Music to our ears

DESPITE it being Valentine's Day, 60 people came to the London Freelance Branch meeting on how to be a music journalist - and get paid. Angus Batey introduced the speakers by reminding us that "over the last decade music journalists have been at the forefront of freelances' battles, whether over low pay or copyright."

They have their own special issues, too, from record companies' recent reluctance to send review copies lest they appear on the interweb to gig promoters' insistence on controlling where photographers stand and controlling everything else about their pictures.

Consequently, music journalists are better organised than many other freelances, despite few being members of the union - and contrary to the cultural expectations one might have of a bunch of enthusiasts constantly replenished by hobbyists desperate for a backstage pass.

Ten years ago a copyright grab spurred the formation of a network for contributors to EMAP's Q and Mojo. Now they hold annual negotiations with company - despite it not recognising the NUJ - and have achieved some startling improvements in rates and conditions. And last year the Branch helped fund and support the relaunch of a general discussion group for music journalists, which sees people who are technically in direct competition helping each other out - see

Pat Gilbert was editor of Mojo, so he knows about much of this from both sides. "Editors come from Mars, writers come from Venus," he declared - "and at the end of the day the two have to get on."

'Go on, ring...'

When he left his staff job to write Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash, he had to write features to make a living. He had assumed that having been an editor on an EMAP flagship publication would carry some weight at the Guardian or the Times - but "I found I wasn't hearing anything back from them. How difficult can it be for someone on £30k to e{mail saying 'thanks, I'll read it later'?"

Why is the phone not ringing? Why this deafening silence? "You can start to feel very isolated and paranoid and left out in the cold - which is why organisations like this are so good."

Ten days before the meeting Pat was asked to go in and edit a one-off mag. After a week he realised that he'd slipped back into "office mode" and hadn't even acknowledged the copy people had sent.

He had to collect a "100 greatest punk singles" feature. Each of the 100 is hardly worth doing for a freelance at a per-word rate. He found himself wondering, "can I get a batch for a cheaper rate?" That wasn't inherent avarice: as a as a staffer what he was judged by was getting the product out of the door, on time, with good words and pix and within budget. For an editor, rates of payment are not always the greatest priority in the chaos of the commissioning stages; getting the words in is. Especially with complicated "list" projects, "the maths of commissioning is difficult... sometimes the reality is you're commissioning copy before you've decided what's going in the paper."

And as for freelances' proposals... "When people are sending you unsolicited ideas and copy all the time," he observes, "and you are under deadline pressure, all their stuff can easily go straight in the bin."

How, then, can freelances keep a relationship with a mag going? No editor on a monthly would feel harassed by monthly list of proposed reviews, features and news items. The best freelances, from editors' perspective, are those who get up early and get the papers and call to say "hey, Dylan's died..." People who work in offices are often very insulated from the world.

Particularly for new people, Pat stresses that it is never a case of what the mag can do for you: it's always what you can do for them. Never send a bunch of cuttings and demand "I want to interview Pete Doherty". Do tell an editor if he lives next door to you, or you went to school with him: always "I can do you this..."

"As an editor," Pat declared, "there's nothing better than a sharp person hitting you with new ideas."

Then, to make it work freelances need to be tough with editors. Do not shy away from mentioning money when you're being commissioned, particularly for the first time for a mag. No editor working for a respected mag would feel you were being pushy or "money oriented". Bigger publishers are moving toward getting deals on paper with purchase orders (and of course freelances can do the same with the Confirmation of Commission form from

Big companies will push people around because they can; editors will respect people for being firm. Negotiate. Specify the brief exactly. If you're asked do work beyond what was agreed, ask for more money.

Editors, Pat recapped, are from Mars: "they're harassed, and they need straightened out a bit".


Kevin Cummins did freelance photography for the New Musical Express for years. "Most people like the idea," he claimed, "of being flown round the world and hanging out with bands for four or five days." The bands, however, don't understand that the mags don't pay for this rock'n'roll lifestyle, the record company does. And record companies deduct "promotion costs" from the band's royalties. "Lets' raid the minibar!" a new band will exclaim, to which "You're paying," a grizzled hack will respond, "go ahead..."

