You get a call. It’s a friend of yours, they are throwing a big party, and they want you to play for the guests. They don’t have a lot of money, though, so they can’t pay you. But you can pass out business cards and try to sell CDs. There will be lots of important people there and it’ll be great exposure they say.

You get another call. [Paper]tiger Jams {Explored}
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cameron Cassan
It’s a local non-profit. They are throwing a fundraiser at a fancy venue and they want you to provide entertainment for a couple of hours. They can’t pay you, but you’d really be helping out the cause if you would do it.

A third call comes in. It’s a local venue. They are having an event next month and 5 bands are playing a 30 minute set each. They’d like to invite you to perform. It doesn’t pay, but everyone gets a free drink and you can set up a merch table in the corner.

So what do you do? Do you take these gigs? You know that you have to make a living, but you know you also have to get out there and play for people.

People Die of Exposure

In my experience, taking a gig for “exposure” has questionable value. What kind of exposure are you really getting? I mean…are you playing the Tonight Show? The local news? Or are you playing for a group of 20 people that are generally not your target audience?

There’s a big difference between general exposure and specific exposure, and I think that’s the thing to consider in these situations. People that call you and use this term often mean it in the general sense.

Definition of general exposure:

There will be a room full of people, and there will be you. You will play your music. It will travel through the air between you and the people, and the people will hear this music. In this way you will expose yourself to these people, and it’s conceivable that they will care one way or another.

But I’m telling you, this kind of general exposure is usually not valuable. If the situation is not targeted to the kind of audience that you are looking for, you’ll waste your time. Say you are a sci-fi string band and you get a call to play at a Star Trek convention – that is good exposure. But say the same band gets a call to play the Christmas party for a ladies luncheon group. Sure, it’s possible that someone at that luncheon will be a sci-fi fan and care, but the odds are not good.

Definition of specific exposure:

There will be a room full of people that love the kind of music you play. They will resemble your target audience in every way possible. You will play your music and they will listen to your music. It’s very likely that many of them will want to know more about you, sign up for your email list and maybe buy an album.

My point is that you should be very, very cautious anytime someone uses the term “exposure” in the sense that it is some kind of compensation. Oftentimes that is the sign of a pro bono gig that will waste your time. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the exposure they are peddling is relevant and valuable to you, in a specific way, before you take the gig.

Will You Enjoy It?

I’ll tell you a story. When I first came to New York I got a call from a celebrity. She’d been on TV, on Broadway – my mother was a big fan. Imagine my surprise. She asked me if I would play at a non-profit event at the Plaza Hotel. She couldn’t pay me, but there’d be a ton of rich people there (it’d be great “exposure”) and I’d get a free meal. And bonus – I could bring 2 guests to the dinner.

I played some cocktail jazz during the event, passed out a few business cards, chatted to some of the guests. At dinner I brought 2 friends for an incredible meal. We sat next to the celebrity and a city councilman. We all took gift bags full of perfume at the end of the night. I followed up with the celebrity and city councilman afterwards. I gave the perfume to my girlfriend.

Altogether it was a cool event. I’m glad I did it – but certainly not because of the “exposure”. I never got another call afterward from anyone involved. The truth is that is was a lot of fun. I was able to treat 2 friends to a fancy dinner, I played at a historic venue, I met a celebrity, and I gave my girlfriend a bag full of perfume.

I enjoyed it – and that’s a perfectly good reason to take a free gig. Being a musician can sometimes get you into the hippest situations.

Meeting New Colleagues

It would be great if you took a free gig and suddenly you had 100 new, dedicated fans who, from that day on, buy everything you ever create. Great plan, but let’s assume that won’t happen. Ah! – but what if something better happens?

In everyone’s career there are key people, friends, usually, that help further your success. I’m talking about colleagues and collaborators. You are both heading down the same road, but maybe there’s a time that they travel quicker toward success and they bring you along. And then at another time you are traveling faster down that road and you take them along.

