An underappreciated profession

It’s Wednesday night… Set in the bustling heart of Hoxton, Tory Bar’s neon orange lights draw people, like moths to a flame, towards one of London’s best-kept secrets that offers some of uk’s best freelance musicians a place to come and play on their own terms. Looking through the windows into the bar however, the frankly underwhelming decor doesn’t offer much to entice you inside.

On hearing the almost deafening feedback from the speakers, caused by the house band doing their sound-check, the doubters are summoned in to buy a pint of Red Stripe and pull up a rickety garden chair or bench. The lights dim, intentionally or not, and the band swings into action. Welcome to the Hoxton Jam.

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The Hoxton Jam in full swing

The Hoxton Jam is not the average open mic night where amateurs like me can step onstage and pull out a rendition of Great Balls of Fire with some mediocre accompaniment. No. These guys are professionals. Tonight for instance the guitarist, Phil Braithwaite, usually leads for the star violinist Vanessa Mae, and the bassist, Samer Sharawi,plays for the up and coming Elle Exxe. This evening they have come together to play what they want and on their own terms. Their professional life however, isn’t as straightforward.

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Samer Sharawi

The house band finished playing the drum and bass version of the Beatles’ Eleonor Rigby to rapturous applause from the crowd – most of whom seem to have some sort of instrument alongside them – and Braithwaite and Sharawi sit down to explain to me some of the problems faced by musicians today, whether they be “function, session or studio players, the problems are still the same”.

“Although I don’t use agencies much anymore” Braithwaite says: “They are the scum of this industry. Whether they’re not paying their musicians on time or taking a bigger commission than is perhaps fair, those people who use them, should do so knowing they are most likely getting a raw deal. The problem is they have a lot of control.”

As if buoyed by approving looks form the pictures of the greats like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald hanging in mismatching frames on the wall, Sharawi cuts in: “I heard a story of a famous jazz singer, who is no longer alive, and she was about to go on tour with her band when her label walked onto the tour bus and said to the whole band ‘we’re cutting all you wages by half, if anyone doesn’t want to do it you can leave now’. No one left and everyone got paid half the money, and word got around. They’re [the agencies/labels] like well, musicians want these gigs, they want to play with big people and get the exposure, so we can pay them less than what we should.”

During the London 2012 Olympics it came to the Musicians’ Union’s (MU) attention that a lot of its members were being asked by Locog, the group in-charge of organising the Olympics, to play at venues across London for free. The Union challenged the organisation however “didn’t receive a very satisfying response” according to Alex Mann, London’s regional officer at the Musicians’ Union (MU). Five years on and the problem is still rife; musicians are constantly fighting an uphill battle over fair pay and opportunity. A survey, conducted for this feature, of a hundred self-employed musicians, shows that 75% said they did not feel that their agency (if they used one in the past five years) represented their best interests.

Even those who don’t want to play with “big people” but for functions like weddings or business receptions are still subject to exploitation. After the 2012 Olympics, the MU started the WorkNotPlay campaign to try and highlight to the agencies and employers that it is unacceptable not to pay musicians a fair salary.

Alex Mann says: “The issue arises from when the offer is made for no money, if an organisation places an ad somewhere, or approaches people directly or through an agency saying we would like you to come and perform at our event. The ad might say there will be a lot of wealthy clients attending so this will be a great opportunity for you to show what your capable of doing or it might be an opportunity to pick up more work. If they start using words like opportunity and exposure, then we start getting slightly concerned about what the implication is there.”

“What we glean from this is that they’re essentially looking for free labour and free entertainment on the bases that musicians will be grateful for the opportunity to do it. This really is not appropriate and we encourage musicians to stand up for themselves more and if not we are here to help.” However the problem persists as ultimately it is up to the musician.

Katie Patterson, 28, is a multi-award winning international drummer and has been self-employed in the music industry for over a decade. “People just need to value themselves. Having more faith in yourself and what your worth is essential even if you are just starting out and money is extremely tight. Of course it is fun, you get to turn up for a function, it’s somebody’s biggest party of their life, you get to be involved, but you also have to remember that your doing what you’ve studied for your whole life and, in most cases, it’s your livelihood. And once that bar is set low, then it is going to be set low for everyone.”

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Katie Patterson

“Late pay is also a huge concern to us” Mann says. “A musicians’ agency is usually paid a deposit by the client and paid in full around a week afterwards. In some cases we are finding that the musicians themselves are not seeing any money, for whatever reason, for up to six months later. As musicians often live hand to mouth this is not acceptable and we would encourage anyone who experiences this to let us know.”

As the aluminium shutters were being pulled down over the windows indicating the bar staff wanted us to leave, Braithwaite reiterates: “I appreciate we’re doing something we love but we still need to pay our bills. Nights like tonight are fun but professionally people need to respect the time and effort it takes to become a professional musician and pay us what we’re worth and pay us on time, not seven months later like I experienced recently, it’s not on.”

Places like Troy Bar in Hoxton are hubs for up and coming and established musicians to come together and exhibit their talents in front of their peers, and they expect no pay. When they turn up on a professional level, they do, and why people think they don’t is beyond explanation.

Despite asking several agencies for an interview, all declined.

Click here for the podcast including interviews and expert analysis on the troubles of function musicians in the UK.

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