Musicians angry over playing for free at the London 2012 Olympics

A new Facebook group, Musicians Against Playing For Free At The Olympics, has been created to draw attention to the growing outrage among some musicians at what they believe to be unfair treatment at this summer’s London 2012 Olympic Games.

Created by player Ashley Slater, the group’s description reads: “Musicians are being asked to play at peripheral Olympic events for free ‘for the exposure’. This is simply unacceptable and I feel we should withdraw our participation.”

Andrea Vicari, professor of jazz piano at Trinity college of music, has also waded into the debate.

Group members have called for musicians to stage walk outs at non-paying events, sign petitions and contact their MPs over the situation.

An online petition has been set up at, which the group are encouraging musicians to sign.

Some users have also uploaded correspondence received from the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) over their complaints. The email below from Rob Clarke, Head of Reward, Policy & OD was copied to the group by musician Keith McNicoll, and states LOCOG’s position on matters:

“Within LOCOG our Policy has been established for some time and remains unchanged. Our agreement with the Musicians Union is that whilst we will not be paying volunteers, amateur musicians, or headline acts, all other professional musicians will be paid.

“We stand by that commitment, and are not aware of any official authorised approaches made to professional musicians asking them to perform for free.

“However, given the rapid pace, growth and complexity of our organisation and the many partners we work with, we know that we won’t always get it right.

“We have consistently said that if any instances of professional musicians being asked to perform for free are brought to our attention, and they are genuine approaches from LOCOG, then we will make sure they are in line with our commitments.”

The email was later followed by examples of approaches received by some group members to play at LOCOG events for no payment other than the “chance to showcase [their] talents to the worlds press.”

Anger at the situation has spread to the letters pages of the national press.

The Musicroom blog reported on this controversial issue in April in an article entitled To pay or not to pay? Should musicians be paid for Olympic celebrations?

Comments left on the article summed up feelings on both sides of the debate:

“The plumbers, builders etc are being paid – there’s no reason why the musicians shouldn’t be too.”

“Free publicity? I can just see a record label talent agent sitting there going: “WOW listen to that third horn player from the right in the seventeenth row! I’ve got to get that guy on my label!” Aren’t the caterers getting free publicity? The airlines? The security? They should all work for free as well, then.”

Other comments were more supportive for LOCOG’s stance.

“Most of the musicians I know actually have brains of their own with which to do their OWN thinking. If they want to perform for free that is up to them. I am a musician, and I have chosen to play for free on the odd occasion – usually if I get paid for it in other ways – such as getting exposure that I may not get the chance to get any other way. I don’t want or need some collective telling me how I can and cannot spend my time. I say negotiate your own contract.”

On the Musicroom Facebook, one poster argued that event headliners, such as Duran Duran and Snow Patrol, could well see their income from music and ticket sales increase after performing at Olympic events.

Although true, the point perhaps overlooks the heart of the debate which revolves around professional musicians who make their living away from the profits and glamour of the music industry’s extremely narrow summit.

In fact, as part of their agreement with the Musician’s Union, referenced in Rob Clarke’s email above, LOCOG are not obliged to pay their headliners, presumably due to the established success of such acts and their ability to fully exploit the commercial potential of their appearances during the games.

Would a professional steel pan group really gain exposure through Olympic events equal to what they would normally be paid to perform elsewhere?

The Jazz Breakfast blog has been posting about the Facebook group too, suggesting that, if successful, it “could be the start of something really big – and it doesn’t need to stop after the Games are over – musicians get a raw deal whether there is this sporting brouhaha going on or not.”

They also highlighted comments by jazz guitarist Phil Robson who actually believes the Olympics have harmed musicians in the UK.

He has said: “I don’t think any of this can be compared to ‘sitting in’ in a pub for free when you are 15 to gain experience. Yeah sure, we all did that. This is the Olympic games! Half the venues in the country fell apart over the last couple of years due to all their funding being pulled in order to subsidise this.

