The F-Word (Free)

Warning! This post contains a word that is potentially offensive to musicians: free. If you wish to avoid exposure (oops, another expletive!) to this word, please click your browser’s return button.

I’ve written before on the difference between value and worth, the former being the price tag the market wants to hang on musicians in general, and the latter being the perceived value you have of your own talents. Most of the time there’s a meeting in the middle, and everybody is satisfied.

But I’ve never heard a musician say that he or she wasn’t worth anything. In fact, I’ve heard and read just the opposite. Don’t play for free. Club owners are just using musicians who do a gratis gig. You’re selling yourself out, and you’re selling out your fellow musicians. All of these are excellent reasons not to play a free gig.

So it’s always a bad idea to play for free exposure. Right?

Well, yes. And no.

If a venue is making money, then you should be making money as well. Club owners who try to get by on the cheap by offering “free exposure” (or worse, a percentage of the door) do musicians no favors , and players who take these gigs ultimately wind up hurting the community of musicians who are trying to make a living (or part of one) by selling their time and talent. No club owner would tell a vendor he would “try” his beer for a week, and that he’d pay for it if his patrons liked it. Yet musicians across the country get fed the same exposure line on a daily basis, and we’re expected to take it and be grateful?

But the club owner doesn’t want to get screwed any more than the band does. He wants to sell food and drink. He’s not a producer; he’s not interested in advancing anyone’s career other than his own. He doesn’t want to invest in entertainment that his patrons may not want to see and walk out on, even if they’re good. Musicians call him up every day and swear they have a huge following, a million Facebook friends, and that they can bring a mob to the club. Of course, he’s heard that one too many times before (face it, folks, we’re all guilty).  So he plays it safe, offering no promises beyond free food, drinks, and exposure. Maybe he offers the door, or a percentage of it.

That being said, I would strongly caution musicians against always saying never, as there are certain occasions when a free gig makes good business sense. Here are some:

  • If you’re a brand-spanking-new band, and nobody has heard you, despite the fact you have a killer demo, then take the gig. Use the occasion to get used to playing in public under stressful conditions (nerves, loud club, rude patrons, drunk patrons, repeated requests for “Free Bird” or “What a Wonderful World”, etc.). And bring a tip jar, but don’t expect people to rush forward with cash all by themselves. Let them know you’d appreciate their generosity. Mentioning that twice per set is not too often.
  • Play a charity event with 2 or 3 other bands, and go in with them to advertise it heavily. Invite all of the people mentioned in the suggestion above. My band has played two charity events this year and has gotten several well-paying gigs and valuable contacts from that work. (You may also be able to use this as a tax write-off. Check with your tax professional.)
  • Try out some new material or to launch a solo act.
  • Record a live album.

If you play any gig, but especially a pro bono one, then make sure you do the following:

  • Use the gig to add to your mailing list. That will pay off later.
  • Ask for testimonials or recommendations from the venue owner and people in the crowd.
  • Sell your merchandise, pass out cards, and give away demos to those that express genuine interest

But remember: always tell the owner that this arrangement is not a permanent one; better yet, express that in writing. Failure to mention this caveat can quickly derail the possibility of renegotiating the pay arrangement. “I just thought you wanted to do it this way,” or something like that is what you’ll hear.

You’ve practiced hard. You’ve written songs by the score. You’ve given up other things to pursue your craft. You’ve invested thousands and thousands of dollars in gear and a music degree. You’ve bought a van to haul it in. So yes, you deserve fair pay, and you should always ask for and expect it. But you should also always keep in mind that doing the occasional freebie might be a good thing for you. Businesses give away merchandise all the time in order to get new customers; are we not businesses as well? By putting an exposure gig in the proper context, you put yourself in a position to reap the rewards of networking, merchandise sales, and recommendations.

And never forget: there is no such thing as an insignificant gig.

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