Pay everyone but the musician

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DIY artist Whitey lashes out at big media when asked to give away music for free – and he calls for a “public discussion”

Whitey won't give away music for freeIt’s compelling when an artist takes a concept and crystallizes it into words you wish you had come up with. For example, let’s say you want to send a message to all the big media companies that are looking to use music from a DIY artist for their television shows but claim “budget restrictions” when it comes to paying for the music they want to license.

Enter Whitey, AKA Nathan White, a Berlin-based electro-rock multi-instrumentalist/composer from London who apparently shuns many standard DIY promotion tactics (like having an official website). He has, nonetheless, crafted a 10-year indie music career and has landed songs on Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, in addition to releasing multiple albums and scoring other notable licensing placements.

Whitey’s making headlines for his recent spat with Betty, a London-based TV production company that “makes modern and high quality popular formats and factual television series” (i.e. reality TV). Betty wanted to use his song “Stay On The Outside,” claimed budget restrictions when asking to use the track, and basically asked him to give away music for free. This was too much for Whitey, and he posted the transaction on his Facebook page. Here it is below:

From Betty:

Thanks for emailing me, I have emailed your label but not heard back yet so thanks for getting in touch. Unfortunately we don’t have any budget for music but would be great if we could use the track but it is up to you, but would appreciate anything you could do?

Many thanks,

From Whitey:
Hello Zoe,

Firstly, there is no label – I outright own my own material, so I’m not sure who you’ve been emailing.

Secondly, I am sick to death of your hollow schtick, of the inevitable line “Unfortunately there’s no budget for music”, as if some fixed Law Of The Universe handed you down a sad but immutable financial verdict preventing you from budgeting to pay for music. Your company set out the budget. So you have chosen to allocate no money for music. I get begging letters like this every week – from a booming, affluent global media industry.

Why is this? Let’s look at who we both are.

I am a professional musician, who lives from his music. It took me half a lifetime to learn the skills, years to claw my way up the structure, to the point where a stranger like you will write to me. This music is my hard-earned property. I’ve licensed music to some of the biggest shows, brands, games and TV production companies on earth; from Breaking Bad to The Sopranos, from Coca-Cola to Visa, HBO to Rockstar Games.

Ask yourself – would you approach a Creative or a Director with a resume like that, and in one flippant sentence ask them to work for nothing? Of course not. Because your industry has a precedent of paying these people, of valuing their work.

Or would you walk into someone’s home, eat from their bowl, and walk out smiling, saying, “So sorry, I’ve no budget for food”? Of course you would not. Because, culturally, we classify that as theft.

Yet the culturally ingrained disdain for the musician that riddles your profession leads you to fleece the music angle whenever possible. You will without question pay everyone connected to a shoot- from the caterer to the grip to the extra- even the cleaner who mopped your set and scrubbed the toilets after the shoot will get paid. The musician? Give him nothing.

Now let’s look at you. A quick glance at your website reveals a variety of well-known, internationally syndicated reality programmes. You are a successful, financially solvent and globally recognised company with a string of hit shows. Working on multiple series in close co-operation with Channel 4, from a West London office, with a string of awards under your belt. You have real money; to pretend otherwise is an insult.

Yet you send me this shabby request – give me your property for free. Just give us what you own, we want it.

The answer is a resounding and permanent NO.

I will now post this on my sites, forward this to several key online music sources and blogs, encourage people to reblog this. I want to see a public discussion begin about this kind of industry abuse of musicians… this was one email too far for me. Enough. I’m sick of you.

— NJ White

Of course, there’s the ongoing debate regarding whether DIY artists should give away music for free, and it can be tough, especially as a budding indie musician, to say “no” to opportunities that are pitched as benefitting you in ways other than monetary compensation – the old “we can’t pay you, but you’ll get a ton of exposure” line. We want affirmation that our work is worthwhile, or seek that gateway to reach an unknown audience that can result in new fans and record sales.

But the question of when and why your music should be undervalued or why you should be expected to give away music for free is a relevant one. An actor or director wouldn’t do a commercial for a major product and not expect payment. They wouldn’t see it as a chance to gain exposure and other work. Why would that be true for the DIY artist, musician, or composer?