“Forgot to mention that the Olympics has put me & most of my colleagues out of work anyway for it’s duration as pretty much everything will ground to a halt for it in London & I prob can’t get in or out of town anyway from where I live in Kent.”

The Incorporated Society Of Musicians (ISM) is also running a poll to gauge the opinions of musicians.

Just last week photographers rallied against exploitative contracts issued by The Stone Roses, a situation that bears similarities to the Olympic controversy.

What do you think of the Olympic pay issue for musicians? Do players deserve to be paid just as the builders, caterers and other London 2012 staff will be for their labour?

Join the debate and leave your thoughts in a comment below.

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    Share Your Thoughts

  1. Sam Lung says

    I am a seasoned musician, and although I would always love to be paid, I think I’m halfway on this one. I can’t seem to fall on either side of the fence because although exposure is always good, this is still actual work for the musicians – the doctors and security are getting paid, as are the construction workers. Nevertheless, I’m sure it can’t be as simple as ‘let’s just pay each of the musicians £20’.

    Other companies seem to be giving a certain amount of their resources (or employees, in certain cases) to the Games, but they have the benefit of saying that they are “proud sponsors of the London 2012 Olympic Games”. If you consider the individual musician’s contribution, they are effectively also ‘sponsoring’ the Games, however they don’t have the benefit of being taken seriously to this claim!

  2. Sam says

    Get paid for the Olympics? There is absolutely no need. I’m a grade 8 musician, playing with numerous bands and for an opportunity like this I wouldn’t care if I got paid!! It may be work, but what an opportunity. If they want paid, get people who don’t. I know plenty of good musicians who will play for free and not complain. Once in a lifetime opportunity right there. It shouldn’t be wasted on those complaining and used to help those who would love the coverage!!

    • Sarah says

      errr. sam, grade 8 you say! wow-wee… you’re obviously a student and not a professional musician so you’re exactly the kind of ‘amateur’ musician they would love to exploit. that’s all very well and good, you can get your experience and they can get ‘music’ for nothing but in a city famed for its contribution to music on a global scale, surely the Olympics can do better than showcase (to the extent they are) music being made by amateurs?? no offence but in this world you tend to get what you pay for…

  3. Philippa Evans says

    How difficult is this for people?????? I’ll try and make it as simple as possible:

    Jeez, there must be loads of people who can blow a trumpet or bang a gong who are happy to do it for free, so if they want to why not let ’em? And if you’re too precious to get involved then don’t bother and just stay in bed instead and watch it on TV.

  4. says

    Ok let’s look at the facts here.
    Exposure is the angle that is being pushed, yes there will be MANY people there. Chances are they will have a pint or a sandwich as they walk past. If you are lucky they may stop and listen to a song.
    Will they run home and order your cd? Not likely.
    Will a label rep stop and sign you, certainly not… If they are there it’s certainly not to scout new talent.
    Is a club owner going to take your contact information and book you? Maybe… And most definately when he knows you will play for free. They LOVE free acts.

    Have some standards and don’t fall into the exposure trap.
    A lawyer doesn’t represent clients for free when he/she opens a practice to “get exposure”… No they advertise (which costs $) and then try to recoup losses by proving they are good. If they are good they make more, if they are only ok… They can live on it but won’t get rich, if they suck they will go bankrupt and close the practice…

    Don’t play for free.
    Get paid …. If you volunteer make sure it’s for a cause or charity you believe in

  5. Liz says

    I know this is old news, but I just thought I’d let you guys know that my boyfriends band played at the Olympics – the main argument for playing for free would be exposure, however they were not allowed anything with the Band name on, or even to give away CDs (let alone sell them). The only thing they could do was say their name between songs, and that was because no one could stop them!

    I personally think that this is a disgusting abuse – yes we’ll use your intellectual property but we wont let you advertise it because you haven’t spent a fortune sponsoring the games.

    Over all the band enjoyed their experience and would probably do it again, but they were definitely frustrated.