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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Rank amateurs

The Lunchtime legends at Whitby -
two of these performers are amateurs!
If you think about it, it's a funny business being an active amateur performer. As a folk club resident singer, I often open for our guest artists, who are of course paid an agreed fee. On the folk scene, there are many unpaid organisers and performers rubbing shoulders with the pros and semi-pros who make some kind of living out of performing. Your status doesn't seem to matter that much: at festivals, I've seen booked performers spending some of their free time at informal singarounds or music sessions. There are some precious acts who wouldn't dream of doing that, but they are the exception rather than the rule. As an example, when our band, the Lunchtime Legends (all drawn from the folk scene) play at Whitby during Folk Week, we play pop and rock & roll, and Clive, our drummer and Bothy Folk Club organiser, uses his many contacts to persuade one of the festival guests to come and open for us. They always enter the spirit of what is only a matter of fun, but I can't imagine someone from the pop or rock scene pretending to be the support act for an amateur rock band. The Legends themselves are a similarly unusual band in that two members (Clive and me) are amateurs and two (Chris and Alison, or rather Candy Rell) are professionals. I put all of this down to the fact that singing and playing is the main reason why all of us do it, whether we get paid or not. There is a line, however, that shouldn't be crossed: if I were offered a booking as the main act at a folk club, I'd usually expect some kind of fee; I wouldn't do it for nothing, because you would then be undercutting people who do rely on bookings for a living.

Similar principles apply outside of the folk scene. If I've played a couple of songs in a pub, I have been asked on occasion whether I'd like to play in their pub one evening, and they'd see me right. This sounds good, until you realise it usually just means a few free pints. If they want an evening's free entertainment, then I'm not going to provide it; they should put their hand in their pockets and pay someone. I've no wish to undercut anyone who makes any kind of living out of music. And yet, I do play in pubs several times a month with other performers at acoustic song and music sessions. The difference is that we do that on our own terms: we play what we want, when we want, and for as long as we want. We'll do a request if we happen to know it, but we're under no obligation to learn a repertoire for the audience. On the rare occasion when I've been asked to bring out my PA system and entertain all evening, I tend to expect a fee.

Fundraisers are another matter again. The problem with these is that, because the artists are usually not being paid and the room's usually free too, some organisers don't put enough effort into publicising the event, taking the view that as whatever money they take goes to the good cause, that's good enough. I do know some acts who will demand a fee, thus forcing the organisers to make greater efforts to get people in to cover their costs, and then they'll waive their fee afterwards as a donation. I've played fundraisers, just me and my guitar, in nearly empty large rooms, and found it discouraging, and I can therefore understand that if you're in a band that normally gets paid, considering all the work involved in rehearsals, setting up and taking down, it's no fun at all if they haven't tried to get people in.

I have once or twice been told that, as a committed trade unionist, I should belong to the Musicians Union. I remember my friend Bernie Blaney and I were playing as a duo at a club in Southport for people with learning difficulties. One of the other performers was a local MU official and afterwards he approached us to ask whether we'd like to join a MU roadshow he was arranging. I replied that we'd like that, but that, as amateurs, we weren't MU members. He walked away and didn't speak to us again. There is nothing in it for me to join the MU: I don't have employers, contracts or fees and my equipment is covered by my house insurance. I'd be paying £177 a year for no benefits whatsoever. If my amateur status should ever change, which is unlikely, then of course I'd join, but as things stand, it's just another of those oddities of being a regular amateur performer.

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