He had never worked on contract. No-one ever gave a written brief. Then one day in early 1996 Steve Sutherland, the then editor, dropped into conversation that we were going to be given a contract.

"It doesn't matter," Sutherland said, "it doesn't mean anything."

The freelances held a meeting anyway.

Sutherland came in: "sign it, we're all mates, and then we'll go for a drink"

We'd like our solicitor to look at this....

"It doesn't mean anything - it just keeps the paper working"

If doesn't mean anything, why do you want us to sign it?

The freelances sent it to NUJ Head Office. They looked at it, and were horrified. All 15 clauses had been designed to take freelances' rights. They changed every single point and sent it back.

There was another meeting. This is our contract, the freelances said: we're all mates, can you just sign it?

"Why? Can I show it my solicitor?" Later Sutherland said "OK, work under the old terms, but don't tell anyone".

Young photographers were sent to gigs to see whether they knew how to use a camera.

They got £75, and were expected to pay for film, processing and travel out of that. But there were many who would pay the NME £20 a night to work for them. The "carrots" were contracts paying £750 for a main feature, signing over all rights forever.

Kevin had never got commission fees: he retained copyright and got paid for reproduction of the images, with a loose agreement that pix for major features were exclusive for 6 months. "We were generally commissioned by the writers - usually on the basis of who they wanted to go on trip with, or because we had a credit card or could drive..."

He's got STUFF!

Many of the freelance writers felt the photographers earned far more than them. Most got £102 per thousand words - but every week they got a shedload of CDs to sell. Only a couple were interested in photographers' plight, and they were in the NUJ.

Editors had the same attitude: James Brown had a template for a generic cover in his office, with the image captioned "photo by some chancer with a licence to print money". One Christmas, an editor was having one of his personal crises and Kevin invited him to stay over. Afterwards this editor announced "I'm not going to give Kevin any more work - I've been round his house and it's full of STUFF." Another offered the cover job for a 10 per cent kickback in cash.

Then the NME started using anyone with camera to do the covers. The mag suffered.

Kevin decided he wanted to get his pix out of the file. He clearly owned the images - but IPC's lawyers responded to Thompsons, solicitors for the NUJ that "your client appears to be under the misapprehension that he owns the physical transparencies". These belong, they said, to IPC.

Then they got a youngster on work experience to spend three months stamping the back of every photo to claim that. Occasionally a stock agency is able to go to IPC and say "we'd like to scan all the Smiths pix". Kevin has got half a dozen files back that way, but IPC probably still hold 3000 photos that he cannot get back.

Freelance Organiser John Toner asked how aspiring journalists who know nothing about libel law survive, in a field so richly endowed with defamatory tales. Pat replied that he'd been working as a commissioning editor for three years before management thought of sending any staff on a libel course. "It'd be the production editor - who was a bit longer in the tooth than us - who'd look at the page roughs and say 'You can't say Liberace's gay, you know.' It's really chaotic at other mags, too."

That's my idea!

And, John went on, what about freelances' bugbear of pitching an idea to an editor and having them give it to someone else to write? "I've never known of a case," Pat averred, "where someone's called with a very specific brief and an editor's gone to someone else... great minds do think alike." He reckons it probably does happen, but it's very difficult to prove. "And mags do tend to have their own stable of writers, and for a reason. I can think of cases where the person with the idea gets a fee for research or quotes, and someone else gets to shape it into great copy." Kevin added that some bands will trust certain writers and photographers.

A member asked whether she should get started by building connections with young bands.

Pat thought it a good idea, though there are risks: "you could throw in your lot with Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine while no-one likes them..."

[Site map] Last modified: 23 March 2005 - © 2005 contributors
The Freelance editor is elected by London Freelance Branch and responsibility for content lies solely with the editor of the time
Send comments to the editor: