Fees payable to bands and callers at Folk Dance Club nights - should commercial rates apply? These articles appeared in consecutive and rather spirited editions of Set and Turn Single magazine. For full details of Set and Turn Single magazine, and to read my first article in it - click here!

Letter from Graham Stephens in S&TS magazine issue 86, March 2014.

Dear Chris,

Wendy Thorn asks that we should not tolerate rudeness (STS 85), but does not mention in her comments the club treasurers who try to pay bands less than they ask! This practice outrages many musicians and callers. We all know that most clubs' budgets are fight and none of us are under any illusions about money, but there are those who don't seem to understand the cost implications for those on stage.

Even the most compact bands spend thousands of pounds (and this Is no exaggeration) on musical instruments and amplification equipment, all of which must be insured, maintained and tested regularly to ensure that dancers can enjoy their music. (It's worth noting that very few clubs supply a full amplification rig) Gone are the days when one or two books of dances covered the whole repertoire, so today's bands must also buy the many music and dance instruction books on the market and devote hours of their time to practise and prepare the music for the dancers' enjoyment. Callers, too, spend much time and money preparing an evening's dancing - and that's before they have even travelled to the event. Many of the best bands and callers will travel long distances to get to your dance.

You would not go to the theatre or to a classical concert and expect the actors or musicians to go home with virtually no wage in order that you  could get away with only paying 7 for your ticket. Think of the hours of rehearsal they have put in - to say nothing of the talent and dedication it takes. Neither would you expect them to go home with only 'enough to cover their costs'. (if you did, you would soon find yourself in dispute with Equity or the Musicians' Union]) So why should folk dancing be different? The principle is the same.

Your musicians and callers are talented, dedicated professionals who care deeply about what they do. It is ignorant and insulting to suggest that their request for a worthwhile fee will cause the downfall of folk dancing. Every 'social dance' musician knows that they will not earn anywhere near enough to make a living from what they do. None realistically expect to make a profit. But why shouldn't you (the dancers) pay more for your ticket? You'll happily pay more for other forms of entertainment without a second thought, Why should musicians and callers be expected to subsidise you? They are providing you with a professional service and a full evening of entertainment and they deserve to be paid for it. More fundamentally, it's about what value we place on living, breathing music.

So let's address the issue of 'available' funds. Firstly, just because historically you've never charged more than 3 per club night and 7 for a Saturday night dance doesn't mean that this can't change. I urge all dance clubs to survey their members. Find out what they would prefer to dance to - live or recorded music. Ask dancers what other interests they have, what other leisure activities they enjoy and how much they pay for those. I am convinced that most dancers would rather enjoy live music and pay more, than have to dance to recorded music forever. An alternative is to charge an annual club subscription of say, 20 per person, in addition to the door fee at each club night. This would go a long way towards covering club overheads and performers' expenses.

There is also another way. Every folk dance club In the UK could apply for funding. So many organisations have sums of money which they are desperate to give to community groups and clubs. That way you could afford the musicians and callers of your choice and still keep ticket prices down All you have to do is apply! Information about funding can be found on the internet or by telephoning your local Council's Arts Development Officer. There Is money waiting to be given to you! it's easy! An application form is usually all there is to it! And there's no shame in asking for funding - hundreds of other small community groups and clubs up and down the country would not exist without it.

So don't blame callers, bands and rising costs for the financial demise of your club when there is so much you could do to ensure its continuation and growth. It's time the social dance world was dragged into the 21st century. Musicians and callers deserve recognition, appreciation and gratitude. If you treat them as a valueless utility, you do not deserve to benefit from their talent. Why should they waste time, effort and their skill for a pittance? If your club won't change its out-of-date attitudes, you'll only have yourselves to blame for its demise.

Yours sincerely
Graham Stephens

Steve Wozniak responds to Graham Stephens - an article in S&TS magazine, issue 87, May 2014.

In STS 74 (also here) I discussed at length the charging structure for Gittisham Folk Dance Club. Rates have been updated twice but the structure survives and is logical. We continue to attract excellent bands.

Outside of major festivals and large weekend events the size of many venues may limit numbers to 30 or 50 people. Lack of local interest may limit attendance to 30 or 40 even if the hall could comfortably accommodate 100. So local folk dancing is inherently small scale and often characterised by people attending because they have come to know and like each other. Small Irish Set afternoon or evenings can attract between 16 and 40.

This is wholly unlike a large dance venue in a major town where most people attending will not know most of the other people. Jive and Ceroc evenings are often characterised by 100 to 150 people, a regular turnover of clientele and well over 1000 in door money. These events are often commercial and usually the music is recorded. Local folk dance groups take typically 100 per evening. Enough to pay the hall (25 to 30) the caller (25) and the band (35 to 50 for sometimes 4 or 5 people).

Graham suggests that it is reasonable to expect people to pay musicians to indulge in their chosen hobby. Where else does this apply? Are people paid to buy and maintain classic cars or to construct expensive model train sets, both of which are sometimes put on display for a small fee? Most musicians play because they wish to. They are free to stop.

