Labour market norms on the London and Paris jazz scenes

By Charles Umney (November 2015)

Musicians are highly vulnerable to poor working conditions. Practices such as playing for free, and even schemes such as ‘pay to play’ are widespread, and the desire of many musicians to perform can be exploited by clients who dress ‘exposure’ up as a valid substitute for payment. These problems were highlighted by the Musicians’ Union (MU) report “The Working Musician” (2012), which showed that the majority of British musicians earn less than £20000 per year, despite having higher than average levels of training and education. Previous research by TEMS team members, which draws on qualitative interviews with freelance musicians in London and Paris, has shown how the prevalence of precarious and poorly-remunerated work in music makes the profession inaccessible for many people.

How can musicians counter these problems? Trade unions such as the MU have sought to proliferate guideline minimum prices for engagements, and to raise awareness of the dangers of unpaid work through campaigns such as “Work not Play”. But since live music work is so often accessed via personal contact networks, a more important influence on the labour market in many circumstances may be the informal ideas and expectations musicians themselves collectively develop around what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable terms. Whenever they are offered work, musicians have to make individual decisions about what kind of prices they should ask for or accept, and this can sometimes be a complicated question, especially when there are lots of other motivations to take work that aren’t related to the money (e.g. potential for exposure, potential to build networks, potential to develop artistic projects). Musicians are conscious of these issues and do discuss them: our research in London, for instance, showed that people who started offering or accepting work for excessively low fees could be ostracised.

Widely-accepted norms around prices are important for individuals because they help musicians address knowledge gaps. Often, when musicians are offered work, potential clients or agents will ask them to name a price without offering much contextual information (e.g. size of budget, their expectations, or how many other quotes are being solicited). Strong collective expectations are important in helping musicians address these kinds of non-transparent ‘spot market’ situations. Many have a strong instinctive idea of what the ‘going rate’ should be in various contexts just from interacting and discussing with other musicians, completely independent of official MU guidelines. But, this is an instinctive knowledge which is rarely adapted to context. For instance, our research uncovered cases where bands would reflexively quote £150 per performer, whether the engagement in question was a small local function for friends or a large banking industry event in a distant city where astronomically expensive bottles of champagne are flowing.

The addition of French data to our study of musicians looked at similar issues but in a different context. In France, musicians can gain access to the intermittents du spectacle system, whereby they receive a guaranteed monthly income to compensate for periods where they have less work (or where they are doing work that would otherwise remain unpaid, like rehearsing or writing). But each individual musician has to undertake a certain amount of work in a given period (507 hours’ worth in 10.5 months, to be precise), and it can be difficult for them to meet these eligibility criteria. It is especially hard when clients and venue owners try to avoid taxes by hiring musicians on an informal, cash-in-hand basis (these don’t count usually towards the 507 hours musicians need to accrue).

As a result, for many French musicians, whether certain jobs will enable them to retain their status as an intermittent du spectacle, and hence continue receiving social insurance payments, overrides in importance the question of how much a client will pay. French musicians tended to be more reluctant to talk openly about price expectations with their peers than British counterparts. This shows how, when there are strict individual eligibility criteria to access important social support systems, more informal collective ways of regulating prices on freelancer labour markets are weakened. Moreover, anarchistic ideological currents are also influential in some sections of French jazz, leading to the stigmatisation of State-mandated social welfare systems.

My recent article (available here: is therefore somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for unions alone to significantly regulate working conditions on freelancer labour markets. Efforts by them to do so are welcome, but they will only be effective if musicians themselves are more ‘class conscious’, about establishing what kinds of fees are and aren’t acceptable in different circumstances.


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