I have some friends who earn a living (more or less) as musicians, and some of them could make strong arguments why performers should be paid properly for their work. I’d agree with most of their points, particularly when a big event is taking place and many people are being paid for their contributions but the musicians or singers are expected to perform for free or ‘for the love of it’. Even though being a musician might be enjoyable, there is a significant level of skills, upkeep costs and preparation time involved which deserves fair recompense. Yes, some musicians get paid crazy money, just like some footballers or some actors, but the majority of talented performers out there seem to get by on bits of well-paid work, bits of less well paid work, ‘day jobs’ and other streams/trickles of funding from CD or download sales.
I have very rarely been paid to sing and rarely feel like the context merits payment even if I hope I do a reasonable job. Singing in church or at a friend’s wedding is generally a privilege not a chore, and I have also sung voluntarily at some charitable events where my contribution is a donation as well as something I enjoy. The occasional busking I have done with a friend has also been mainly for pleasure rather than to earn money for us to go to more Fringe shows, although we were delighted when one guy gave us £50 for singing a particular song while he proposed to his girlfriend. We were rather excited about it and probably would have done it for free but he wanted us to come back a bit later and offered some money up front to make the deal.
I started leading an international singing group during my job working with asylum seekers and refugees, so for a while I was paid to do that, although only my regular hourly rate which would have been nothing like enough to get them a professional singing coach. I’m not trained in leading singing but I think they still got good value for money, even more so when I stopped working for the organisation when I got a full-time job but I continued to lead the group as an unpaid volunteer. I wasn’t the only one offering good will to keep the group going as one of the churches where we met let us keep using the room without charge as well. But the funding, which had got the group started and enabled us to offer help with bus fares to enable some of our asylum seeking friends to get to the group, ended and attendance at the group dwindled soon after. Unlike some choirs which charge subscriptions we were practically paying people to come, and it wasn’t surprising really that this model proved unsustainable. But it had seemed a really important piece of work, valuing different cultures and the songs people had sung in their varied backgrounds. Singing songs from around the world included such a variety and we built up some wonderful harmonies; it was a real pleasure.
More recently I have attended another local community choir and not had to pay for the privilege – following the success of more choir programmes on television the CBSO have clearly had some funding to run a community choir in my local area and while I could afford to pay a subscription I expect that might put off some of the other choir members. The folk club I attend doesn’t charge performers on a singers’ night and they cover their costs by charging a bit more for the nights when the have guest performers who they pay to perform. I approve of this policy although I have realised that people who can afford to contribute something get the chance through the raffle so I have started buying tickets for this instead. You do hear some quality performers on a singers’ night – some of whom do paid gigs elsewhere, but one of the regulars said that fewer young performers want to come and join in if they’re not being paid.
I can understand this, and I know there aren’t so many young singers (and I count myself as young in this particular demographic) who choose to sing folk and acoustic music for pleasure. I know there is a difference between doing music as a hobby, (which I suppose is my own situation although I don’t like the word hobby – makes me sound naff), to trying to make it your paid work. But I’d love to see more younger people at the folk club, and I hope the wave of younger performers out there winning awards will attract some more singers for leisure and pleasure as well as people wanting to make money out of it. Perhaps there are a range of other forces at play here, including the lack of good jobs for young people and the culture of music competitions on television which encourages young people to believe than anyone talented can make lots of money out of music (which doesn’t seem to be my friends’ experience).
The main point which provoked this blog post was that I could have gone to a day workshop of singing international songs today on the other side of the city, but it would have cost me £36 and I’d have had to take my own lunch. I felt so conflicted about this – I love and miss singing songs from around the world, and I could have afforded the cost. The day is being facilitated by an experienced singing coach who has some good reviews on the internet and I don’t begrudge her a decent salary. I guess they couldn’t predict numbers turning up and there will be other costs regarding the venue and publicity etc. But I also made a judgement about the people who would turn up in this more affluent suburb of Birmingham willing to pay £36 for a day of singing. I guessed that they would be mainly white middle-aged middle class women (not unlike me). I really hope they have an enjoyable day but I’m guessing that some of the more inclusive, empowering aspects of inviting people to sing songs from their own cultures will be lost. Sometimes the use of songs from other cultures, particularly when little attention is paid to what the words mean or how to pronounce songs properly, just feels rather colonial or somehow fetishising the ‘exotic’ sounds or harmonies of other groups of people from around the world.
I still lead songs in other languages at church sometimes, and this feels important as part of our vision for including different cultures and recognising our part in a bigger, global Church. If someone else organised a group locally I would very happily lead and facilitate sharing of songs from different cultures and would probably be willing to do this for free, even while recognising that this would probably mean undercutting a more qualified music professional who could do a better job but would need and deserve payment. The thing is, I do love to sing, and I do it for the love of it as well as believing that communal singing, particularly with an inclusive and international flavour, is a good thing for a diverse community like mine. But I don’t think even a pro would get many takers around here at £36 a head.