So, you’re off to your festival with your wellies, tent and cider crammed into a backpack, looking forward to the entertainment that is waiting to come your way. But what of the musicians booked to provide you this entertainment: who makes sure they get a fair deal from the situation, from headliners to stage openers? The Musicians’ Union (MU) and the Association Of Independent Festivals (AIF) have joined forces to draw up a code of conduct that provides practical and realistic guidance to emerging musicians (those who don’t have the representation of an agent or a manager) in the form of an agreement that they hope will work for promoters and artists alike. Roanne Wood takes a closer look at the Fair Play For Festivals Agreement.
To play a festival is often a central aim for any upcoming band or artist. Putting aside the work of BBC Introducing for one minute, it’s the independent festivals that offer the most achievable slots for emerging talent. The chance to play that one show on an outdoor stage in front of a big crowd is often too tempting to turn down, making it appealing for artists to jump on any opportunity they can get. This leaves a potential opening for acts to be taken for granted by festivals or promoters – no payment agreement, no rider, no travel expenses, no storage options and little contact before and after. This is where the MU and AIF’s joint Emerging And Independent Artists’ Festival Code Of Conduct comes in.
“As festivals are the key incubators of developing emerging talent and offer musicians so many opportunities, it made sense to have an agreement to reflect how important emerging artists and independent festivals are to each other,” says Paul Reed, general manager of AIF, and one of the key drivers of this Fair Play For Festivals initiative. “Even something as large as Bestival has a line-up which is 35% emerging artists. The agreement took some time to develop, rightly so. It needed to be balanced, and to reflect the actual concerns and issues of festival organisers and the musicians playing them.”
All of the AIF’s 55 member festivals are signed up to abide by the terms of the agreement, which stretches to all artists represented by the Musicians’ Union, and formalises the existing relationship between emerging artists and independent festivals represented by the AIF. Although the agreement was created by two organisations that rely on – and protect – their affiliated members, it isn’t restricted to members only. The code of conduct applies to bands and promoters outside of the organisations as a way of putting down some basic rules, and also acts as a way of alerting non-members to points to be looking out for. Kelly Wood, Live Performance Official at The MU, explains: “This code of conduct was created with the help of, and for use by, our members in connection with AIF member festivals. However, it will come into play for many non-MU member artists across festivals, and we expect that the organisers will still deliver according to the document where it forms part of their booking terms with artists.”
With sections of the code of conduct encompassing Remuneration, Payment And Fees, Merchandise and Riders, it is a pretty comprehensive manifesto which lays out a set of rules from which both sides can work harmoniously, to make sure that all eventualities are covered. From a musician’s point of view, it’s exceptionally encouraging to see the words “artists should not be expected to ‘pay to play’” finally written down in an official document endorsed by respected, popular and trusted organisations. The one trap artists regularly fall into is not respecting their own value, thus allowing promoters to dictate the terms. Tom Peters, guitarist in Alpha Male Tea Party, says, “It is important for bands to value themselves beyond simple exposure, and I would always encourage a band or artist to arrange an appropriate fee upfront. I don’t think it is the role of an artist to sell tickets in ‘pay to play’-style arrangements, and it is good to see that this is covered in some official way.”
A veteran of many gigs and tours, Peters agrees that its good practice to have something agreed by both parties set in stone beforehand. “I think a lot of smaller, less experienced bands would just accept no fee, no meal and a huge cut taken out of their merch without question if the festival seems like a good idea.” This is where the new agreement comes in, stating that you can either do the merch yourself, or get somebody else, usually an advocate of the festival, to staff your stall for you for a small commission. “The way I usually look at it is: do I want to stand in the same place all weekend selling my own clobber instead of having a nice time partying with my friends? The answer is an unequivocal NO,” says Peters. “So, with that in mind, I don’t really care if someone takes a cut of our merch as long as we have a fee arranged for the show.”
Brian Campbell, of Liverpool’s influential alternative outfit Clinic, agrees that the points raised in the agreement are all points worth mentioning. “Musicians should be treated with respect when playing festivals, and should be well looked after financially and accommodated well. Likewise, when you’ve been booked by a festival, the musicians also owe respect to them, too.” This is also covered in the agreement, with sections detailing just what is required from the artist in advance and during the event once they have been booked.
“I really do hope that this new code of conduct helps new bands,” asserts Campbell. “However, bands should do their research when offered gigs and festivals. Check out other events that the promoters have put on; make sure that their prior events actually happened. Contact other bands who have played previous shows by these promoters and double-check they had a good experience! Ask for any agreements of payment and rider to be put in a form of contract. And always ask for the payment or at least some of the payment in advance, for protection against cancellation.”
Kelly Wood also hopes that the agreement will encourage contracts to be written out in advance. “We’re aware that many artists don’t use contracts for their performances, and we hope that documents like this will help them to understand the importance of using agreements in order to clearly set out what is expected of both parties and to protect the musicians’ interests in the event that something goes wrong.”
“The key things the agreement is aimed at improving are communication processes between the organiser and artists, especially in advance,” Paul Reed confirms. “Let’s ensure that everyone knows what the set-up at the festival is and what to expect. Likewise, let’s ensure that musicians are delivering info needed according to deadline, etc. The agreement is practicable and realistic.”
It just goes to show that it doesn’t necessarily matter if you have a great booking agent, a manager or a record label behind you, thanks to the work of the MU and AIF. Hopefully the agreement will not only bring fairness to the artist and promoter, but will also create fairness in the treatment of ‘established’ acts versus up-and-coming acts.
You can read the Fair Play For Festivals Code of Conduct in full at aiforg.com. If you’re a musician and you’d like to find out more about this – and the wider support work of the Musicians’ Union – head to musiciansunion.org.uk.