School of The Rock

 

When Should You Play for Free?


Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.comô

 

This question plagues every musician who hasn’t already become independently wealthy or who isn’t in constant demand.  Which is pretty much 99% of us.  Here are some of the scenarios:

  • Maybe you’ve contacted a venue that frequently features the kind of music you play, and they tell you that they will let you play “for exposure.”  Or maybe even you wind up paying them somehow, by promising to bring X number of heavy drinkers, or a giving them a percentage of merchandise sales, or some such.  A growing number of venues get free entertainment by sponsoring “contests” in which acts pay to participate, and the prize value is seldom more than the sum of the pay-to-play fees.  
  • Or, as often happens in folk circles, there’s a huge arts festival or some such, and they have a live music stage, but no budget for music. 
  • Or maybe there’s a benefit concert for a cause you can support.  
  • Or if you do Gospel or CCM, a church is having special services or something and they’d like you to “minister in music.” 

There is no one-size-fits all solution.  When the topic comes up among musicians who aren’t already rich and famous, there are always strong opinions on both sides, though the “never work for free” side tends to be a little more vocal.  (They also tend to be either people who are working so often that “free” gigs aren’t ever tempting, or people who never gig but are hoping against hope that when someone finally does ask them to play somewhere, there will be money involved.)

There are gigs I wouldn’t dream of doing for free, and others I do for free because I believe in the cause or whatever.  Sadly, there have also been pain-in-the-neck gigs that I only did because I was promised “real money,” but the money never came.  And this has happened in “Christian” and “secular” circles both, so even sticking to your principles doesn’t always work out the way you might think. 

It would be wrong for me to tell you whether to take or refuse any specific opportunity to get in front of people.  But I can list the arguments on either side, and let you decide which arguments apply to each “opportunity.” 

Note about “Christian” versus “secular” gigs: This is part of our Independent Christian Musician section, but the dynamics can be similar for both Christian and “secular gigs.”  The secular artist is asked “Don’t you need the exposure?”  The Christian artist may be asked “Don’t you want to reach people for Christ?”  But the people who make both arguments are hoping that your need to do what you love outweighs the venue’s desire to keep as much of any incoming funds as possible. 

Arguments Against Playing for Free

  • You will have substantial unreimbursed travel expense.
  • Financially, you can’t afford the wear and tear and risk of damage or theft of your equipment.  That “free” gig isn’t free to you, even just counting the wear and tear on your equipment and car.  But if someone trips over your guitar or something, that gig will wind up costing you real money.
  • You are helping the venue make “real money” that they wouldn’t make if you weren’t there.  This case most often applies to popular bar bands who bring a crowd wherever they play, but back when I was doing CCM all the time, we occasionally helped draw a big crowd to Christian events where a substantial offering was taken up, and we went home with empty pockets, so nobody’s immune to this dynamic.
  • Everyone else at the venue is getting paid, including the sound guy, the lights guy, and the janitor.  This is as common at “special” church events as it is at roadhouses.  The ministers are on a salary, so hosting the event doesn’t specifically put money into their pockets, but their salary is supposed to cover things like this. If there’s a special speaker, you know he’s getting paid and all he has to bring to the gig is his thumb drive.  I’ve played “benefits” and special events because I believed in the cause only to learn later that I was the only person in the room that wasn’t being paid appropriately for what they were doing.
  • The venue pays an “honorarium,” but the value was set in the fifties. If someone gives me $35 or $50 after I’m done, that’s a nice way of saying they appreciate me, and it may even cover my gas money and the cost of a meal on the way home.  But financially, it’s the equivalent of staying at home binge-watching Firefly
  • You risk missing a paying gig if you take this one.  In the business world, that’s called “opportunity cost.”
  • You reinforce the venue’s sense that good music is never worth paying for.  There are whole communities in this country in which nine venues out of ten are used to taking advantage of musicians this way.  If you go along with their schemes, are you part of the problem?

Arguments For Playing for Free

  • You’re just starting out and you really need practice performing in front of people.
  • You want to try out some new material or a new sound or approach, and the value of having a room full of “guinea pigs” who aren’t related to you exceeds your transportation cost and the depreciation of your equipment.
  • It really is a chance for the right kind of exposure.  They are rare, but there are actually a few gigs where your opportunity to gain a bunch of new fans or the likelihood that you will make connections that are important to your career outweighs the hassle, costs, and risks of getting there, setting up, and playing.  Examples include festivals where similar acts are already drawing crowds and benefits for causes you already support, which will be attended by influential music-lovers in your community.
  • You’re trying to break into a new market, such as a different region or, perhaps, an adjacent genre, such as a Celtic Band signing up for an Americana or Bluegrass festival.
  • You have product to sell, and generally make at least a reasonable amount for this kind of gig.
  • The event supports a cause you believe in and almost everyone else is volunteering.
  • You don’t need the money and it sounds like fun.  Just be sure you aren’t causing problems for the next artist, who needs the money.
  • You are a spokesperson for a cause who feels like you should take every opportunity to get in front of people.  This was true for me when I was “ministering in music” (giving evangelistic concerts) in the 1970s and 1980s.  But it’s just as true for anyone who is standing up for civil rights or any other cause you think is righteous.  If you think the chance to get in front of people and present your case in song is worth the hassle, etc., that’s your answer.  But don’t be afraid to ask for at least some money, especially if everyone else at the event is getting paid.  There are a lot of event organizers earning real money because they know how to get folks like you and me to draw, entertain, and even motivate crowds for free.  

A Question of Balance

If you’re in  musician’s union, chances are your union rules prevent you from working more than 2-4 free gigs a year.  So you’ll have to choose your “freebies” carefully. But if you’re not, you need to weigh the pros and cons.  That said, belonging to the union might give you some leverage if you’re contacted by organizations that would rather get your help for free, but will pay you if they have to. 

Where I Am Today

Here’s the “true confessions” part of this article.  Back when my kids were in high school and I was band-mom, soccer-mom, tennis-mom, high-school-musical-mom, and show-choir-mom, I got out of the habit of gigging and looking for gigs.   And since then, venues have closed, venue operators who knew and liked my music have changed jobs, and so on.   So to a large extent, I’m starting “from scratch” when it comes to gigging “out.” 

At the moment, I don’t need the money as much as I need to try out all the new material and new guitar and banjo licks I’ve come up with since I was singing “out” steadily.  But I have no desire to undercut local singer-songwriters who are getting paid.

So I’m trying to focus on venues that never or very seldom have live music.  So it’s more about opening new doors than trying to squeeze, unwelcome, into an already crowded room, if that metaphor makes sense.  At the moment I’m looking into providing background banjo music for a plant nursery’s spring open house, performing at street or county fairs during times when the stages would otherwise be silent, becoming the banjo-playing host at a historical reenactment, etc.  You get the idea.  So, yes, in any area where I’ve “boldly gone where no singer-songwriterhas gone before,” I count the value of practicing new material in front of various different kinds of crowds as exceeding the costs, risks, and hassles entailed. Now if the same places decide they liked having me or my kind of music and want to have me or some other musician next year, they’ll hopefully recognize the value of at least paying the musician’s expenses.  And that’s a huge step up from the way many of the existing venues that local singer-songwiters are competing for operate today.  :-) 

Stay in Touch

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,

Paul

SchoolOfTheRock.com

 


Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

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