Whitey’s Bandcamp page:

Whitey’s Facebook page:

Read More
Let’s Pay Music Artists Less – The Fight for Internet Radio Fairness Ain’t Done Yet
Making Money With Music Licensing – Part 2: Creating Value and Income
Should You Give Your Music Away? The Great Debate.
Thom Yorke’s Music Streaming Rebellion
How Musicians and Composers Make Money

How to make more money with music, vol. 1

51 thoughts on “Pay everyone but the musician

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  2. Exactly the kinds of thoughts that made a struggling musician conclude: If there truly was a God, who would have put responsible folks in charge of the music industry:) He came to the conclusion thatwhile music can be nice, it`s still run and always will be run by not just a Demon – but a super-ruthless one!:: I found that both funny as well as seriously thought-provoking.

  3. Yes! I have struggled with the same pain of getting requests to perform for free over the years and I am sick of it as well. I have put 40+ years into my craft and although I have not been lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to be a house-hold name I have worked at my craft with love and good intent only to have it undervalued at nearly every turn. Whitey – I applaud you and and your efforts – All the best!

  4. I get requests like this all the time. It’s tiring, and degrading. Thanks for writing up our seemingly collective sentiment.

  5. True dat,Whitey always paying the,musician for free. This happens in churches as well, across the country…,:)

    1. Carolyn, churches and other non-profits are usually a different story. I give my audio engineering services – for free – voluntarily every week to my church, but I offer this as a service for people – a cause – it’s not a business whose goal is making money (at least our church certainly is not). Whitey’s situation was quite different – he had not offered, but a hugely profitable business was trying to squeeze it out of him. Individuals also devalue our abilities by asking for it for free…

  6. If it was an amateur, non-profit, or struggling local filmmaker I’d find a gratis-license request reasonable. However, big companies should never be asking for such. (same with unpaid internships)

  7. Hi guys – my husband is a professional musician and is always getting asked to do things for nothing. But don’t think it is just musicians. I currently earn my living as a tax accountant and people are constantly asking me to do work for free. It is a constant battle. I get versions of “oh this will take me all day to figure out and you can do in just an hour or so” – yes, after doing it for 20+ years. So right on to Whitey and I would say that if any of you are temped to do it for “free” for promotional purposes, make sure you have some guarantee of exposure, not just a vague promise – check out the source, the results, maybe even get something in writing if possible. But you have to take a hard line about it and clearly define exactly what you are willing to give for “free”. Even for charity – you have to be specific about what you are giving or you will start feeling like a bottomless pit – free is a very good price and they will come back for more.

    Also Chris is correct that bartered income is taxable (after all, you DID get something for your music) but then bartered music business expenses are tax deductible so be sure you trade for something you can use in your music profession and not a vacation or clothing or anything personal and not deductible and you will be fine.

  8. Music should NEVER be given away. Period! A musician should also NEVER PERFORM WITHOUT A GUARANTEE. To do otherwise is to cheapen your art, cheapen my art, and undermine everybody who is trying to make a living from music. Would a venue call an electrician and ask them to come re-wire the stage for free or a few beers, just because the electrician loves his work? No. Or call a carpenter, or any other profession on the same basis? No. Bars, restaurants, coffeehouses and concert halls are paying ASCAP and BMI, and they need to pay musicians, too. End of story. Don’t EVER play for free. Don’t EVER give your music to a media company. Don’t EVER do anything for “exposure”. Exposure is something people die from!

  9. Anon- ha – sounds like a plan to do the hours and get them back as studio time – until the tax man get to hear about what you are doing – the studio time is called a benefit in kind – means they will make a judgement on hat they think your studio hours are worth and tax you as though its income. Mind your step with these bartered arrangements – they are full of hidden issues.

  10. A friend of mine owns a recording studio. He wanted me to play on his record. He did not have a budget to pay me. So we bartered. Every hour I put into his record bought me an hour of studio time for my next record.

    I could’ve insisted on getting paid, but now I have 40+ hours of studio time racked up. Which is good, because I can’t afford to hire his studio either!

  11. Nice reply Whitey!

    Unfortunately, DIY musicians aren’t the only creative professionals up against those who want something for nothing. I’m an electrical engineer and an audio engineer.

    Yes, as an electrical engineer I do get paid (as little as my primary employer can pay me without too high of a risk of losing me), but all the big employers own your brain’s creativity and don’t want to pay for that when they make many millions from it – including stealing your patents.

