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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I don't play free jazz but I'll make you a good price

I am on the mailing list for the McGill goings-on and I was recently forwarded this email from a restaurant in Laval:

My husband and I are looking for music students to Jam at our Cafe located at the Centropolis in Laval.

-Looking for music students for a jam night
-one a week /biweekly or monthly depending on your schedule
-location Cafe Art Java Centropolis Laval
-Style of music : Jazz, Blues, or any other mellow evening cafe suitable music style
-Benefits to be discussed upon contact

If interested please call Reina at 514...

Its clear that this well intentioned entrepeneur couple wants to imbue their establishment with some groovy sounds however its also clear that they don't want to pay a cent for their ambience providers. When the "benefits" are not offered up front that is secret business code for "yeah, yeah sure we'll take care of you".  And maybe that's cool with you to barter beer/snacks for jamming with your friends outside of school.  But before you pick up your cell phones and start looking into the cab fees to get out to Laval with all your equipment I would like the good students of McGill to consider this:

-If you do end up working for these people you will never, never ever get payed as a professional musicians from them.  Once an employer realizes they can get a student to do a job for free they will never relinquish that relationship with you. If you do someday want to ask to be payed a professional wage you will have no leverage and even you will be living proof that a student will do it for free.

- I know it might sound like an ok deal for you now but think about it: in a few years you will be a professional and trying to make a living playing your instrument. Restaurants are one of the types of businesses that you will turn to make some bread (hopefully not literally).  When you play for free as a student you are sending the message that these establishments shouldn't pay for musical ambience and encouraging them to outsource for free. When mom and dad are no longer paying the rent, believe me, this is going to suck.

-Also consider the effect that performing for free will have on you as an artist. First of all the client isn't even looking for a "performance" they are happy with you jamming.  This is starting with a pretty mediocre expectation of the quality of music they are hoping for. This can only influence the attitude that you bring to your performances.  Are you going to just wing it on the gig thinking "why should I prepare anything if it doesn't even pay?" Think about the perception the public will have watching potentially very under-rehearsed music being played.  On the other hand many of you are already performing at a very high level and are only student musicians in name only. What effect will this have on your attitudes towards yourself given the hours of practicing that you've put into you music.

-Finally, speaking as someone trying to get my own bills payed partly through jobbing gigs in Montreal I always sigh a little when I see an example of the erosion of a musician's standard of living. It used to be that we participated in our union (corrupt as they may have been) but the end result was that there was a commonly understood standard of remuneration that a musician could expect. The sad fact is that when I work in a restaurant or do a club date I am getting payed the same amount on the cheque that musicians made 20 years ago.  I realize that I too have been willing to play for less and less and that my elders must have been shaking their heads at me as I set out professionally.  But when will the undercutting end?  I know personally of musicians, very well respected by the community, who have called up booking agents trying to undercut their peers. And this restaurant advertises for a "free" gig (maybe they want to hear Free Jazz?) without even a smidgeon of reserve.  These are dark days for live music and I would just hope that you weigh thoughtfully the consequences of performing for free.


  1. I saw that e-mail.. That is hard to dealwith that when we are student and try to make something..Last year, I played in a cafe with a Jazz trio and we even had to pay for the food. It is hard to pass 8 hours of playing or practicing music and be treated like that..I never been there again..

  2. Josh again, you are talking about the current state of affairs everywhere in this country. You are bang on and thanks for posting this stuff.

  3. Hi Josh. I'm finally getting around to reading your blog. Nice posts. I hope that you printed a copy of this blog and mailed it to the restaurant owners so as to educate them, and let them know a musician's perspective. Students should also give some thought to the amount of money they (or their parents) have invested in lessons over the years before agreeing to give away their services.