How Much Do Late Night Shows Pay Their Backing Bands?

There are plenty of reasons for viewers to tune into late night shows. Whether you're a fan of the comedic experts hosting the entire thing, trying to catch an interview with your favorite actress, or watching for potential bloopers and mistakes, the programs are designed to keep you entertained and tuned in for every moment. But there's one essential part of that process you might not even notice: the band in the background.


House bands are vital to keeping an audience interested and engaged. After all, you don't want your viewers falling asleep before the show is over. And it's important for the in-person audience, too; as Jimmy Kimmel told Variety, bands can keep them entertained during commercial breaks with sing-alongs and karaoke. "It's a vital part of the format and adds so much energy, especially for the audience during the commercials," Kimmel said.

But with all that work going into keeping the audience entertained, it's definitely worth asking: How much is a house band paid, and how hard is it to land the job?

Late night show bands can make around $1 million annually

The life of a talk show musician has its perks. As Variety reports, it allows artists to play around with pretty much every musical genre, and they don't have to deal with the grueling travel and touring schedules of typical bands. The gig comes with a hefty cost, too, as networks have been known to spend as much as $1 million on certain house bands annually, according to the Los Angeles Times.


But that money doesn't necessarily amount to much for each individual musician. According to an infographic from the American Federation of Musicians, a union representing the performers, most talk show musicians received a little less than $325 per episode appearance in 2020. If a musician is on the same show every night of the week, that can make for a quick $2,000.

Even if those pay rates seem high to the average salaried American, though, they pale in comparison to some of the other people working on the shows. Jimmy Fallon, who hosts The Tonight Show, makes about $16 million a year from that show alone.

The American Federation of Musicians negotiated for a raise in 2020

There's more to the finances of talk shows than the initial performance. Much of the revenue comes from streaming the highlights online after the fact, complete with advertisements. Actors and performers even receive a certain amount of that ad revenue, according to the American Federation of Musicians. But many musicians didn't receive that kind of financial support from their network hosts until a push for more pay equity in 2020 when the union negotiated better terms for its members.


It's hard to know exactly how much that adds to each musician's income. The amount is a relatively small percentage of revenue that comes from how many people watch the video in the first place. But the union agreement also included annual raises meaning performers are getting more than the standard $325 they were used to in the past.

Their salaries still might not reach the level of the hosts, or even the actors and writers working with them. But the current contract closed some of those gaps — gaps that some pointed to as evidence of systemic racism, given many talk shows include a white host in front of a band primarily composed of people of color (via The Hollywood Reporter).

Perks of the gig

Even if the pay isn't as much as what a host might make, there are plenty of reasons why a band might be interested in a talk show gig. For the ones who make it, that kind of job can mean long-term stability. One performer worked with David Letterman for decades, according to Variety, and plenty of other musicians have worked alongside the same show for years.


Performing on a late-night show also brings a lot of exposure. Performances from Jimmy Fallon and his house band The Roots can garner millions of views on YouTube and feature top-billing performers like Brendon Urie, Adele, or even Metallica. It likely helps that The Roots are a recognized band in their own right and have won Grammys for their work (via NBC). But the level of reach achieved through late-night performances might be difficult to reach for your average touring musician or band.

Beyond that, the work is interesting and more regular. Bands perform every day in the same location — and, because the shows aren't actually live, it isn't actually keeping them up that late. And, for bandmembers who might have family to look after, the steady income and lack of travel is a luxury.


Knowing a late night host might help a band land a performing spot

So how do bands get on a late night show in the first place? To put it simply, you have to know the right people. Jimmy Kimmel grew up with musician Cleto Escobedo, who now plays the saxophone and serves as bandleader on Kimmel's show (via Variety). The Roots ended up where they are in part because Jimmy Fallon already knew of the band when he was brought on the talk show circuit, and he decided to reach out about bringing them on.


"They can play with Jay Z and then Tony Bennett, and have it make perfect sense, and that's what you need in a late-night band," Fallon told the outlet.

House bands sometimes go with their hosts when they change shows or networks, or even if they leave the show altogether. Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Johnny Carson all took their bands with them through transitions (via Variety). For all the stability that comes with the house band gig, it can also rely on the host staying in the same place.

A job worth the work

Despite the calls for pay equity and discussions of racial politics, plenty of musicians who work on talk shows have a deep appreciation for the job and the work they get to do. It's a rare mix of creative license, cultural reach and stability. Late night shows are facing more competitive markets than ever with 24-hour cable channels, social media, and streaming services able to offer comedy and the daily news at a much faster pace, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the bands help to provide something unique that sketch comedy and short video clips can't offer. Hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Arsenio Hall have spoken at length about the importance of the band in keeping the show fresh and exciting (via Variety).


A late night shows take a whole community to bring it all together. From writers and producers to the hosts and guests themselves, there's dozens of hands on every script and shot that make it to air (via Madame Noire). But in the background of all of it is the band, ready to keep the people entertained and provide clips that will still be fun to watch years after the fact.