All culture has value, and music is worth something…right?

Our co-director Makala Cheung shares her thoughts on the value of music and fair pay in the music industry:

I’m sitting listening to The Bristol Music Show on BCFM while reflecting on a Diverse Artists Network event I went to a few months ago at Bristol Beacon.

I’m a proud Bristolian, a music artist (KALA CHNG), community worker (Filwood Community Centre) and general lover of anything cultural and positive that connects me to others. So I’m loving that I get to hear the fresh new sounds of my city and local cultural/community news. (By the way, if you don’t listen to your local community radio station, I strongly recommend it). 

Listening to the show has got me thinking – I’m loving the tunes but reflecting on why artists (like us) are often asked to perform for free – because that was one of the hot topics of discussion at the Diverse Artists Network (D.A.N) event.

As an artist I’ve been earning money performing and selling my music since 2012 (at very varying degrees over time, significant enough only in recent years). I gained experience and grew my confidence and skills from early free gigs, to get to the point of paid bookings. But that can build on the vicious cycle. Where is the line? I ask myself, when did it go from hobby to work? (I always loved doing those community gigs – if there wasn’t pay, I’d hopefully sell CDs to cover expenses, though now that doesn’t work with digital).

Just before Christmas I experienced the most joyous event. A volunteer fiddler led a community lantern parade around our local health park and another resident led a Christmas sing along around a campfire. It was magical. There is something special happening when people come together and each brings something to share with each other, so it’s really made by everyone.

So is a ‘gig’ different from an event (that’s not only music)? I’ve usually found the latter pays more fairly (or it’s something where everyone is volunteering – doing it all together).

We talk about venues, gigs, and split ticket deals, and who’s responsible for promotion. I think about new/bedroom musicians – my husband’s band when he was 18 for example, just wanting to have a stage to play on, to be able to invite friends, so you help sell tickets – so is that like hiring the room and some help for free – you’re all in it together? That’s how it worked when I did my first Mini Moon Festival at The Fleece (and they printed all my flyers in advance for me too, thank you Chris! I never forgot that!). But we do need to get the balance right when it comes to working musicians and fair pay for all involved.

We talk about some festivals just scraping by, how some festivals say it’s a miracle if they break even, they wouldn’t survive if they paid all the musicians (For example main stage acts being paid vs unsigned stages. And I think about how I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences at festivals where I got free entry in exchange for performing.) But many people at the D.A.N. event discuss and ask why base the model on not paying all of the musicians – music is the reason people come (see Musicians Union Fair Play Guide). It’s not the same across Europe (where musicians get payment and expenses). How does that model work? Apparently there is more culture funding for grassroots music and music festivals there ( – a few musicians who both live and or tour in Europe point this out). 

At our community’s Knowle West Fest, when we received a grant for the event, we allocated fees for performers. Because it’s not just the 15 -50 mins you perform on stage – it’s the rehearsals, kit, soundcheck and load in times and packdown (plus session band costs or the backing track production costs if you’re a solo artist). My drummer once shared an image with me about what you actually are paying for when you pay for musicians and I found it on this blog here with some interesting reflections on the writer’s value as an artist; “You see, people will always demean what they do not value. People will never try to even understand or enjoy what does not add value to their lives.”

Artists from all walks of life may not always get the recognition or funding they deserve. What is it about music (as an art form and particularly music associated with certain cultures) that means many expect it for free? Spotify was created to combat free downloads; according to BBC Newsbeat “they developed the platform in 2006 as a response to the growing piracy problem the music industry was facing.” Despite Kevin Brennan MP’s Copyright (Rights And Remuneration Of Musicians) Private Members’ Bill failing to pass last December, the Fix Streaming campaign continues (Led by The Musicians’ Union, The Ivors Academy, and Broken Record, the campaign calls for musicians to receive a more equitable share of income from music streaming.)”

I’ve recently written Art – Who holds the power? It has to change… about why different cultural activities from different backgrounds aren’t funded/valued equally.

Does that ripple out to impact why some music festivals aren’t funded? Why some musicians aren’t paid?

So how can we move forward positively to support music fairly?

Does society follow the system or does the system follow society?

And can we as society re-make the system? 

There is a problem when certain cultural activities are expected to be self-funding. Art and culture has so much benefit for us all; it makes our lives happier, brings us joy, grows local economies, brings in investment and tourism (think about people flocking to see a Banksy, the ripple effects for business). So it makes money indirectly, not directly and it helps us thrive. So shouldn’t business and government therefore fund culture more, and fairly, for the things that matter to the majority of people. 

As a working creative, I’ve been asked to do stuff for free a lot. It’s really hard thinking how to respond and be nice! What are the shades of grey and where is the line?

Should I work for free? There’s a Musician’s Union guide for that!…with scenarios, rules and suggestions. I performed at Trafalgar Square last Lunar New Year for free (I was lucky I had an Arts Council grant at the time), it was the most amazing gig I’ve ever done,  and it’s an event where the Chinese community is coming together to put on a show to share their culture. But why isn’t there funding for it?

And yes there’s a place for amateur music and creativity  – just speak to the likes of Creative Lives and Make Music Day*,  or join your local community choir for that matter –  and a lot of these groups may need funding or other types of support. (*MMD involves amateur and professional musicians)

The music that fills our clubs, our screens, our homes, our life events, our journeys, our  (otherwise boring) bus rides and waiting in lines, is worth something, right?

The song that keeps you on track to run 5k that’s worth something

The song that got you over that breakup that’s worth something

That song that inspired you to change your life

That gig or festival that gave you magic moments and memories for life 

They are all worth something. 

All culture has value, everyone can be creative, and anyone has the potential to be an artist…but how does the music artist survive if things don’t change?

So like a true music artist I’m going to leave you with my song ‘The Music’. It’s about allowing time to do what we love, finding joy in the little things and our place in this big wide world. But maybe also now it could be for music itself; the music we all listen to and love, and maybe sometimes take for granted; the music that needs us to stop and appreciate all it gives us. 

Makala Cheung
Co-director at Fun Palaces
Music artist KALA CHNG 
Community worker at Filwood Community Centre
Twitter @MakalaCheung @KALACHNG @FunPalaces 

Other links
Sign MU Campaign to Fix Streaming
Musicians Union  Fair Play Guide
Article on Music stars calling on Boris Johnson to change streaming law

Two people perform music to a seated audience at Stratford East Fun Palace
Credit: Roswitha Chesher