Just for fun? Time for musicians to get their due

Features Music Student Life

A couple of weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of headlining Mansfield Ball: it was a well-organised event, the crowds were insane and I was up on stage with some of my best friends in the world playing music that I love. It would be misleading to pretend that playing at balls isn’t a privilege, and by far the best part of my life.

But that hour of playing was only a fraction of the experience of being a musician at Oxford. Gigs vary tremendously: for every exceptional event you get a terrible one. Organisers might put you in a bad slot and you’re stuck playing in front of a hall of sober people who just want to chat, Production might muck up and leave you with the wrong kit, or you might just not be up for the gig. Essay crises, relationship drama and mental health issues affect musicians as much as any other group, but whatever happens you’re expected to show up, even for gigs ending at 1am, and smile your way through it.

This is why it’s frustrating to hear someone tell you that you don’t deserve to be paid for the work you do. Musicians are expected to spend four hours of their evening moving kit, setting up and sound-checking, and playing in front of an audience of strangers, whilst remaining professional throughout. To carry out this professional service and receive little in return is demoralising.

Furthermore, the gigging scene in Oxford is getting steadily tougher for musicians to earn a professional rate. The emergence of new bands leads to a culture of undercutting, at a time when balls are under more pressure than ever to provide expensive gimmicks and big-name headliners. The result is events with entertainment budgets in excess of £10,000 refusing to pay student musicians at all, whilst splashing out in other areas.

The gigging scene in Oxford is getting steadily tougher for musicians to earn a professional rate.

Nor are gig bookers necessarily to blame for this – of course a student studying PPE or English isn’t going to know how much a musician expects to get paid, just in the same way that I have no idea how much clowns charge by the hour. This is why it’s crucial to have a Minimum Wage for Oxford Musicians. To set a bar for how much contractors should be paid not only helps secure the scene for players, but it gives music reps context for bookings. If the minimum rate for a group of 14 is £525.50, it makes sense for a band like DFO or Garfunkel to charge £750, given that they’re at the upper end of the market.

This is what the Campaign for an Oxford Musicians’ Minimum wage is hoping to do. Over the last week I have been emailing heads of Colleges to discuss the benefits of such a system, and the response has been heartening. Colleges are genuinely supportive of this, and several meetings have been set up to discuss implementing the conditions we’re proposing.

Student musicians provide a professional service in just the same way as a caterer or production company does and should be paid as such. Balls are by no means short of cash, and shouldn’t be skimping on paying contractors because they want to book a second-rate DJ for £5,000. Whilst it’s possible to raise awareness of these issues, basic payment and conditions need to become ingrained in the foundations of the Oxford gigging scene. Ultimately this is the only way to provide a healthier and more stable environment for everyone involved.

Image Credit: Rough Edge Brass Band