    As an audio engineer I get many people implying that many hours of my creative recording and mix work and years of training and experience should be offered free as a favor – maybe my name could be listed in the small print on their album…

    It’s nice to hear someone speak out against people wanting something for nothing because they don’t really understand the high value and uniqueness of what you do…

    Thanks for speaking out!

  12. This would be great if all musicians banded together and took a stance like this. However, the sad fact is that too many will be happy to get the exposure and the performance royalties from ASCAP, BMI or SESAC. In a sense, that can be justified as profit, but is it justifiable enough to let someone use it without receiving compensation from the people using it?

  13. A – freaking – MEN!!!

    Giving away your work establishes its value – NONE!.
    Selling it cheap establishes it’s value – CHEAP!
    And so you define your product, your reputation, and the quality of your work.

    DON’T DO IT!

  14. I entirely agree that musicians should get paid like any other profession or trade. You tried going down to your local national supermarket and telling you want free food because it will do their PR so much good locally they will reap bigger benefits? Our band even gave up known charity gigs after some guests were rude to us – their contribution £5 each – the bands’ contribution 5 members x six hours time = at just £20 an hour that’s £600.

    This whole thing about getting paid or not, is about being a victim or not. When the olypics asked people to play for nothing on the grounds you should be honoured to pla, think what it will do for your career – do you think the Olympic committee did it for nothing, do you think the TV companies didn’t pay their staff? It is a huge money generating operation – no money – no olympics. If you are earning your living through entertaining people, they need to pay for that entertainment – no money no music. Michael Angelo did actually get paid – “Think what this can do for your career Mikey baby……anyway the church didn’t budget for the interior”

    It is too easy to go along with the story about your work being publicised if you give it to someone for free, whilst at the same time the organisation you give it to isn’t working for free.. It is easy in our culture for the public to think music is free, something they don’t pay for – they just don’t see how the system of copywrite and royalties works. Like water from a tap – they don’t appreciate how it got there. And for someone who has never booked a band for a party, but listened to many for free, why would they understand better?

    Working for free is a bad gig. It takes something like 2000 hours of practice just to get up to the lowest level of pub playing – that’s an investment of about 2000 x say £10 an hour = £20,000. Hire a £20k car and it will cost you £100 minimum – there’s a benchmark – hire a plumber with that experience will also cost you about £100 (afterall 2000 hours is a years experience for a plumber).

    Working for free just turns you into some sort of victim – you will only feel bad about it. Won’t pay – pass on it – find another way. What would you think of a dentist who said he’d do your teeth for free just to get a bit of publicity? Just don’t do ‘free’ – it’s all bad news. I know a well known band that split in the end – seven years of playing Top of The Pops for free, doing Festivals for free, going to Japan for free, doing TV shows for free – at the split and having lived at home with mum and dad all that time and lived off a managers allowance of £100 a week for seven years they left with aboutt £200,000 each. Do the maths – for a nationally known band, that’s appalling – it’s what they could have earned doing shifts at McDonald’s!

    This whole free thing is like an a consuming desease through the music industry. If everyone stopped working for free musicians pay would find a workable level. This stuff was what the Musicians Union has been trying to fix for decades – but so long as some musicians keep playing for nothing its going to demean the business.

  15. Pay a creative?? I am a designer and a musician, and in America they are treated much the same. Slightly better as a visual creative, but I get asked for free work all the time, and quite often find clients who refuse to pay properly, if at all. There are parallel conversations in the world of design.

  16. I’m going to take an educated guess… “Zoe” is an under-30 production assistant or perhaps an intern. Either way, she is being taken advantage of by this Betty entity, but does not yet realize it. Zoe has friends who play in bar bands (if it were NY, I’d say in Brooklyn…) who sound just fine to her and play for next to nothing. These, and other friends, also mess around with Garage Band on their computers and probably hound her to get their little tracks (which all sound a lot alike) placed on a show. For all she knows, music really IS free. It is literally thrown at her…

    Several perceptions need to be cultivated: 1. Music is necessary 2. Good music enhances a production, engages the audience, and can be equated to increased monetary return. Therefore it has value. 3. It is important to separate the men from the boys. Inexperienced people are unlikely to create effective music. Sorry, but that’s proven every night in bars around the world… It’s not a hobby.