These relationships are really important in a musician career – the best successes usually involve a team of people like this. Playing free gigs is sometimes a great way to meet these kinds of friends, colleagues and collaborators.

I’ll tell you another story. I volunteer regularly for a non-profit in New York that puts on big productions at least once a year. They contact musical theatre composers and lyricists and ask them to write new music for the events. I music direct the production, and we find great musicians to perform with us.

Throughout the process I meet and work with tons of new people. Some of them I really click with and we become fast friends. Months down the road maybe they are working on something else and they give me a call to music direct, or play piano, or whatever. And maybe this time it’s a real gig that pays.

That’s a best case scenario! I took a free gig, I met a ton of colleagues and we collaborated later on something else. I think the key here is that the free gig was a big production involving a lot of artists all working toward a common goal. Compared that to the Plaza Hotel gig where I was the only musician in the room and there weren’t any colleagues to connect with. Two gigs, I’m glad I took both, but for very different, specific, reasons.

What Is In It For You?

You can’t just play everywhere and anywhere for free. This is a career. People expect musicians to play for free much too often. There is value in what we do, and most of the time we should get paid for it. When someone approaches you with a free gig think specifically about what value the situation holds for you. They are getting something out of it – what about you?

Let’s take the 3 situations I opened with. I can’t give you definitive answers, but I can give you the questions you should consider.

Ok, first situation – someone calls for a private party and wants you to play for free. My first question would be: why can’t they pay? It’s a private party, not a fundraiser for a good cause. It’ll probably be a room full of 20-30 friends, drinking and having a good time and…uh…that’s called a gig.  It’s supposed to pay money.

Sure you can sell CDs, but who’s going to buy a CD in that situation? It’s not a house concert, they aren’t specifically there for the music. Who knows if they’ll even like your music?

Personally, I wouldn’t take that gig.

Second – a non-profit calls for a fundraiser. First question: do you believe in the cause? You’ll be donating your time to the organization, and you should think of it just like you’re donating money. Forget the “exposure” you’ll get – the people that attend the event will be there for the cause/organization and it’s unlikely they’ll also spend a lot of energy on you too. So it really comes down to whether or not you want to donate to the cause.

The third call – a local venue wants you to play. This could be good. Do you know the other bands on the event? Are they a similar genre, or at least a similar target audience, to you? Are there musicians in the other bands that you’d like to meet? Do the other bands have a creative team (manager, publicist, etc.) that you would like to meet?

If this is a situation where you could meet colleagues and future collaborators – I say take it. If it sounds like the venue is just trying to fill a spot and there’s nothing in it for you – your instincts are probably right.

What If Someone Else Calls?

A 4th call comes in. It’s for a real gig with a band you regularly play with. Unfortunately it’s for the same night as the unpaid gig that you’ve already committed to. Now what?

If the unpaid gig has enough value to you that you committed in the first place, this shouldn’t matter. Nobody should ever cancel on a valuable gig – and if it wasn’t valuable, why’d you take it in the first place?

This is a problem that is so common that you should plan on it happening before you take any unpaid gig. Expect that someone will call you with something that does pay for the same night as the free gig and make your decision with that in mind.

Live Music Is a Valuable Thing

The truth is that live music is a valuable thing. These days people have constant access to music – but it’s not usually live music. There is an energy in live music that humans just can’t get enough of. People love live music so much that they will pay money just to be in a room where it is happening.

So when someone approaches you to give away this valuable thing for free, it’s fair that you should still expect something in return. Maybe the compensation is new fans, new experiences, or new colleagues.

On the other hand, if there is nothing in the situation for you, don’t take the gig. If you take an unpaid gig and it ends up being a dead end – no one bought a CD, no one seemed interested, there wasn’t any worthwhile networking, it didn’t manifest any future gigs – then maybe you took the wrong unpaid gig. Before you take an unpaid gig, ask yourself: what’s in it for me?

