned earlier that, in my experience, those looking for free music are wealthier than I am and always white. When talking to older musicians, I am told that $100/man was considered a fair-paying gig in the early 1960’s. Why then am I fighting to get $150/man in 2017? And remember: $150/ man doesn’t include what I need to put aside for my insurance. And taxes. Don’t forget the tax man. As I said: I am a full-time musician. That also means Uncle Sam gets about 23 percent of what you are paying me. Suddenly a $100 gig becomes $77, which becomes $50 or less once I take care of the insurance bill. I need gas to get to the venue, and that brings us down to $40. Am I performing downtown? If so: parking garages are about $25 or $30 for a weekend night, right? So at the end of the night I may have $15 – $15 for three or four hours of work.

Why then, time and time again, am I approached with “Our group is hiring a few musicians to entertain, but we don’t have music in our budget”? If this is the case then (1) you aren’t hiring musicians at all, and (2) you should focus on what actually is in your budget.

When I am asked for something for free from people who make more in one week than I make in one month is insulting and borders on indentured servitude. What is amazing to me is that when I am asked to perform for groups from lower income areas (i.e., West Parkside Business Association, various community groups in Germantown, Mt. Airy, etc.) my price is never questioned, and a generous tip is almost always included. Why does this issue seem to be native to Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia’s “Garden District”?

Don’t think I don’t do “freebie” gigs. I donate my time and talent to a number of good causes. There are a few children’s charities that I contribute a silent auction item of a performance in your home, and many times I will perform for free at the auction itself. Occasionally, my band mates join me and the auction item becomes a jazz trio for a house party, etc. It always comes back around in the end. A child gets medical bills paid and you get some great music in your house. But asking musicians to play for nothing more than “business card placement” is despicable.

I am a firm believer that live music makes any event more memorable. If you feel the same and don’t “have it in your budget,” then ask your members, friends/neighbors for help. If you have 25 members and they each contribute $20 then you have $500 for music, which –in 2017 – is a fair price for a duo to entertain for three or four hours.

Music for nothing? That’s called stealing.

Christopher Marsceill, aka Rev Chris, is a full-time jazz pianist, vocalist and composer. In 2016 he performed 231 times live in the United States and released an album with his quintet called “@etude.” He can be found at Twitter, @revchristopher and on Facebook at facebook.com/RevChrisMusic. He is an avid blogger writing about the music business and his own vegetarian recipes. His blog is online at www.revchristopher.blogspot.com.

  • Rev Chris

    Before writing this a few friends told me to just refuse the “work” and move one. But I felt I needed to write this because I do not want young talent to be taken advantage of and their first experience of a professional gig tainted by the concept that they don’t need to demand compensation. Especially if the people attending this are paying a fee to get into to see the aforementioned performance. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ffda06b5c80ff80caf447f59935683d45f0feca572e4b3a3c79aa47654df06e2.jpg

  • Katie Toner Drake

    It happens far too often. And when bands do play for free, it devalues music as a commodity and hurts every other musician trying to earn a living. Shame on them and the people who steal their time and talent.

    • Rev Chris

      Time and talent is an interesting duo. When I write paychecks for my band I write their names on the front of the envelopes and on the back, where others would write S.W.A.K., I write “thank you for your time and talent”… because that is what is getting rewarded. TIME and TALENT. I don’t reward community groups who need the Valley Green Inn to paint their shudders a half dozen times before it is okay with “the masses”.

  • Small BusinessPerson19118

    Your
    advice to the upcoming newbies is pretty sound. However the audience can be
    much broader then you allow for. It’s not just for artists.

    I am not sure what the difference is between you and most any one/two-person
    “small” business. We have ALL the same issues you mentioned.
    Advertising/exposure i.e. A baker who is asked to make “free/cheap”
    cookies for a wedding cause everyone there will get to know about her.
    The cost of doing business that the typical customer is unaware (or blind to).
    Insurance, taxes, getting exposure and paperwork are all there.

    If you are a lawyer, doctor, or accountant starting out, people think your
    advice should be free cause it does not cost you anything to give it. These professionals (like yourself) also
    paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education.

    I guess the main difference (IMHO) is many of us might be more cautious about
    profiling based on race or affluence. For 2 reasons:

    1. it’s simply wrong to do on so many levels (morally being most
    important)

    2. It’s a quick way to be run out of business (business advice)

    If you seem to have difficulty penetrating a market either change how you are
    selling to it or just change the market you are selling to. But don’t blame the
    people who don’t want to pay you what you consider a fair wage…. they have
    EVERY right to decide what they want to pay for and how much they want to
    pay. It’s called a fair market price.

    While you are an artist, once you try and make a living at it you actually
    become a businessman whether you like it or not. It ain’t easy for any of
    us but with a lot of hard work it has its rewards.

    • Small BusinessPerson19118

      Added notes to clarify:

      Obviously, Profiling on race and affluence does happen all the time in business… in terms of who to market to….but no one disparages those who they deem not to be a “good” potential customer. They just don’t market to that group.

      A fair market price is the price agreed by both parties. Everyone has a right to decide what they want to pay….And you have the right to decide not to provide services.

      If some people give their product away cheaply, that’s called competition….. we all live with it ,,,sometimes its good for the enterprise….and sometimes its keeps you up all night.

