Who takes responsibility for ensuring artists are treated properly, and where do you stand if you’re not paid for work you’ve done? There a plenty of reasons why singers should join the Musicians’ Union
There are many reasons why singers should join the Musicians’ Union. The organisation protects the rights of over 31,000 members and seeks to make the industry a fairer place by lobbying, campaigning and getting behind musicians at every stage of their careers.
Are you working as a freelance singer, getting paid for all, or some gigs? Read on to find out everything you need to know about the costs, benefits and functions of the MU.
Why singers should join the musicians’ union
Are you a singer who has had problems with contracts, agreements, payments or understanding your rights? If so, you may not be aware that there is an organisation set up to help people like you.
Trade unions work on behalf of their members to fight for fairer pay and working conditions. It’s hard to do this and achieve change by yourself. So workers join them en masse, as a group with large numbers has more power and influence.
Is there a union for musicians and singers?
Yes! Almost all musicians and singers are freelancers and those who are self-employed need the support and protection from a union even more than salaried staff. This is because there is so much variance in rates and the conditions of work, which results in unregulated work environments and frequent issues with non-payment. There are additional career benefits to this type of union as well – more on those later.
What is the Musicians’ Union?
The MU, as is it today, began life in 1921. But its predecessor (from which it was formed), the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union, was founded by Joseph B. Williams in 1893 and by the end of its first year, it had amassed over 1000 members.
Back then most of these were instrumentalists in theatre orchestras, but now the union extends to a wide range of genres and all music makers. Now the union has over 30,000 members, with half as many women as men joining up.
It offers advice, assistance, hosts events and negotiates on behalf of its members. The MU is classed as a music industry body and is democratically run, by elected members and some staff. It also has sections focussing on different areas. These are:
- Live Performance Section
- Teachers’ Section
- Music Writers’ Section
- Orchestra Section
- Recording & Broadcasting Section
- Theatre Section
You join up to the organisation rather than the section, but having these means it’s broken down into genres, so if you seek help, you can be referred to the appropriate specialists. You can, however, choose to join a section in addition to your main membership. This will mean you receive relevant correspondence and invites to events in that category.
Why would a musician join a union?
Many musicians’ will automatically sign up following music studies. Others hear about the benefits on the grapevine or encounter problems and realise they need help from the experts. Not only does it provide peace of mind, but the MU often runs good networking events and workshops. It serves to make the music industry a fairer place to work.
By joining you are supporting that work with your fee and increasing the membership, thereby increasing its gravitas in the wider business and political worlds.
Singers’ union options and the freelance Musicians’ Union
You may be wondering if, as a singer, you should join a singers’ union. There isn’t a union specifically for singers, which is no bad thing. By having one union for the industry, with membership inclusive of all types of musician, it keeps the numbers high. And the bigger the numbers, then more funds and clout the organisation has – which in turn benefits the individual members.
However, singers also have the option of joining Equity, the union for actors and performers. If you sing mostly in musical theatre, this might be a good option. But those who gig, record, play instruments or make their own music, should join the Musicians’ Union.
Local Musicians’ Union
The Musicians’ Union operates nationally, however, as well as being split down into sections, it is also run by separating it into six geographical regions. As a result, you’ll receive information from the national office, and the local committees – it’s the latter that will be responsible for arranging and informing you about local events.
You don’t have to join a regional group, this will happen automatically according to the address you’ve provided (so don’t forget to update them if and when you move). The regional offices are as follows:
- Scotland & Northern Ireland
- North of England
- East & SE England
- Wales & SW England
What does the Musicians’ Union do?
So what exactly can and will the MU do for you? If you sign up, here’s what it’ll do for you.
- Provide public liability and personal accident at work insurance – perfect for when you’re singing out and about in large and small scale venues
- Provide legal advice and representation for work and legal advice for non-work related matters
- Help recover unpaid fees
- Give you advice on collaborating with other singers and musicians – great when you’re getting backing bands together, or recording and arranging royalty agreements
- Influence parliamentary policy on your behalf
- Campaign on your behalf against singers and musicians working for free
Musicians’ Union contract assistance
Part of life as a singer is agreeing and signing contracts. If you work on an album with a producer, work as session or backup singer, collaborate with other musicians to release tracks, take a job singing on a cruise ship, or land a recording contract then you’ll be asked to sign on the dotted line.
You’ll usually need some advice from an experienced person, or lawyer and this is costly. If you’re a member, the MU will offer this guidance for free.
Musicians’ Union legal advice
More complex or non-standard contracts, as well as record deals, will certainly need to be looked over and probably negotiated by a lawyer. If you find yourself in a legal wrangle over song ownership, copyright, or royalties for a track you’ve recorded, then you’ll need legal representation and lawyers are extremely expensive.
