By Bobby Borg

There are many sacrifices that musicians must make in order to gain experience and/or exposure, such as working for little or no pay. But if you want music to be your livelihood, it is your responsibility to make sure that you are compensated fairly for each and every job.

From salaries or wages to buy-outs, per diems and retainers, the following discussion sheds light on what you may be entitled to when negotiating your agreement with an employer.

Working For Employers With Limited Budgets

As either a contract employee or a self-employed musician, especially early in your career, frequently you'll be offered work that pays substandard wages far below the minimum scales suggested by the unions (*The American Federation of Musicians—AFM—or *The American Federation of Radio and Television Artists—AFTRA). This may be due to your inexperience, or to an employer's greed, or to a group's financial restrictions (i.e., a limited budget). When you accept employment from an employer who has a limited budget, there are really no fairness guidelines, but you should at least establish that your pay will increase when the group starts to make more money. This is especially important if you're a contract employee working with one employer on a regular basis. Otherwise, you may continue to be paid the same low fee in spite of the group's newfound success and subsequent profits. It's common sense to establish that safeguard!

Working For Employers With Larger Budgets

The day will eventually come when you're asked to work with successful and reputable employers who are willing to pay fairly and offer special perks—even greater than the union minimum scales and treatment suggested by the unions. But after adapting an "anything goes" approach to business for so long in your formative years, you may end up undercutting yourself in these new and potentially advantageous situations. To avoid that, you need to understand what you may be entitled to. The following discussion sheds light on your wages, per diems, retainers, equipment, equipment techs, buy outs, and much more. Keep in mind that the agreement you're able to negotiate here as either a contract employee or as an independent contractor is substantially influenced by your reputation and experience, and/or how badly a potential employer may want to work with you.


The wages you can expect from employers that have larger budgets will naturally be much greater than the compensation offered from employers with limited budgets. For instance, in 2001 the Backstreet Boys paid a relatively unknown horn player a weekly salary of $4,000 to tour. Session musicians sometimes get paid double or triple the union minimum scale (known as "double scale" or "triple scale") to record an album or to overdub a solo. When negotiating your fee, take notice of the strength of the record company for whom you're recording, the capacity of the venue in which you are playing, the time of year in which you're working (such as on a national holiday), and the length of the tour on which you may be embarking. Consider other factors as well: How much work will you be giving up to take on a new job? What are your personal monthly bills? How much will you net after your basic expenses? How long will you be able to survive financially after the completion of a tour?

Sometimes an employer may be willing to guarantee you a flat salary to cover your services for an entire year. For instance, in 1999 one drummer earned an annual salary of $100,000 while working with one of the greatest rock groups in the world—sorry, their identity must be left anonymous. Though these situations may be rare, it pays to be sure that all of your obligations (e.g., rehearsals, recording, and touring) are clearly outlined in your agreement with the band.


You've probably been participating in rehearsals with little or no pay for years, but employers with larger budgets will typically compensate you for rehearsals in preparation for "phonograph" recording sessions, single live performances, and extended tours. The amount will vary between employers, but minimum compensation of $90 for a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal is not uncommon.

Per Diems.

Per diems are standard in the industry, and negotiating a reasonable PD is usually not too difficult. A per diem is a daily allowance for food. The amount varies greatly, but can range anywhere from $50 to $200 per day. Keep in mind that if you're performing a gig out of the country, your per diem should be adjusted to reasonably accommodate the exchange rate.

Buy Outs.

In addition to receiving a "per diem," employers with larger budgets may offer you money in something called a "buy out." A buy out occurs when the concert promoter does not fulfill his or her contractual obligation to provide food and drink backstage. This obligation is stipulated in a band "rider," a contractual addendum in live performance contracts which also includes lighting and sound requirements for the group, dressing room accommodations, and security needs. For one reason or another, a promoter may not be able to provide the requested food, so he "buys" the band out. A buy out is based on the number of people traveling with the band; a group may provide you with additional funds ranging from $15 to $50 per buy out (and more). There are cases where musicians receive hundreds of dollars in buy outs over the course of a tour. The amount is subject to the individual situation.

Bobby Borg is the author of "The Musician's Handbook: A Practical Guide To Understanding The Music Business," published by Billboard Books. For more or .

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