Should You be Playing for Free?

Should You be Playing for Free?

“You sound great, we’d love to have you come out and play! The only problem is our budget is stretched pretty thin and we can’t afford to pay you anything.” These words can put musicians in a pretty tight spot. If you’re anxious for a chance to play, you may be inclined to take the gig in exchange for dinner and a few drinks. But, you may also hear the words of fellow musicians echoing in your head about how playing for free cheapens the whole industry. Is it true that if you play for free, you’re lessening the value of live music in your community?

This is one of the most difficult questions for musicians to answer. The truth is, there might not be a “correct” answer. In this post, we’re going to try to take an objective look at the pros and cons of playing for free.

The Pros of Playing for Free

Practice

If you’re just getting started with your music career and don’t have much experience on stage, free gigs are a great way to get some practice, tweak your performance style, and gain the experience necessary to take the next step into a paid gig.

You’ll often hear stories about famous musicians and comedians going to clubs or open mics and practicing new material. Regardless of their big name and status, they don’t charge people to get in the door at these events. They’re able to find the value in practicing a performance that will lead to profit down the line.

Full disclosure, I started my music career playing two hour gigs once a week in exchange for a sandwich and a couple of beers. It was a great way for me to get over my nerves, learn to interact with an audience, and try out new tunes. I wasn’t going to be able to quit my job and pursue music full time, but the tip money I earned helped me cover the gas to get to the gig. Open mics are great, but nothing beats the experience of standing on stage alone for two hours.

Exposure

This is a slippery slope, but it’s worth discussing. Plenty of venue owners will tell you that you’ll be playing in front of a ton of people and will surely sell some merch or pick up new followers. This can be true. It can also be far from true. Again, if you’re just starting off, free gigs can be a great way to get some feedback from the audience, and you may potentially run into someone who can help you advance your music career.

It’s important to note that regardless of where your music career is, musicians of all levels play gigs for pure exposure. No one in the history of the Super Bowl has been paid to perform at halftime. The audience a musician is in front of at that event is huge. They’re certainly not being lied to when they’re told “It’ll be great exposure.” But, it’s also one of the highest grossing events of the year. Surely the bar NFL could find a couple of dollars to pay the band multi-platinum performer.

Helping a good cause

Charity events are some of the hardest to turn down, for good reason. If playing music for an event centered around a cause that you care about makes you feel good, maybe you should just go for it. Plenty of restaurants, locations, and other businesses donate their time or services to charity events. Musicians should be able to do it without feeling guilty too.

Low cost marketing

I know several bands who offer a first gig free to a restaurant or bar that is hesitant to try live music. Some musicians will tell you that even in this instance, playing for free does nothing but devalue live music. However, if you consider that giving something away for free in order to earn business down the line is a pretty common business tactic, it may change your mind. For example, consider how a caterer will arrange a tasting to earn a potential wedding job. Or, how a subscription service will offer a free trial in order to get a customer to see enough value in a product to subscribe. True, it sometimes doesn’t work out, but in the long run, playing once for free can be a pretty cheap and highly effective marketing tool.

The Cons of Playing Free Gigs

You can’t put things like “exposure” “good feelings” and “enjoyment” in the bank

If you’re trying to make a living as a full time musician, playing for exposure can be a pretty risky gamble. As we mentioned above, the right gig can result in something amazing (remember how Pat McGee once played to a crowd of 6 people, and landed a gig at the White House). Most of the time though, it probably won’t. Money makes the world go round, and not having any to put in the bank, even after a night full of work can be a huge problem.

It devalues live music in your community

This is the most frequent reason musicians give for turning down playing for free. The argument here is based on the fact that if venues can hire bands and solo acts to play for free, or nearly free, it lessens the value of all live music in the area. It’s a pretty straightforward argument. You either believe it or you don’t.

You’re probably leaving money on the table

In my experience, venues asking musicians to play for completely free are a rare occurrence. There is usually some form of bartering that can take place. If a restaurant can’t afford to pay you to play, try to work a deal with them in exchange for a few gift certificates that equal the value of your time.

If you run across a restaurant or bar that says they don’t have a budget to pay for live music, try using the following response. “I’ll have to check my schedule to see if there is a night where I can afford to play for free and get back to you.” This sends the message that playing for free has its own opportunity cost of missing out on a paying gig, without being disrespectful or rude. Remember, you’re a professional, and should always act like one. I’ve yet to run into anyone who has tried to pressure me into playing for free, though the horror stories are definitely out there. In most cases people are extremely understanding.

You may be sending a certain message to yourself

Some musicians lack the confidence to request a paycheck for a gig. They may also find it difficult to ask to be paid to sing songs they didn’t write. By continually playing for free, you may send signals to yourself (as well as others) that playing music is not providing value to the venue or its patrons. However, you are providing a service. Being asked to play for free on a frequent basis is most likely an unreasonable request that can lead to a dangerous lack of self confidence.

So, Should You Play for Free or Not?

As with most things in the music business, it’s a judgement call. Your best bet is to weigh the pros and cons of each individual opportunity. It can also be a good idea to examine the risk vs. reward of playing for free. Some will be no-brainers, while others will be more difficult to determine.

What is your opinion of playing shows for free? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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