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63 Responses to When To Take an Unpaid Gig

  1. Greg says:

    Great article, Dave – and it addresses an important question, which I think lots of musicians wonder about. There are far too many opportunistic people posting on craigslist and similar channels asking people to play unpaid. We’ve worked hard to learn a skill with countless hours of practice and possibly years of professional training. We should be mindful when considering unpaid gigs so we don’t devalue ourselves. A friend of mine once pointed out that simply to rent his band’s instruments and gear for the night would cost about $500!

  2. I wonder if that approach would work: “I’ll play for free, but it’ll cost you if you need me to provide my own gear.”

  3. Mike Venti says:

    You’re right David, with unpaid gigs you need to be selective.

    It also depends on how established your career is. An unknown musician may need to play more free gigs in order to network and make connections in the scene, whereas an established musician can figure out how much they are worth and decide accordingly whether or not a free gig is worth it.

    Personally, I like to establish if the unpaid gig has any payment opportunities. Things you mentioned like good exposure (with the proper audience), as well as connecting with people whom you deem important in the music scene, or getting on an opening bill with an established band.

    Great article.

  4. Stephen says:

    Much agreed w/ you on this Dave…some great points…I actually mentioned something along these lines in a post I did a while back
    ( http://drummeretc.blogspot.com/2009/11/starving-artist-denial-syndromeor-sads.html )…I believe there’s 3 types of gigs a musician should be involved in as often as possible 1)Paid (my personal fav!) 2)Experience (sometimes paid, sometimes not) and 3) Charitable (unpaid)…We should always be striving to enlarge our business and professional reach, we should always be learning (even if we have to play for free…or heck, even pay our expenses just to have the experience…), and we should always be giving back to our community, and not necessarily expecting anything in return. This being said, your paid gigs should FAR outweigh your freebies if you’re playing on a professional level…and even at freebies, like you said, you should always be looking to expand your borders and gain something from it…

    Very nice!

  5. “Exposure” = a term used by exploitative cheapskates to lure gullible musicians into playing for free.

    Until more musicians stand their ground and demand compensation for their efforts, this noxious practice will continue.

    I just turned down a free offer because I needed a couple of days off. My favorite was when a new project played a crappy venue for little or no money (% of food / drink sales + tips). Everybody knew there would probably be no $$$ involved, but wanted this new band to get to play live (exposure?). One of the players went out of pocket and paid a couple of hired guns to come in and perform. One of the paid hired guns asked me if I would play for free at an upcoming event!

    • @Greg and Cam – good point. Or maybe, “I’ll give you lessons at $100/hr and in 20 years you can play the free gig yourself.”

      @Stephen – Nice post. I like the Shaw quote at the end.

      @Mike – So true. I will say, though, that I think trying to mobilize all musicians to refuse free gigs would likely be a frustrating fight. There will always be someone who will play for free. I think the trick for a pro, full-time, trained musician might be to market our live music as a premium product. As in, “You can have the free crap that anybody can get, or you can pay a premium and get the good stuff from a pro.” Let them decide.

      You also bring up a good point that I often think about. When I was getting hired for tours a lot I felt like that’s all the work I could get. When I was playing jazz it felt like that was the only gigs I got called for. Whatever kind of work your doing – including unpaid work – often leads to more of the same kind of work. So be careful what you get known for!

      @James – I’m so glad you found our site, and I’m very grateful for all the insightful comments you add to the discussion. What can you do? Help us grow the community around this great resource. I’ll send you an email with more.

      • salvatore boyd boynamedsally says:

        Has anyone had success with grammy 365?

        I am told their are multi-instrumentalist gigs listed on there for new musicals and readings where the MD might want to hire one or two guys instead of a full band…

        Any of this true?