Some bands and callers may have become greedy and I would trace this in part to the social norm of recent years where weddings were thought 'unacceptable' if they were not lavish and overtly expensive. Whilst money may often be expended as a means to satisfy desire, it is hardly a true surrogate for intended lifetime devotion.

More recently, social norms have shifted away from the glitz of footballers wives and their obscene excesses. People mend clothes instead of throwing them away! Nowadays a 30,000 wedding can be seen in terms of a house deposit wasted.

There are many websites giving advice for budget weddings, www.the-broke-bride.co.uk is one example. In another website the advice includes 'Put an iPod on shuffle and rent some speakers instead of hiring a DJ. The play list will be what you want instead of concerns of paying someone else.' Indeed, music and dance seem not to feature at all.

People who have asked my advice about which band to choose locally have been shocked at some of the prices quoted: 300 to 700 for a wedding and callers expect 150 and sometimes 200 (paid and cash and tax free?) for doing nothing more than calling a few of what I term baby dances and for people who are too drunk to participate sensibly - even if they ever knew how to dance. This is easy money – and similar notions should not start to creep into discussions of how much bands should be paid for club nights.

Bands may have become too accustomed to commercial rates even where they are playing for a charity event. Some folk dance callers who are very comfortably off still accept payment for charity events, which seems mean spirited if not directly against the folk ethos. There but for fortune?

Notable are the bands who play at charity events for no fee, one example being the Mooncoin Ceilidh Band in Devon. They play splendid music (sometimes a little too complex for dancers) yet in Dawlish where the charity was 'Send a cow to Africa' I recall they waived their usual fee. It is this spirit and attitude that needs to be encouraged.

Graham Stephens also suggests a 20 annual joining fee – presumably this is intended to encourage club membership at a time when it is falling and newcomers are hard to find. In any case for a club of 40 members meeting 40 times a year it would provide only 800 out of an annual budget of maybe 4000. Hardly a solution to the purported problem that Graham thinks needs urgently to be addressed.

Graham also considers that 'musicians and callers deserve recognition, appreciation and gratitude'. I'd suggest they get these things already and in large quantities. Witness the friendly reception that they receive at club nights (in Devon at any rate) and their feeling of belonging to a big happy family (despite a few and inevitable disagreements between a few egocentric club members). He seems to wish to reduce such feelings down to the level of money. That's just what has been done for arguably far too many weddings!

If bands and callers demand higher payment rates then the solution for local clubs is quite simple. Go back to recorded music. In the days of scratchy cassette tape recorders a live band offered a vast improvement in sound quality. Times have changed.

At my local Irish Set dance group music is provided via an iPod system, except on special occasions. A device the size of a credit card apparently contains all the tracks from 100 CDs. Once you are dancing, the music is quite acceptable and could be improved using better speakers. If bands price themselves out of the market they can stay at home nursing their instruments and thinking back to the days when they were welcomed with open arms into a happy family of dancers.

As for the finances of monthly ceilidhs - recent experience is also a good guide to the future. I said recently in STS that Exeter ceilidhs had gone through a bad patch - falling attendance and losing money. I am happy to report that a recent event with Monty’s Maggot was very good indeed. Excellent music (and not too loud!) and some very good dancers. This band also have one of the best websites I have seen. It has lots of advice on how to organise a ceilidh and plenty of good quality videos showing just how danceable is their music.

Little surprise then that the webpages display their origins in Tozer Consulting Ltd, a management consultancy that includes Jeremy Tozer (melodeon) and Sue Hamer Moss amongst its staff – Sue is well known in Devon as the editor of What's Afoot, our local folk events magazine and a local competitor to STS! It's a small world!

At Bridport, a 'gate-money' route has been adopted. Bands are asked if they wish to come and instead of the typical 100 per person per night fee they are offered whatever is left of the door money. On one occasion they got 65 per head. But the alternative was no ceilidh at all. So the gate money approach probably satisfied everyone, dancers, band members and organisers. It is an approach discussed on the Monty’s Maggot website. At some ceilidhs in the past there may have been too much emphasis on 'big name' bands travelling long distances and with fees to match, something that may not be sustainable.

Is the writing on the wall for bands? A recent evening at Sidford folk dance club was fantastic. Caller Jeremy Child from Exeter used computer based music and excellent speakers. There was space to dance and it was all so fast I wouldn't have believed people at Sidford could keep up, but most of them did. The evening was amazing - Committee Band tracks, All Blacked Up tunes, some was almost Cajun.

It just goes to show what you can do when you push people a little, and with a very experienced caller and superbly recorded music. We ended up doing Geud Man Of Ballangigh to the tune of Cotton Eye Joe. So many people said how good it had been - I've rarely heard so many positive comments – although one or two did say it was both too loud and too fast.

Graham Stephens asked why musicians should waste their time, effort and skill for a pittance. I look forward to the day when accomplished folk dancers are offered money – such is the pleasure that we give band members by interpreting and following their music.

The best dancers at Gittisham club can provide a riotous night of entertainment. We occasionally put a foot wrong, swing for too long or engage in a cuddle too far just to liven things up. Yet our fees are still reasonable!

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