7 Negotiating Techniques Musicians Need To Use To Get Paid

So Bruno Mars was paid $0 for his Super Bowl performance. Some are up in arms about that. I’m not.

Every gig I get offered I put on a career building (exposure) vs. compensation scale.

If the gig has high career building potential (ala playing the Super Bowl in front of 100 million people), I’ll accept much less pay. If I’m background music at a private event, I’ll need a huge payment. Those gigs are soul sucking.

Most gigs fall somewhere in the middle.

Musicians get offers to play private events all the time. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, corporate parties, mall music, proposals (“so just hide in the closet until I bring her into the room”), and the like. It’s safe to say that most of these gigs will not bring you instant fame or shoot you to the top of the iTunes charts (like Bruno Mars’ album the day after the Super Bowl).

Too many musicians accept free gigs because they are promised great exposure or high merch sales. If you want to actually make a living playing music you’re going to have to learn some negotiating techniques (before you get an agent or manager to do this for you).

Here are 7 negotiating techniques that will hopefully help you get the most coin for the gig.

1) Never Accept The Asking Price

When a buyer pitches you a rate for a gig always negotiate this. Never settle for the asking price. This goes for when promoters and other bands offer you a guarantee for a club show as well. You don’t need to go all Ari Gold on their ass, but if they pitch you $100, ask for $300. You’ll most likely settle at $200.

2) Have A Normal Rate

More times than not, a buyer will ask you what your rate is. It’s good to always have a rate (and set length) you fall back on. You can set your “normal” rate at, say, $1,000 per show up to 2 hours (for private events) – with a “normal” set length of 70 minutes. I’ve done 70 minute gigs for way more than my “normal” rate and for way less, but, by default, I ask for my “normal” rate + expenses. Remember everything that has to be factored into this price: (local) travel, rehearsal, equipment, years of practice honing the craft, writing the songs, recording the album, creating the website, building your reputation, on and on. And above all, you’re better than anyone else they will ask who is cheaper! Sure, the buyer could get his brother to play, but he only showers once a week, gets drunk before he begins and is kind of racist.

Also, the further out you lock in a gig the higher your price should be. If you reserve a date, that means you have to turn down other (potentially higher paying or better exposure) gigs.

3) Price Points

Set different price points depending on time like:

0-2 hours = $1,000
2-3 hours = $1,500
3-4 hours = $2,000

The reason I say 0-2 hours and not set a specific set length is because once I’m setup it’s no difference to me if I play 15 minutes or 90 minutes. And they will think you’re charging based on performance time. They’ll try to get extra services out of you. “So since you’re only playing for 45 minutes but you’re charging for 90 minutes, can you give my son a guitar lesson for 45 minutes?” I kid you not this happened to me. I learned – after I gave her son a guitar lesson.

4) Feel Out the Gig

My rates definitely vary depending on the gig. College gigs I charge more and friends’ events I’ll charge less. If a company hits you up to play their holiday party, you can bet they have a large budget. Pitch them your “normal” high rate. They can always come back at you and say that’s more than they have budgeted and you can negotiate from there. If you ever pitch a rate and they immediately say “sounds good,” you under sold yourself. Up your rate!

5) Get All Details Up Front

Do they provide sound? Lights? Stage? Seating? What kind of event is this? Can you sell your own merch? How many sets? How many breaks? Do they provide dinner/drinks? Lodging? All of this factors into the price. I have my rate + sound, lights, food, lodging and travel. If they don’t provide any of that, then I factor that into the price and explain that to them. Your rate could be $1,000, but once you work out plane tickets, sound and light rental, hotel, dinner and rental car, it may cost around $2,000.

6) Have set points of expenses that are factored in:

* hotel buyout = $100 (either they provide one or add $100 to your check – if you have more band members factor in the extra rooms)
* food buyout = $15 per member
* plane and rental car you’ll have to look up and factor in per show basis

7) The Massage

If you pitch a rate WAY above their estimated budget, they may not respond to your email.  You may need to follow up and ask if your rate is in their budget and if they are “ready to move forward and discuss details.”  Massage them – metaphorically of course… or in actuality… whatever works.  If they reply stating your rate is way out of their budget, come up with an excuse as to why you can be flexible with them (you like the organization, it’s last minute and you’re free, you have a close mutual friend, whatever) and ask what they can afford.  Then negotiate from that point.

Club gigs are another beast and you’re most likely going to get a cut of the door.  Those are the “career building” gigs.  You’re not going to get paid much initially, but you build that fan base and the 3rd or 4th time through the city you’ll not only be able to negotiate a better cut of the door (or even a guarantee), you will be bringing out the numbers that will actually earn you good money.

When to play for free?  Free free?  Like no chance of receiving a dollar following the performance?  Reserve that for when you’re in front of millions of eyeballs tearing up the 50 yard line.

20 Responses

  1. ben

    So Bruno Mars was paid $0 for his Super Bowl performance.

    Of course… because he earns enough via ASCAP with this gig.

    • Dry Roasted

      Probably not, actually. NFL can override ASCAP payouts with separate carve-out deals based on DOJ consent decrees.

      • Anonymous

        Yup. PRSes aren’t the only place to get a performance license. In fact they are a license of last resort mostly.

