Why some performers rarely get paid

Some musicians – and many scientists – don’t get paid to entertain you. Here’s why.

Irish Folk Session, The Old Dubliner Hamburg. By Hinnerk R (Hinnerk Rümenapf) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve played in orchestras for about twenty years, have performed alongside professional musicians, and for sold out crowds. If you look closely you can see me playing violin in a BBC documentary. As part of larger music ensembles I’ve played for audiences that included Lily Allen, Kate Winslet, and members of the Barenaked Ladies. Tickets to these performances often cost between £10-£25, but I’ve not been paid for any of these gigs.

Surprised? Don’t be. I’m not a professional musician. I’m a (former) scientist and my current day job and freelance work are in science communication. Music is a hobby. But despite “talking about science” being my job, I also sometimes give science talks without getting any pay, and people are far less shocked about that than the fact that I never get paid to play violin. It’s like they’re saying: Oh, it’s fine to do your job for free, but why don’t you get paid for your hobby? That’s interesting, and I want to unpack that a bit to see what factors determine whether you expect a performer (of music or science) to be paid or not, and what decisions the performer weighs to decide whether to take part in one of these events for pay or not.

Amateur orchestras

Amateur orchestras are essentially clubs. Members pay a fee to play, and taking part in the performance is part of the package they pay for. The ticket price that the audience pays at performances helps pay for the expenses: the performance venue fee, the rehearsal space rental, and the fees of the professionals who are involved.

Often the conductor gets paid, and maybe the section leaders, the professional soloists, as well as the musicians that are needed for a particular performance that are not found among the regular members of the orchestra (like percussionists, harpists, pianists, or even additional wind or string instruments needed to balance the sections).

London Euphonia Orchestra

The rest of the orchestra is there because that’s the hobby they signed up for. That doesn’t in itself mean they shouldn’t be paid, but if you were to pay a full orchestra a decent fee per person, the admission cost would probably be ten times as high, and the orchestra would lose its purpose as affordable local entertainment. Because that’s the other side of the coin: amateur orchestras are not just a place for musicians to make music, but also a source of entertainment for the community.

Live music sessions in pubs

Amateur musicians are not just found in orchestras. A 2009 paper by Deborah Rapuano studied the phenomenon of Irish pub music sessions in Ireland and the USA. For local folk musicians, these pubs are welcoming places to get together and play, meet new people, and learn some new tunes. It’s their hobby, and it’s tons of fun to play together in a pub! But for the pubs, it’s more than fun. It’s great for business. The presence of these musicians is making their business more profitable.

Rapuano spent several years closely observing musicians and guests in several pubs. Her research method itself mixed fun and work, as she was even invited to play in some of the sessions. In these pub settings, there would be a small group of musicians who did get paid for being there, and a larger group of non-professionals who played in the pubs for fun. Rapuano writes: “Early in the study, I discovered that many of the musicians were unaware that some of the musicians were paid for doing the same thing they were doing. Surprisingly, most musicians did not think the pub owners were exploiting them.” These musicians don’t see the pub sessions as a job, but as a casual setting for practice, community, and leisure — just like the amateur orchestras are to their members.

I think these Irish music sessions have some things in common with another pub music activity: the open mic night. At many open mic nights, the performers are unpaid, but the bar profits, and the host is paid to run the event. For the performers, the benefit is trying out new material, meeting new people, and getting noticed. Some of them are amateurs who just want an opportunity to perform for an audience. Others are using the open mic as a stepping stone to a future (paid) music career.

Science in pubs

Sometimes, the crowd-drawing entertainment in a pub isn’t music, but science talks. A growing network of organisations is offering scientists a chance to talk about their work to the public. Like the music sessions, these events draw a crowd, and the venue profits. And just like the music sessions, some of these events have a few people in the organisation who are paid to run the event (perhaps as part of a full-time science engagement job on behalf of a museum or society, or as a freelance compere/MC), while many of the performers are not being paid at all.

Café Scientifique Orlando. Photo by Chad Miller. CC-BY-SA via Flickr.

Scientists take part in these events for reasons other than money. It can be an opportunity to practice explaining their work to a broader audience (a skill that’s useful for teaching and for securing research funding), or it can be an opportunity to make new connections by networking with the other speakers and organisers. Universities also encourage their researchers to take part in outreach and community events to raise the profile of the institute.

Some of the speakers use these speaking opportunities to explore career options outside of research. Maybe they aspire to one day be the professional organiser behind one of these events, or they want to practice their skills to eventually move into a science communication career, or just become better speakers. Like the pub musicians, what they’re doing is work (and someone profits from it), but they don’t mind not getting paid for it, because there is another purpose.

Who do you expect to get paid?

I was curious what my Twitter followers thought about this. Did they expect musicians or scientists to get paid for performing at music events or public science events?


53% expected both musicians and scientists to get paid, 44% expected musicians to be paid but not scientists. Only 3% didn’t expect musicians to be paid (with a split opinion on scientists’ pay for performances).

The responses suggested that people absolutely expect musicians to be paid, and some of the replies indicated that this is because they perceive music to be the musicians’ profession. But many expected the scientist to not be paid, because giving that public science talk is somehow already understood to be part of their overall role. (I should mention here that many of my Twitter followers are scientists themselves, so they might be thinking of their own talks.)

Almost everyone agreed that they expect musicians to be paid to perform, though. But I just spent several paragraphs giving examples of music performances where musicians regularly don’t get paid!

When these poll-answers were thinking of a music performance, they immediately imagined professional musicians who get paid. But some high-profile, professional, crowd-pulling speakers at science events also get paid! Many people who answered the poll were imagining “scientist speakers” to do a public service, or to promote their own work. Those are not the only kind of scientist speakers.