  17. It’s Betty’s right to ask, Nathan’s right to deny. Simple as that. Many artists give up a song for the credit, “courtesy of” notice and maybe a web address noted to get some publicity. It’s called promotion. It comes under marketing. He could also negotiate, maybe reach some kind of deal. Instead, he goes off on a petulant frenzy, making an ass of himself by throwing a tirade. Meanwhile, they will get another artist to donate their song, for screen credit and if people like his music they will check him out by name. Maybe buy some music by that artist. That’s probably why I never heard of Nathan White or Whitey before reading this article.

  18. Australia has a very old established Musician’s Union , not a militant political machine but a supportive communion of established and aspiring artists. Everyone who uses musicians talents know that artist is never alone in the fight for fair dues.This association brings a wealth of talent and experience from all genres of the arts that incorporate music.I believe this union has helped Melbourne (my city) remain for decades one of the best music cities in the world. Musicians in my experience are predominantly generous sharing collaborative souls, these attributes can be used against them. (never sell your rights) late Lou Reed.( enjoy every sandwich ) late great Warren Zevon).Cheers Mick

    1. I visited Melbourne for my honeymoon a few years’ back and was blown away by the high level of quality buskers out in the streets. There was music everywhere and the place seemed to be really switched on towards musicians. Fantastic place!

  19. Sounds like the 1930s when groups of musicians began pondering their plight by not being able to make a living in their chosen career. “To play for your supper” was coined by just that, playing for food, period. Musicians were also offered free booze, as well and I am sure this proposal was fine for some. Unions were formed because of this god-awful work scene and they were certainly not perfect but a lot of men and women were able to support their family by playing their instrument or writing their song.

    It seems to me technology has created a labor pool that has grown far too large and it is simply a “buyer’s market” to production companies when considering how many people have access to advanced know-how. The only place one could record music other than at a live gig or concert was in expensive recording studios and, of course, that all has changed. We give it away when a savvy computer programmer can get some musical software and within a week, call himself a composer of music or someone from the production company has a teenage son that plugged in a drum machine sequence with some pre-existing guitar loops. I know, been there and seen it happen at very high up institutions.

    Music in many places is not being taught in the public schools anymore and as a result, many people that make decisions as to what kind of music is needed for a film or video game has little to no ability to make good decisions as to what the possibilities are. There is nothing like learning an instrument or singing in a choir to give it to you firsthand what a beautiful gift of life music plays for all of us.

    I now enjoy what many would consider an oxymoron, a “musician’s pension” which I hated contributing to when I worked the studios of Los Angeles but am now a converted believer. I do not believe in giving it away and it has worked well for all these years, as a musician as well as a composer. Thank God for the Musician’s Union!

  20. Don’t work for free unless you absolutely can calculate a true profit from it. Otherwise you put false pricing into the market.

  21. I would also like to see a discussion on how our government views the work status of performing artists. Last I checked, we are not considered laborers and thus are not protected by Labor Law. Or any work-related law. I think that should be changed because, well, IT IS WORK. A lot of hard work. And yes, we need protection from the people abusing us at our work.

  22. This is so right on. One of my band’s songs was a free track on Dell computers for years. YEARS. On millions of Dell computers. We didn’t get a cent. “Great exposure,” our tiny label said. “Great exposure,” Dell said. Sure, a lot of people heard the tune, but so what? Did that “exposure” turn into anything concrete for us? Not at all. I spent thousands of dollars to record the tune and years of sweat to be able to write it. What do I have to show for Dell’s being able to say they were “plugged in to up-and-coming music?” Zero, that’s what.

  23. Yes, we see this kind of disrespectful crap all the time in the music industry. I have lost track of the times I have been asked to play for free, write for free or give up the music I have spent money and time and experience to record or produce, always for free. No one would ask a plumber, or a doctor, or a carpenter or a lawyer to work for free. Yet, they expect this of musicians, because everyone says we “need the exposure.” Well, as we say up here in Canada, people die of exposure. Everyone involved in music needs to get together and make a bit stink about this, otherwise it will never change. The disdain for the accomplishments of our musicians’ union (AFM/CFM) is another symptom of the same thing. Millions of dollars in recording residuals go begging every year in North America because players in studios haven’t stopped to think that there is actually a recording residual program in place (The Sound Recording Labour Agreement Special Payments Fund) to which they are entitled if they work on tracks in a studio, provided that they work under an AFM/CFM contract. We are shooting ourselves in the foot when we agree to work for free, and screwing those with whom we perform and record. It is definitely time to change this.