        The only real success I know of is my friend who got nominated for the Americana Grammy through networking on grammy 365 and facebook. What a world…

  6. Fantastic article- as all of your articles are!
    Here’s another consideration which was new to me. I moved to a small mountain town in Colorado after having lived in a large west coast metro area. There are a surprising amount of casual gigs here, although the money is tight. To my surprise, there’s an atmosphere of bartering alive and well. I’ve accompanied artists who are full time certified massage therapists and traded for treatments for me and/or my spouse, played for certified public accountants in return for tax preparation, traded for event planning for other projects of mine, and the list goes on. While sometimes there’s not money involved in a gig, it’s worth proposing a trade to the client if they offer something you could otherwise benefit from. At the very least, it puts their request in perspective- your job is music, there job is _______. What’s their time worth versus yours.

    Thanks for this wonderful resource you offer! What can I do for you?

    James

  7. Michael Alexander says:

    When asked to play a free gig, the musician should also ask “who else is donating services – the caterer, the venue, the party planner? Even for a cause dear to the artist’s heart, struggling artists deserve to be paid when others are being paid – those dedicated to the cause can adjust their fee and those with already successful careers – those who don’t need “exposure” – can decide if they want to volunteer their time.

    • Rosamond Merrydale (Ros.M) Dopwell nee Comissiong says:

      Great question. (To ask if the decorators of the venue and the caterers etc are being paid). IF” the Guest are as High caliber as the person asking you to play for free suggests that they are … bet your bottom dollar they are going to have an impressive array of food and drink.
      Why should the Musicians be the ones to sacrifice?
      ALSO – You can get *”Exposure” to the RIGHT/ IDEAL ENTHUSIASTIC audiences, at your next recital

  8. Luis Ortega says:

    i read your article david, and i really liked it. but i’m still having difficulty on the exposure. i cant find the right people to talk to and i feel like time’s going by real fast and i gotta have atleast a basic background on my music career. im a song writer and composer. i play the piano, drums, and bass. ive been playing these instruments sincce i was 5 years old. im now 17, and for a kid who cant read music but can play by hear (meaning i learn by hearing a song a couple times, then i’ll play it back for you), i’m pretty darn good. i’ve only performed in school events, and thats gotten me no where. my talent is going to waste and i personally think it would be a waste of my life doing something else other than music. i need to find exposure somehow. i hope you can help me furher.
    thank you for your time in reading my post.

    • CrackerJackLee says:

      Luis, I’ve seen young musicians gain exposure by arranging their own gigs… they set up in parking lots, high schools and even flatbed trucks, parades, carnivals… youtube is good too… there are other sites (reverbnation, etc…)this way you are creating a name for yourself without being ripped off by club owners or these so-called “charity” events – where you become the charity… unless it was the Jerry Lewis telethon…

  9. Pete says:

    Good article. This is something I grapple with all the time. However, I think it’s a case of a great point made in principle, but in reality it’s a long way from real experience. In Coventry, where I am currently based, paid gigs are not common. Where they are paid, it’s rare that you reach MU hourly rates. That might be just Coventry, which is not a high-income city, but I don’t think it is. I recently too a private party booking and have accepted £100 for 3 hours. Not allot, especially when it’s 1.5 hours drive away and I have to cover the fuel from the fee. BUT, even getting that was hard work. Where people do pay, my experience is that expect to pay an hourly rate not far what a regular employee might get – so maybe £10. This is my very real experience.

    Open mics, folk clubs, acoustic nights of various kinds – well forget it. There is never any payment, and yet they are prevalent and have ever-growing numbers of people wanting to play. Venues and event organisers realised along time ago that you can get hundreds of musicians to play for nothing by running open mics. Sadly there are so many desperate singer-songwriters and wannabe folk heroes that they are right.

    So great in principle, but quite some way from reality. ANY paid work is good, but increasingly more difficult to find

  10. @ Luis – 17 years old is young, you’ve got a lot of time ahead of you. Right now the kind of exposure you need is in front of other musicians, not audiences. Find established, professional bands or musicians that will let you play with them, sit in on a few songs at a gig or just a rehearsal. You’ll learn a lot, and all those musicians will get to know who you are and what you can do.