Paying people to talk about science

Over the years I’ve organised several science events — sometimes unpaid, to learn how to do it, and later as part of full-time jobs. On more than one occasion people have asked “Why didn’t you get this or that Famous Science Person to come speak on this topic?” And I’ve had to explain that Famous Science Person’s speaking fee was out of our budget. Speaking fee? Why would someone charge a fee to talk about science?

Because speaking at that event is not beneficial to them or their work. Because perhaps they’re a freelance science communicator, author or speaker. Because the fact that you are asking about this person in particular means that they can afford to make “speaking about science” their job, just like a professional musician is able to earn money by playing music. Because they get asked to give a talk so often that it’s no longer in support of their research work, but in competition with it.

There’s a difference between “I want a scientist to come give a talk” and “I want Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Jane Goodall or Daniel Levitin to give a talk”. In the first scenario, you can find someone for whom being a speaker at that event benefits them personally or raises the profile of their work. For these famous scientists and science writers, being a speaker at an event raises the profile of the event itself, not of them. They can charge up to five or six figures because that’s what some of these events will pay them just for their presence.

Jane Goodall. By Mark Schierbecker [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

Of course those are just the extremes. There’s a whole grey area in between, where people charge far less, or sometimes charge money and sometimes speak for free, depending on the type or location of the event, the audience, the funding source of the event, and how speaking there fits into their own career path.

Musicians exist in a similarly grey area. Even though I do most of my violin playing for free, I have sometimes been paid to play a wedding with a small ensemble. Weddings need their booked string quartet to be there for the event to go as planned, so they pay to ensure musicians show up and do a good job. The string quartet gets no personal or professional benefit from attending a stranger’s wedding, so the only remaining motivator is money.

Motivators for participation

A 1996 paper by researchers at the Department of Sport Management and Leisure Studies at Temple University studied the different factors that motivate musicians. They found that amateur musicians consider rehearsals and performance as leisure, while professional musicians see the same events (particularly rehearsals) as work. This meant they had different motivators: the professionals were more driven by external factors (money), and the amateurs by internal motivators (pleasure).

Is this the same for scientists? When a scientist gives an unpaid talk, they are not necessarily driven by internal motivators like the amateur musicians are. Their external motivators might be related to a professional goal to share their work, for example. But when science communication researchers Ellen Poliakoff and Thomas Webb studied the motivating factors for scientists to take part in public engagement activities, the biggest factor that determined scientist participation was whether they had previously done public engagement activities! That sounds like an internal motivator: they do it because they’re used to it.

Indeed, Poliakoff and Webb found that external motivators had very little effect (just like they have little effect on whether amateur musicians decide to perform). From their paper: “[D]espite the importance of general attitude toward participating in public engagement activities (e.g., “Taking part in a public engagement activity would be pleasant”), specific beliefs to do with career recognition or the suitability of one’s own research did not predict intentions. In other words, some scientists did not intend to participate despite recognizing potential career benefits and some intended to participate despite recognizing few potential career benefits.”


As Rapuano’s study on pub musicians showed, a professional body (a pub, an organisation) can exploit the leisure performers’ desire to perform. They benefit professionally from someone else’s hobby. Rapuano calls this concept “leisurework”. The Irish pub musicians she studied didn’t mind that they were involved with events where other people made money, but the events could not happen without their participation. What they were doing is work — leisurework.

One of the reasons amateur musicians are okay with this kind of leisurework, is that they learn from the professionals that play alongside them or that lead their group. Similarly, scientists can learn from professional science communicators too. They can observe their communication styles, see what works, and how to improve their own presentations. However, I don’t think that this added value of presenting alongside professional science communicators is one of the motivators scientists are thinking about when they decide to give a talk. Maybe it should be, but that’s a topic for a whole other piece.

Who got paid?

You can’t always tell who got paid at an event and who didn’t. Like the amateur orchestra example above, a science conference or festival may pay for some of their featured speakers and not for others. But who got paid and who didn’t? And why?

If you see a performer at a science festival, it can be hard to tell whether this is a scientist for whom performing there raises their profile or moves their career forward (maybe even into a future science communication career) or a representative of an organisation who has been sent there as part of their job, or a freelance science performer who is getting paid by the organisers to bring their in-demand set to the event.

Next time you go to a concert or a science event, think about why the people on stage are there, and ask yourself whether you expect them to have been paid to be there. I’m not saying you should avoid amateur concerts (please come to mine!) or pay all scientists to speak (it can create a conflict of interest!) — I just want you to be aware that there are paid science speakers/performers, just like there are unpaid musicians. Both fields have professionals who rely on being paid for gigs, as well as others who do not. In all cases, people have different motivations for getting on that stage, and event organisers have made conscious decisions on whether to budget for paid performers or not.

As audiences, try to be aware of why the performers are there. Whether it’s a science speaker/performer or a musician, support the ones who make a living, and appreciate the ones who share their hard work for free.


Deborah Rapuano (2009) Working at Fun: Conceptualizing Leisurework. Current Sociology Vol 57, Issue 5, pp. 617 - 636 https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392109337648

Susana Juniu, Ted Tedrick & Rosangela Boyd (2017) Leisure or Work?: Amateur and Professional Musicians’ Perception of Rehearsal and Performance, Journal of Leisure Research, 28:1, 44–56 https://doi.org/10.1080/00222216.1996.11949760

Ellen Poliakoff & Thomas L. Webb (2007) What Factors Predict Scientists’ Intentions to Participate in Public Engagement of Science Activities? Science Communication Vol 29, Issue 2, pp. 242–263 https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547007308009

Writer, science communicator, musician. Find more of my writing at Forbes.com, Undark, Nature, Nautilus, The Scientist, Hakai and other places.

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