    1. Oh, doctors often get asked to work for free. People coming up at parties and asking “Can you have a look at this” or something. And anyone who works in IT have probably heard several version of “Can you fix my PC?”.

  24. This is so right on! I am so glad he wrote this! I think people see us musicians as a bunch of desperate, hungry amateurs. And it is up to us to change that perception.

    Perhaps we have bought the “exposure” bait a little too long?

  25. I have mixed feelings. For Whitey, I believe this was an entirely appropriate response to this company. And absurd that they should treat him like that, either lie to him or be so incompetent as to not budget for music and then insultingly attempt to manipulate him for the freebie.

    At the same time, every artist needs to decide for themselves when they should donate to charity, help out a friend or trade for publicity. Certainly there might be some people that will benefit from the publicity, more than they could use the money. But, at some point, you need to be ready to turn down a gig that is not right for you in the long run. Not a bluff, but a decision that if they won’t pay me what I’m worth, I will hit the exit and not look back.

    There are people that do performances for free. Some may be starting out and gaining experience. Some have other good reasons, and are often excellent. At the same time, when you’re paid, you’re paying more attention to the needs of the customer and they should get more a more professional product & work commitment from you. They need to know that. Some will settle for shoddy work if it costs them less. That will hurt them in the long run. You may not want to be associated with them anyway. Think things through, have a long-term plan, go with your passion, be excellent, that’s my advice.

  26. I agree with Lisa. For her to asked Whitey to “give” his music for “free” and NOT compensating something worthwhile is an insult, to say the least. I can see his anger. It’s amazing the industry needs us (musicians), but tries to “Pimp” us by paying us little, or give us nothing which is a shame! I feel like this; if the industry wants our music for “free” you better damn well give us a hellified compensation package that we can’t refused, or ya can kissed me where the sun don’t shine. I’m on Whitey’s side 120%!

  27. Well said and frankly overdue, Whitey. The truth is that 99% of those “exposure, but no pay” deals never yield any quantifiable monetization value. So regardless of how it’s framed, the end result is that 99% of the time the folks who do this sort of thing just get our hard work and all of the resources we’ve put into it absolutely for free. How can this crime continue? If it were any other profession, this would have been stopped long ago. But somehow the psychology of the music industry has been twisted to make musicians feel like they are somehow lucky to get paid for their craft, which one could argue takes much more time and money to perfect than many other professions.

    The only way we are going to stop this kind of thing from happening is if all of the serious artists out there begin to say no to these offers of exposure without pay. Should we ever be able to have that kind of unity, all of these folks would have no choice but to pay for the music that costs so much of our purse, emotion, and time to create and get out to folks, because there will no longer be quality music out there for them cherrypick with this hollow offer.


  28. The public discussion began slightly before Whitey replied to Betty.

    The “zeitgeist” (I’m already tiring of the word, but it applies) had begun on the pages of the New York Times with a landmark essay by novelist/ essayist/ graphic artist Tim Kreider titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” (10/26/13), which has now amassed nearly 700 comments and circled the globe. Kreider’s brilliant essay is well worth the read and mirrors the argument made by Nathan White.

    Discmakers readers can find the link here:

    Best regards,

  29. KUDOS! to you Whitey. This is exactly the right “Indie” decision for the ridiculous patronizing “we” multi-talented musicians are expected to just bow down to. And yes, there is always going to be those who can’t stand the fact that “we” can do and perhaps do better than some are willing to admit and because “we” are this way, many just can’t stand it. Of course what is most often overlooked is the fact that “we” chose to do and become who and what “we” are just like anyone else has, and yet, because “we” do excel at what “we” do the same old “BS” still remains.

    All the Best!

  30. Even offering SOMETHING is better than just asking for it for free – whether you’re a big mucky-muck media conglomerate or not. I heard Will.I.Am tell the story of how the Black Eyed Peas got placed with the original Ipod. They were told they wouldn’t get a lot of money (from Apple, of all things), but that they would get exposure to a new market. But they did, in fact, get SOME money, which is a big difference.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      I totally agree with you. For a company to offer “nothing” that’s just disrespectful imo. I don’t think I would have responded as bluntly as Nathan did, but he was right. I wish more of us would stand up for ourselves

  31. Great response! Musicians have been used for years. I think it takes a hard nose approach like this to protect your work.

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