    • “Right now the kind of exposure you need is in front of other musicians, not audiences.”

      I’ve never thought about it that way, Cam. Thanks for the tip! Even though I’m not 17, but I think if you’re starting out at any age, exposure to other musicians is important.

      Cheers,

  11. @Luis – Cam’s right, you’ve got a lot of time. My advice is to learn how to read music better. You’ll make yourself a lot more marketable in the long run.

    @Pete – Sounds like a tough scene. There’s a lot of talk lately about how music careers are increasingly being liberated from geographic constraints (in other words – the internet allows us to make a living anywhere). Personally, I think it’s all hype. I’m someone who really thinks that geography matters.

  12. Daren Burns says:

    “People Die of Exposure”-I’m going to use that line in Los Angeles, where it seems every other gig offer is one for “exposure”

    Great article!

  13. Luis Ortega says:

    thanks for the advice guys. im glad you said that i’m young. i thought i needed to know be at my best and performing by now. do you think i should atleast make a demo cd of some of my songs just in case of anything? and i’ll get on looking for bands this summer. thanks alot. much appreciated

    • @Luis – All of the most successful, financially stable musicians I personally know are in their 40s and 50s. Youth + success is just nonsense they peddle on MTV. It’s a much longer road than it looks like from the beginning.

      As far as a demo CD goes, sure, make one. Making music is about having something to say. When you’re full to the brim with stuff to say and you have to get it out – you’ll know. And it doesn’t have to happen with your 17 or 25 or 35. It comes when it comes. And when it comes – make a CD.

  14. Nick Coleman says:

    GREAT post!

    This is applicable to actors too, and I hope you don’t mind that I’m going to share it on my blog… all performing artists encounter this situation at one point or another, and we all struggle with whether we should do the gig or not… thanks for posting!

  15. Michael says:

    “target audience” – a phrase more musical acts should be using, IMHO.

  16. Another great article David. I especially appreciate the paragraph at the end on the value of live music. Its hard sometimes to remember that when you feel like no one appreciates the music you’ve given your life to! Thanks for reminding us all!

  17. David Love says:

    Love your column!

    Here in Canada, the unpaid gigs are known as “benefits” – as in “everybody benefits except the band.”

  18. I think that if your playing for a benefit gig then everyone is donating equally. Too many times I’ve seen the sound guys getting paid and the food vendors getting paid and the security personnel getting paid but the musicians are expected to play for free. Nice article very poignant.

  19. Jim Glass says:

    For a hobbyist musician with a corporation linked Big Band it’s a little easier, although not much. We plan 2 or 3 free gigs a year in great venues with super audiences. The rest pay and the closer to the date they need us and finally get around to calling us, the more expensive it is. But the pro Big Bands around here are kinda closing shop lately. Kinda sad and on many levels.

    Thank gawd I don’t have to make a living from the money we make. Someone said instruments and the accoutrement were expensive; as the band leader the publicity, sheet music, and time hit are the big cost factors.

  20. Nick says:

    I think I’ll link this to anyone who tries to tell me how selfish I am again about charging to play.

    I think as musicians, we’ve all come to experience this. Thanks for the great article.

  21. Pete says:

    I was in Canada recently – well for a whole month, on vacation – in Vancouver and B.C. Anyway whilst there I met and talked to several musicians playing bars etc and all of them had their hat / case / jug out as they played. I asked them all if that was just for tips on top of being paid, and every one said … “being paid? That IS the pay”. It seems it’s just the same, if not worse, in B.C. as it is the UK. There are just so many musicians desperate to play and who are therefore willing to play for nothing that all the venues have got used to paying just that, absolutely nothing.

    I think the internet / myspace / x-factor everyone wants to be a start but nobody wants to pay for any music culture has permeated everything and has had a very detrimental impact on live music, or least on anyone trying to make a living out of it.

