Establishing Your Rates as a Working Bass Player

Bassist on stage

Q: I have been networking, going to jams, and have actually started to make some headway in my local scene. I’ve just gotten a call about doing a regional week-long tour. The money seems a little low, though, and I’m worried about setting a bad precedent. I’d like to do the tour but don’t want to establish that as my rate, now and forever. And advice? What would you do?

A: Establishing ones rate can be a bit tricky. There’s seemingly a lot more math that goes into than beyond, “how much do I charge per gig.”

Essentially, you need to figure out how much you need to feel good about it at the end of the tour. I’ve always gone with the idea that the more in-demand I am, the more I can charge. This meant that I spent quite a few years taking pretty much every gig I could get and taking whatever money came my way. Once I was busy enough to pick and choose a little bit, then I started thinking more about how much I actually needed (or wanted.)

My general rule is that a gig has to satisfy at least one of these criteria:

  1. Be artistically satisfying. I likely wouldn’t turn down a gig playing incredible music because the dough was too low. There’s simply too much joy, opportunity to learn, and satisfaction from it personally).
  2. Be a good networking opportunity to opportunity to be heard. If some of the other musicians on the gig, at the festival, etc.. are some of those that I would hope to play with one day or if it’s for a large crowd at a popular festival, I might take the gig just to be a part of the scene, get heard by more people and, possibly, up my exposure to more work down the road.
  3. Simply pay really well. At the end of the day, I’m trying to make a living as a freelance musician and I’m not married to making MY musical statement with every gig. Sometimes I just have an opportunity to make some solid cash for a few hours work (or a few weeks. Whatever the case may be). Wedding or New Year’s gigs are a prime example. They’re often kind of annoying logistically but, if the pay is commensurate with the hassle, it can be very worth it at the end of the day.

There is some truth to the idea that if you charge next to nothing, people will begin to expect that they can hire you for next to nothing. There is also truth to the idea that, if you charge a good amount, there will be a perception that you must be worth it and you will always make more per gig. I think, however, that that only really works if you’ve already got a bit of a reputation.

Honestly, I charge far less than a lot of my peers on the scene but I think that we all likely charge what we feel we’re worth. That’s not to say that I feel I’m worth less than X player, but rather that I could never bring myself to ask for more money than I would want to pay for a similar service, regardless of how much my phone rings. Of course, when there’s a budget and I know cats are pulling in real money, I generally find a tactful way to ask that I not be paid less than anybody else on the gig, if everybody is making different amounts.

I’ll also operate on a sliding scale for some work. For a session, I might state my “go-to” day rate but also mention that there’s some flexibility if it isn’t within the budget (if I want to do the session).

Like I said at the top, though: There’s a lot more math that goes into it. Do you have a partner that helps pay the bills? Do you have a partner that is ok with you leaving town for a low-dough gig? Will you be able to pay your bills when you get back?

You have to weigh your need for financial support against your desire or the potential good that can come out of doing the tour. I’ve done tours where I made $75/gig with no per-diem, and I’ve done tours where I make a thousand bucks a gig. I’ve felt good about all of them because I had weighed my needs and expectations against the gigs and made sure that my personal math came out in the black (emotionally, professionally, and financially).

If you’re still establishing your place in a scene than you might also want to consider the other members of the band and how much they work… If this one low-dough tour could lead to more work around town with a new circle of players than that helps rebalance the pay.

In the end, you need to do what will make you feel like it was worth it when you get back home and lay back down in your own bed. Only you know your needs, finances, emotional tendencies, and expectations. My advice is to seek balance and harmony as you consider all of those things and everything should work out just fine!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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