    • TuneHunter

      5% Shazams landed at iTunes – just that did over $100K
      Increased activity on YouTube player and with streamers will bring similar income.
      I value this exposure at min 1/4 million to Bruno.

    • Robbie Alan

      Only a fool would play a giant event like that for nothing.
      You can be sure no else is doing it for frree.

  2. hippydog

    quote “Here are 7 negotiating techniques”

    In my lowly opinion I DONT agree with much of that list..

    business is business..
    In the end you need to make money at this..
    You may not know exactly what you are worth, but you CAN find out what the minimum you need to charge to come out ahead.. THATS where you start..

    1.) NOT “double what ever they tell you”, thats not “negotiating”, thats randomly picking prices which will hurt you in the long run..

    2.) more important then a “normal rate” is how you come up with that “normal rate”.. to many people look at the people next to them, or simply throw their thumb up in the air to try and find which way the wind is blowing..
    KNOW how much the costs are (yearly and monthly) and what your MINIMUM is so you can survive..
    THATS YOUR STARTING POINT.. (everything after (IE markup) is based on fan base, marketing, and location.

    As to the “charge more the longer they book you upfront”

    i’m 50/50 on this..

    on one hand I can see where it could maximise profits (IE: if your sitting at home doing nothing your earning nothing)
    but on the other hand.. WHY THE FRACK SHOULD YOU GIVE A DEAL BECAUSE ITS LAST MINUTE?? Why does the Entertainment industry reward procractinators and idiots? (“hey the cheap band we hired just dropped out, can you come and do it for even cheaper?”)

    3.) price points is one way to do it.. at least its better then charging by the hour (which IMO is the WORST WAY TO CHARGE)..
    Even better, (as above) know what your worth, know the details, and charge per Gig/Show
    note: YOU are TALENT, not a mechanic, which means people should not be comparing you like one.. and charging by the hour leads directly to those kind of comparisons..

    4.) to 6.) agreed..
    know the details.. learn from those details.. not knowing them means you are either over charging (which can lead to making zero $$) or under charging (which can become a vicious circle and can burn you out)

    Charging RANDOM prices only works for awhile (and makes it almost impossible to actually find out what you ARE worth)

    7.) massage them? Come up with excuses??
    Yes.. lets all act like car salesman..


    as above, treat it like a business, maximise your profit by knowing the details, costs, and what your worth..
    and then charge accordingly

    my 2 cents 🙂

    • ian dylan

      well yes, especially that bs as to sure, doing it in an hour is worth nothing. not to me idd aint. to me that’s worth much more. though not in all cases I certainly appreciated that point. though I’m sure he’s got his good reasons as to why he does it the way he does, I liked your ideas.

  3. Sulaiman The WordSmith

    If he got $o he should have not accepted the offer. Why is that:

    1) Get paid by ASCAP 1 year after the performance.
    2) Get paid if some body clicks on a Google link.
    3) If the NFL paid nothing what about Bruno’s travel expenses, etc.

    There are enough scammer’s in the industry trying to rip off artist and it is not need on the top levels. If this is true he should not have accepted.

    • ACap

      Read this article.

      And then this one.

      It seems to be a trend, started with Madonna, the Black-Eyed Peas, etc. And the NFL covers all expenses. There are also statistics of how much the artist’s album sales have soared after their performance. Ticket sales to that artist’s subsequent performances based on a Super Bowl gig are obviously hard to quantify.

    • jozef szenasi

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  4. Debbie

    I agree with the article. You have know how to negotiate and when to play for Free! I have worked with many local artists who were willing to perform for Free just for the career exposure and to build up their performance resume and improve on their stage presence.

  5. Brandon

    I like the parts about knowing your price points and your expenses – they help you make educated decisions – but if you go into a lot of negotiations ‘feeling out a gig’ you’re probably not going to make a good decision.

    Here’s a similar post. Give it a read too. http://www.apparatus.ca/

  6. Lane

    Very good article on negotiating. I also wanted to share a new website that is helping entertainers get more paying gigs, as well as reservation fees. Checkout:

  7. Robbie Alan

    Those rates really have cleared things up for me,I’ve been undercharging.
    I hate places that cry poverty,when you know they have deep pockets.
    Musicians have to make a livIng too !


  8. J. Johnson

    The biggest problem I see is other Musicians playing for free or dirt cheap! This has always ruin the market for everyone. Musician’s are their own worst enemy when it comes to this.

  9. lady moo

    i do not see a problem in playing or performing for free at least if people get o recognize you then that is when you must get paid for something your fans or people around you like what you are doing.

  10. lady moo

    can anyone who would wish to collaborate with me, call this number 0781534400…i am a female rapper and a vocalist who wish to get somewhere someday. i also need a sponsor and some gigs to perform to so that south africans recognize me and listen to my own music

    THANK YOU!!!

  11. Donald Hill Jr

    Me and a friend of mine write a lot of songs from pop, rock, R&B, Gospel and hiphop among other styles. All we want to do is record professionally hoping the songs we have can be matched with many different Singers/music groups. Our immediate request is seeking someone who will allow us to network with them or have contacts where we can send our songs to. Thank you very much/Don Hill 937-266-0837

  12. Barnabas

    I loved the article and the various comments. they were very helpful. I have been performing for years and I’m now trying to get to the next level. Doing mostly solo now but i like playing with serious musicians. I’m tired of the the people i have been playing with in the past.