    • Rev Chris

      Wow! Thank you for your comment(s). I agree whole heartedly on so much of what you say. I have been a full time “small business artist” and have gone out of my way to make sure I do it properly in order to be successful. As for staying competitive with pricing: I am all about that and succeed. I mentioned in a previous comment’s reply that I know that I do price myself lower than some of my peers. I do this because I want even the smallest budget to be able to hear the awesomeness that happens with my 5-piece jazz band gets together. It really is something magical because of the talent of the people I am lucky enough to work with. Recently a piano playing friend who charges much more than I do came to me because he couldn’t figure out why he was required to have liability insurance. He also did know that he had to pay royalties for any non-original song he records and posts on his Facebook page… I do all that because I want to do business properly.

      Also… I want to clarify that I was not profiling – entirely – on race. I have noticed a pattern that keeps repeating itself that has a common thread with race and zip code and it confounds me. Maybe I have an optimistic view that the “haves” would be more than willing than the “have nots” to support quality art. But I again and again I find this isn’t the case. Within five days THREE separate groups came to me looking for freebies. And I did say YES to one. It is a community event that is not charging people to attend. In addition to this the day my article was published I donated performance items to a silent auction and to a raffle for charity. I do that because it’s the right thing to do. I also pay my electric bill every month because it’s the right thing to do. And if I don’t: I won’t have electricity.

      And now for story that makes me so happy because it actually goes against the pattern I am complaining about. A few years ago (2015) I was asked to do a performance for a Chestnut Hill non-profit. A group who advertises themselves as a 501(c)3. I agreed to do it and asked the woman who contacted me for some paperwork to use for tax purposes to show a donation of services to a non-profit. I was told “No problem!”. At the actual event itself I was approached by two people – who I won’t name for privacy reasons as they are both well known in 19118 – and they told me this: “We are very embarrassed. We found out that there is a paperwork error and we are not currently a legal 501(c)3 so we cant provide the donation paperwork you requested. We are very sorry and we would like to pay you out of our pocket instead. We didn’t realize the issue when we hired you.” I initially refused because I was so touched by their honesty and kindness. But they wouldn’t drop it and I took their money and paid it forward by putting a majority of it into a donation bin.

      Again thank you for everything you said, in both comments. You do understand that this is a business and I appreciate your perspective. Please send me an private email at as I would love to patronize your place of business in hopes it may be reciprocated one day. I can be reached at INFO@PLEBO.ORG

  • Joe

    I’m a computer technician and my wife is a lawyer – we get asked all the time for “free” advice or service. It’s not just musicians.

    I found your comments about affluence kinda sounded like “sour grapes” though. Specifically about the group that was trying to fix up the valley green inn. You live here, right? In Chestnut Hill? You are white… I think… your anecdotes about “white people with money” are dangerously hateful.

    If people ask you to do something for free, or expect it… refuse. Chestnut Hill has tons of volunteer groups that try to get others to volunteer their time and services. It’s one thing that makes the community great. It makes the streets clean and the crime low and the gardens pretty and the buildings in good shape. If you don’t want to participate in that, go to areas that don’t have such groups.

    Hating on volunteer groups trying to do good is pretty rough. Yeah, it’s true… they have money… but that has nothing to do with it. If you want money… be a hedge fund manager not a musician.

    • Rev Chris

      Joe,
      Thank you for your comments. Open dialogues are a beautiful thing. I do not know what group you are referring to when you said “fix up the Valley Green Inn”. I was never involved with such a group. I have resided down in Mt. Airy since 2009 and love all these neighborhoods within walking distance of my house, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, Wyndmoor, etc. I agree that Chestnut Hill has numerous wonderful volunteers and volunteer groups who are able to pull of some miraculous things and it was never my intention to project hate on any volunteer organization. Am I able to send my child to CHA/Springside if I don’t want to pay for it by just telling the school I intend to send my child? Can I order a steak at a restaurant but inform my server that I am not willing to pay for it? I cannot do either of these things. Why should anyone expect to hire a musician or photographer or painter or caterer or plumber and go into the situation expecting not to pay? I could easily have walked away from the THREE separate 19118 based groups (who all contacted me separately over five days) and say “no thank you” to their offer but I am very afraid that a young person will say yes and think it is a normal thing and is okay. And that was the point of my piece. Especially since two of the three events were charging people to attend. People don’t realize the cost of business and I know that my prices are lower – many times by half – because I WANT people to be able to afford quality entertainment. I know of local performer who charge as much to play solo piano as what I would charge for an entire jazz band. I want to be accessible and still do business properly – with insurance etc – and still be able to pay my rent. The only hedges I want to fund are ones from Produce Junction that can plant outside to help keep this wonderful Northwest section of Philly beautiful. Thank you for your kind words and your opinion.
      – Chris

      • Lou DePietro

        And dont forget those who would offer to pay you with “Exposure Dollars”.

  • Joe

    Also, just listened to some of your music. You are super good. There is no justice in this world, bad people, people with no talent etc. often become rich and famous. You should rid yourself of any envy and hate, it’s baggage you don’t need. Keep jammin.

  • Rev Chris

    This is amazing. I have gotten some great comments on this website in response to things and have thought deeply about the criticism I have gotten. I recently tweeted that I find suspect any album review that is all positive with no critiques. I am all about improving and evolving and thank everyone who has responded.

    That being said… as of this morning (9/3/17) I have received a total of 147 emails, texts, phone calls, DMs, etc etc from all over, including New York City AND ENGLAND in support of my opine. I just counted them. And not all were musicians: the person from England who tweeted to me owns a bakery and relayed a story of someone wanting a free wedding cake because the bride has a few thousand Facebook friends who would see the pictures of the cake.

  • Joe Lex

    Even Woody Guthrie wanted to be paid. When approached about singing free for charity event, he declined. “But it’s for a good cause,” the promoter said. “I don;t play for bad causes,” Woody said.

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