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Why Are Recording Professionals Working For Free?

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Whether it’s due to doing a favour, the power imbalance between the engineer / producer and the client, being held to ransom, or not wanting to rock the boat, the facts don’t lie: many recording professionals are not being paid for their work. Headliner interviews MPG executive director, Olga FitzRoy about the Music Producers Guild’s new research into the problem, its ramifications, and what can be done about it, while music professionals speak out about their experiences of working ‘on-spec’.

A new piece of research by the Music Producers Guild shows that many recording professionals are not being paid for their work. In fact, a staggering 88% of producers and sound engineers reported being asked to work for free, with 71% agreeing to work for free in the past three years.

Having representation seemed to reduce the instances of people working for free slightly, with 61% of MPG Full members reporting that they worked for free in the last three years – 64% of those with managers having worked for free in the past years.

“I knew unpaid work was a problem in our industry, but I didn’t realise how endemic it was,” says MPG executive director, Olga FitzRoy. “Of course, people will do favours for friends, but it’s completely unacceptable for record labels and commercial studios to exploit professionals in this way. We don’t employ someone to put in a new bathroom and then decide to pay them if we feel like it. It's an issue I've long been aware of, and it was something I pledged to try and tackle if I was elected onto the executive. My colleagues were unanimous in agreeing that we should look at this.”

Of the MPG’s findings, FitzRoy is not short of things to say when asked what most surprised her about them:

“Where do I start? I think there were three things shocked and surprised me the most: Firstly, how widespread this is, with 71% of professionals working for free in the last three years. Secondly, the amount of money that is being lost, with the average being £4,000 a year. This is not a trivial amount, and can mean the difference between someone being able to continue to work in the industry, and having to consider changing career. Finally, I was shocked at how accepting people are of being exploited. One person commented: ‘I worked for free in a commercial recording studio in London as an assistant engineer for roughly a month. As I was developing my skills, this seemed reasonable’. While we're not against young people doing some shadowing to learn about the job, working for a month in a commercial studio is exploitation, and this sort of thing shouldn't be happening. People's time is precious, and even someone new in the job of assistant engineer can be a very valuable member of the team and contribute hugely to the success of a project.”

The research shows that those with management and those who were MPG Full Members had a lower incidence of working for free than those without any sort of representation, but given that 61% of MPG Full members had worked for free in the past three years, it is still very much an issue, even amongst experienced professionals.

“Amongst people starting out in the industry, we've seen reports of commercial studios ‘trying people out’ for quite long periods of unpaid work before offering them paid employment, and amongst more experienced mixers and producers, 'on spec' work is common,” she nods. “This means that a mixer or producer might be asked to work on a track, but that they will only be paid if the track is released. There were of course also professionals who didn't work for free, and felt very strongly that they shouldn't do so.”

The reasons for doing the unpaid work varied, with 50% saying they were doing a genuine favour for a friend, while 20% felt under pressure to do a favour for an existing client. A key finding was that 42% had done ‘on spec’ work, undertaken on the understanding that they would be paid if the client liked the work.

“The highest proportion of clients that were asking people to work for free were self-funding artists,” FitzRoy elaborates. “So in those cases I think they are just trying to do everything on a wing and a prayer – and our research shows that unfortunately many people will do this work for free. Sometimes there is a skills swap, or payment in kind, such as additional share of publishing or use of studio time / session time with a musician, etc. The most common reason given for working for free was to 'showcase new skills' and 'building a relationship with a client'. While we recognise that engineers and producers’ relationships with their clients and the rates they charge are a matter for them and their management, we would always recommend that engineers and producers aren't left out of pocket, even if they are keen to offer a preferential deal to a new client. Studio time, maintaining equipment, travel, sustenance and childcare all add up, so we would always recommend at least charging a demo fee as a bare minimum, and never working for free.”

Self-funding artists were by far the most likely to ask people to work for free, with as many as 77% of respondents doing unpaid work for self-funding artists. Next were indie labels, with 34% doing unpaid work for an indie label, with nearly 17% doing unpaid work for a major label. Independent TV and film productions, as well as radio stations, commercial studios and charity projects are amongst the other clients who have benefited from free labour.

In total, 41% spent one-to-six days a year on unpaid work, and 36% spent one-to-four weeks, while 5% said it was how they spent most of their time. The average value of unpaid work per year was estimated to be around £4,000 per person, ranging from a few hundred pounds, all the way up to £40,000.

Why is this a topic not usually spoken about more openly?

“There are a number of reasons, but the main one is the power imbalance between the engineer / producer and the client,” answers FitzRoy. “Particularly for those at the beginning of their careers, or establishing a relationship with a new client – people don't want to want to be seen as being 'difficult'. I think there's definitely an element of not wanting to rock the boat – we are a service industry, and generally whatever the client wants, the client gets. I think we often find it difficult to say no to a job. Unfortunately, it has become so endemic, particularly for people starting out, that they often feel that this practice is acceptable. Everyone's time is precious, no matter where they are in their career, and they should be paid for it if they are doing a job, whether that's sitting on reception answering phones in a studio, or doing a mix for a label.”

Recording professionals may think they are doing a favour, or have other reasons for working for free, but what are the repercussions to them and the wider industry?

