How to charge what you're worth
Questions: How much money should musicians get paid per show? What should a songwriter be paid to perform? How much to charge for a solo gig?
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What is my time and talent worth?
While it depends on the venue and the context, don't de-value yourself. Whether you're a songwriter looking to book some coffee shop gigs or a band-manager trying to earn some money for the next album, make sure to charge appropriately. Don't undersell yourself and remember your experience and skill-set the next time you contact a venue.
Over the years as a musician I've played every kind of venue. I've played weddings, churches, bars, fundraisers, coffeeshops, barns, horse-trailers. I've had the power cut off a few times and been rained on more than once. I've been treated like royalty and respected at venues, and I've (unfortunately) also been treated like garbage.
I've learned that often times the difference comes down to the price I'm being paid to be there, and the value I put on my craft and on myself. In order for me to pack up my gear, practice my instrument and the repertoire, and drive to the location, I need to get paid a certain, guaranteed amount to make it worth my time.
Surprisingly, it was really hard at first to say no to gigs that couldn't pay a minimum. I think for a lot of musicians it can be really difficult to ask for what we're actually worth.
I've learned to look my skills and talent a slightly different way, and to always ask for what I'm worth. Thinking about things differently has helped me change the way I charge.
Price = Value
Let's say you're a painter. You're an excellent painter with lots of practice and experience and you have all the necessary tools to get the job done. You take pride and work and you love what you do. But you're really cheap. You charge $50 to paint a house.
If you’re charging $50, that tells your customer that your work is valued at $50.
Every time they look at your handiwork, it will look like a $50 paint job, because it is.
They will think of you as the cheap painter, because you are.
(You must not be very good if you can't charge more than $50 to paint a fence.)
Even if you're great, your work is still valued at $50.
Now, imagine you painted the same house for the same client. You're an excellent painter with lots of practice and experience and you have all the necessary tools to get the job done. You take pride and work and you love what you do and so you charge $5,000 to paint a house.
Your client is going to see that your work has plenty of value, which is reflected in the price and they are going to RESPECT you because you respect yourself. More importantly, they are going to TRUST you to do a good job, because if you get paid $5,000 to paint a house, it must be done really, really well.
I use this as an example because it gets us out of our heads a little bit and allows us to look at our art the same way we look at everything else. Would you rather have the $0.50/slice pizza or the $6.50/slice pizza? Would you rather use the $1 pillow or the $100 pillow? Would you rather hire the songwriter that will play for tips or the songwriter that charges a non-negotiable $300 per show?
Try to make yourself the premiere artist in town that won't play just any old bar gig. It's much harder to climb yourself out of the hole of $25 for a show.
Budget = Priorities
If a venue doesn’t have a large budget for music, what that actually means is they can't prioritize it right now. It isn't important to them. Maybe they aren't making that much each night and any extra cost is going to hurt them. You don't want to play at these venues.
But, if you can show someone the value in your art and the value in having live music at their bar, restaurant, wedding, fundraiser, you can give them an excuse to make your paycheck a priority.
If you charge an appropriate amount, it forces the venue to not only make your entertainment services a priority, but also prioritize their own venue and make an investment in their business. Maybe if they hired a musician with immense talent, great songs, and a decent following instead of the hobbyist musician who doesn't really play anymore, they would find themselves with more patrons and more revenue.
Nobody wants to spend $50 on flammable liquid, but when it lets you drive your car around town, it becomes more valuable than the cost.
Nobody wants to pay $75 on one meal, but when it's for a first date, it immediately becomes more valuable than the cost.
Nobody wants to pay a songwriter $500 to make noise for 2 hours, but when live music attracts people to their bar, creates a better ambience in the room, and starts to create a buzz about the venue, it becomes worth it. If they can see how it will help them and help their business, it becomes worth it.
If you let them pay you $25 to play at their establishment for the night, they get away with paying for something they don’t prioritize and they will be frustrated because they haven’t made the jump to take pride in their own business.
If you had charged $300 for the night, they might think, “That's $300, but my business is worth it. That must be the cost I’ll have to pay to get a talented artist in my venue. If I want someone to do a good job, I’ll have to pay them $300.” They might start to look at your rate next to their monthly business and advertising expenses, instead of helping a songwriter get exposure. They might start to think “well my rent is $X a month, my marketing budget is $X/mo. I can justify $300."
Music is valuable
Most important of all, when you accept a gig for tips or accept a gig for $25, you have successfully helped lower the bar for musicians everywhere. It makes it harder for me to make my minimum if the last guy didn't have one. It makes it harder for a songwriter to find venues that pay well if mediocre artists play there for free.
Remember that your time spent practicing, your talent, your originality, your audience, social media following, tone of your instrument, and original songs or repertoire are all assets that make you more valuable wherever you play next. Make yourself a musician that restaurants want to be associated with. Remember your value the next time you book a gig, and remember that you aren't like every other musician. As soon as you start charging more and demanding financial respect, you will begin to respect yourself more and the gigs will come flying in. Doors to opportunities will open if you start to see yourself on the same tier as them.
A final note, last budget I heard of for live music at a live event (not a wedding) was $18,000. This was a company that took pride in their business, and saw the value in having quality live entertainment at an event that was associated with their company.
Keep that in mind the next time you're offered $100.