Who can join the Musicians’ Union?
As long as you are ‘following the profession of music’ you can join the MU. That includes those studying music with a view to working in the industry (there’s a cheaper student membership), those gigging part-time, freelancing and people employed full-time in the industry in some capacity.
It’s, therefore, a very inclusive organisation, welcoming to emerging artists and those just starting out. There are some rules that members must abide by, and if you’ve ever been excluded you can’t re-join. It’s also only open to those who are not already a member of a similar trade union.
Musicians’ Union membership
There are a number of membership options available, all with associated fees. Once you’re a member, you can also put yourself forward to stand as a committee member. Being part of the MU offers a range of options in terms of involvement – you can be at the forefront of instigating and lobbying for change, or simply a paid-up member using the services as and when you need to.
How much does it cost to join the Musicians’ Union?
You can join the MU by signing up online (you’ll need to register for and set up an online account), by fax, post or scan. Membership works on an annual basis and can be paid in a block, or via instalments, using various payment methods.
Students are offered the opportunity to join for an annual fee of £20 and are eligible while in full-time education only. You’ll need a letter from your place a study, proving this (and it can’t be a letter saying you’re about to start a course).
Newcomers to the MU can join for £1 for the first 6 months, after this they will be transferred to the standard rate.
Standard members pay £227 per annum by direct debit.
Music educators may be eligible for a partnership rate of £113.50, if already members of the National Education Union, the University and College Union, or Educational Institute of Scotland.
As fees are subject to change and increase, you can check for updates on the memberships here.
Musicians’ Union dues
Unless you’re in the student category, these fees may seem pretty hefty. So what exactly is that money being spent on? Here’s a rundown of where your hard-earned cash ends up.
- Staff, building and admin costs
- Grants to members (these include members’ funeral grants, maternity/paternity/adoption grants, medical and health grants)
- Providing members’ benefits and services
- Event expenses
Pros and cons of Musicians’ Union for singers
You may still not be clear whether or not you should join. There’s only one downside, but it is a considerable one – for many gigging musicians, struggling to get paid work, the fee can seem high.
Unlike Equity, the MU doesn’t means test fees, so whether you earn much or little, you’ll pay the same – which isn’t so great. For those earning under £23900, signing up to standard membership is half the price with Equity as the MU. Over that, Equity becomes far more expensive. The MU doesn’t have stringent entry requirements though. The new member and student offers make it more affordable initially too. It really comes down to whether you can afford it and whether you’ll ever use the benefits.
If singing is a low-level side hustle for you, for which you are occasionally paid and don’t rely on it for income, it may not be worth it. If, however, you ever have cause to sign employment contracts and record deals as a singer, work in music education or have made singing your full-time career, then the benefits are well worth it. The access to legal advice and help with getting back pay you’re owed alone make the fees worth every penny – joining will even save you money in the long run.
Musicians’ Union jobs
MU’s networking events and advice pages are a great way to source your own work as a singer. You can also keep up to date on what’s happening in the industry and where openings may lie. The organisation also employs people – jobs are advertised on their vacancies page.
Once you have a job, they will help you negotiate terms, offer advice and assist if you encounter problems with unfair treatment or discrimination.
Musicians’ Union rates
It’s helpful in freelance jobs, to have an idea of what you should be charging, or what you can expect to be paid. It’s by no means an exact science, as the arts see more variance in this than probably any other industry and many people work for free to build up a fanbase. One of the useful functions of the MU is that it publishes rates for singers and musicians, which are applicable if the contract you sign is in agreement with the MU. Not all of your work will be, but major mainstream work should be and even if it’s not, it still gives you an idea about reasonable charges and fair pay.
You can find the rates and contract wording for singers below:
And for theatre and teaching:
Once you sign up you’ll be committed to a year’s membership, so do be sure it’s the right step for you first. But equally, if you’re not a member and regularly working for money as a singer, it is definitely worth joining and giving yourself the security and protection offered by becoming part of this community.
- How much do session musicians make?
A career as a session musician can provide a relatively steady income. Rates vary according to the job – backup singers for Beyonce will earn far more than those playing on an unsigned indie album. Check the pay before signing a contract. Learn more about becoming a session musician and salary, here.
- Do musicians pay tax?
Everyone has to pay tax based on their earnings. The government sets a personal allowance threshold, if you earn over this with freelance and/or salaried work, you must pay tax. As a freelancer, you should register as self-employed and fill out an annual tax return to calculate your dues.
- How much should I get paid for a gig?
The Musicians’ Union publishes suggested rates to give you an idea. It does depend on the going rate in your area for the type of gig you’re doing – so ask around. Find out more about how much to charge for gigs in this article.
Are you in a union? Why do you think singers should join the Musicians’ Union? Let us know in the comments below.