“It absolutely cheapens the procession,” states FitzRoy. “Assistant engineers, engineers, mixers, producers and mastering engineers are all experiencing this. As I said before, the reason people ask is because they will often find someone who will work for free. This encourages a culture where for certain types of projects it becomes the norm, and likely reduces the rates that are paid for other projects. Interestingly, only 15% found that unpaid work led to more work 'most of the time'; 45% said it 'sometimes' led to more work; and 38% said it 'hardly ever' led to more work. This means that just under half of the people are working for free, and not even getting a benefit from it in the future. Many people also commented that when they accepted an unpaid job, their work wasn't valued by the client and it often wasn't a good experience.”

What can be done to combat this issue?

“We are going to be looking at our findings in more detail, to see what will be most effective,” she reveals. “We are launching an assistant engineer membership that will give assistant engineers many of the benefits of the MPG's support network. We will be talking to trade bodies that represent some of our members' clients to see how we can work together to make sure everyone gets paid, and we will be issuing guidance to help our members negotiate fair payment. We will also be talking to studios to see how we can make sure people from all backgrounds can get entry-levels jobs in the industry, not just those who can afford to work for free. I think the most important thing is starting the conversation and supporting our highly talented professionals to demand fair pay for their hard work.”

Working On Spec: Recording Professionals Speak Out

“This project started out by helping the artist through a severe period of physical illness. It took a few years building up self-esteem and picking up the instrument again. We decided to pick a handful of songs and make an acoustic album. It was agreed I'd kickstart the project and then would get paid for the work done. This involved recording, editing, mixing and mastering, and even providing extra guitars, percussion and backing vocals. I also arranged for a video shoot, radio play and radio interviews, a lot of mentions in industry magazines and building the artist's social media platforms. This led to the artist wanting to do a more ‘electric/full-band’ recording. We ended up recording an entire electric album as well. The acoustic album was completed, mixed and mastered. The electric album was 90% ready and after a full four-year period of hard work and support, I was told to provide all the sessions and was informed that I was not going to be paid. I was using some of the artist's old equipment on the record, so I offered a trade but was told to deliver all of that back as well. The artist is connected remotely with another job, and that job was held as a ransom against the files and equipment: "If you don't deliver the files and equipment, this other job will be in jeopardy for you". It was £10,000 and a lot of time, passion and expertise lost.” – Anonymous.

“Most producers who are also songwriters have the same gripes as myself: artists, managers and labels all expect demos to sound almost like a finished record now. If you don’t do that, then you are risking the songs not being listened to in a favourable light, and therefore not being used...so every song written becomes a production pitch at the same time for free. That’s probably three months of the year working on songs that will never come out, for no pay. It would be fine if labels didn’t just send artists round to all the same writers on a merry-go-round, as it doesn’t cost them anything, and they foolishly can’t see how it’s actually no good for the artists. They don’t get to form a creative relationship with a smaller circle of the writers and producers that could then help them the most. I also now am finding that self-releasing and indie artists cannot afford even a small producer advance, so instead are offering larger royalties. I’m open to this depending on my relationship with the artist. However sometimes many managers and artists expect to still pay three or four points with no advance or fee, and get offended when my manager asks for a larger share of royalties to make up for this.” – Anonymous.

“On principle, I almost never work for free. However, I worked two days for expenses-only at a reputable studio, which then led on to two weeks of paid work as an assistant. It felt a bit weird going through this, since I have a reasonably solid background of engineering. But I accepted that it often seems to be the only way in to working at a new studio. Reportedly, everyone at the studio was impressed with me. I then got invited back to work a whole week – unpaid again – which I declined. I later found out that an inexperienced runner (who reportedly wasn't very good) had been offered the work I had declined and that he was on a higher rate of expenses than me, despite him living considerably closer to the studio. I don't understand how they make their hiring decisions, but it seems I missed a chance to 'get in’ with the studio by turning down (extra) unpaid work.” – Anonymous.

“I spent a month producing an EP for an act, and was promised that there would be money on the ‘back end’ – after four months of the music having not been released, I asked for payment to cover my expenses. I was told in no uncertain terms that there would be no payment until the music was released. I followed up numerous times over the following months, enquiring about when the music was going to be released, receiving infrequent updates, before a chance meeting with one of the bands I had produced informed me that the band had in fact, broken up and the music was not going to come out at all. A further enquiry about me getting paid for the work resulted in the firm answer: ‘no’” – Anonymous.

“A lot of the time, it's people asking for favours rather than out-and-out: ‘Can you work for free?' It depends how much I like the person, and how long it'll take. I remember major label stuff I used to do: they'd just withhold payment with a view to you forgetting or giving up – which is the same kind of thing. If I have done stuff for free, it mostly makes me feel like shit and I hate myself for doing it, so I don't do it now.” – Nathan Boddy (MPG Full Member).

“I don’t often get asked to work for free. Working directly with bands I get paid (normally) in a timely manner and in full, but when working with bands through indie labels or a band manager, invoices can often go unpaid for months or even years. I follow up and remind/negotiate getting paid every week/month (which feels like such a waste of my time). As a sole trader, cash flow is so important to my survival and often these types of situations make me really struggle financially.” – Anonymous.

“I was working in a commercial studio as a runner for a week of work experience. The train commute cost over £30 a day. There was no offer to reimburse travel costs and I had to pay for my own food. One night when I stayed late to pack down, I was bought food and offered a taxi to the station. I ended up out of pocket and used up holiday at my other job.” – Anonymous.

A total of 403 people responded to a survey promoted by the Music Producers Guild to its members and the wider audio community via social media. Only respondents for whom assistant engineering, engineering, mixing, producing or mastering were their main source of income were included in the results.