  22. 123andy says:

    Great article Dave! excuse me, doctor-I need coronary bypass surgery. I can’t pay you, but I’ll tell all my friends about what a great guy you are. What? You went to school for 8 years to learn how to be a surgeon? Well, now you know how musician’s feel Bout that question……

  23. nate says:

    I’m definitely careful taking unpaid gigs with my group. .. you have to factor all things regarding what benefit it is to you into consideration. if i’m trying to work towards getting private function work, i want to be playing in public at spots that would attract that clientele (i.e wedding conferences, high end night clubs, etc). If someone wants me to play at a dingy bar, I’d probably refuse

    -Nate

  24. sw says:

    I will preach about how music is about culture and community etc etc, but it still REALLY surprises me how many educated and talented musicians play for tips. at least give a cut of the bar!

    but seriously, musicians are humans, with real professions, that need to eat, too.

    and the more people play for free and play for tips, the more venues and employers come to expect it.

    ain’t no carpenter coming to install my cabinets for tips!

  25. Tom Godfrey says:

    I’m at a stage in my career where I’m playing free gigs, but I’m selective. There’s a particular coffee shop I play at, just because I like to play there. On Wednesdays I play a free gig at a Cajun restaurant. It’s tips only, plus we get fed some incredible Cajun food. What I do for my Wednesday gig is invite a couple different musicians each time…often people I’ve never played with before. This has been a great way to network, and also to see if I like playing with them and vice versa. A jazz piano player I had just met invited me to sing with his trio (paid). A bass player who plays a steady, paid duo gig is farming his gig out to me when his duo is unable to play. This is all within the first month of playing my free Wednesday gig. I’m confident these little opportunities will add up over time as I continue to invite musicians to join me on my Wednesday night freebie.

  26. Great points. I especially like the scenarios. Thanks for ending it with the reinforcement that LIVE music is valuable. I like that distinction… I agree with some commenters that consumers see music as more and more a commodity available for free. So emphasizing the professional aspects, the quality of the musicians and songs, the sound system provided, the fan base and marketing, all of these things can set you apart when explaining to customers why live music will cost them something commensurate with its value, just like catering does!

  27. Spencer says:

    Great article, Dave, which of course means that I agree with everything you said. One thing I hadn’t thought of was what happens if you get a pay gig that conflicts with a free gig. Probably never thought of it because it doesn’t happen much around here. It did happen to a bass player we had committed to a pay gig, and he canceled on us because he got one that paid better. He’s a fine player, but I’ll never call him again. Can’t trust him.

  28. I didn’t read everyone’s post but I would add and don’t forget to take the unpaid gig and become good at making it into a paid gig.

    For instance…well I know you only want people to do a free 20 min set for exposure but Maybe I could come down and play all night and give you the charity rate of…

    There are occasions where this can happen. Anyone who wants music for their venue may have some sort of budget…just not “scale” but occasionally this can be turned into a cool paid gig.

    It’s an opportunity.

    Marc

  29. Great article! And a lot of valuable points. This truly hits home with me quite a bit. I think it’s easy for other people to determine the musicians value, when it should be the other way around. Great post!

  30. [...] I talked about that recently on Musician Wages with an article about taking free gigs. There has to be something in it for you:  the money, the music or the [...]

  31. [...] Read the original, full post by David Hahn here. [...]

  32. [...] we do as musicians is not so different. Many of us have done a free gigs because the non-monetary benefits outweighed the lost income. A few weeks ago, I helped a local [...]

  33. If they can pay the caterer, the venue, the advertising, they can pay the musician.
    I belong to the Peace Region Songwriters’ Association (www.prsongwriters.org) and part of our mandate is to promote local talent and the fact that the time, talent, skills, and dedication required to provide an entertaining performance (not to mention the equipment) should be recognized financially. We run a monthly coffeehouse with a one hour ‘featured performer’ – the featured performer is someone who has been supportive of the coffee house by performing in the open mic segment and who can provide a solid, enjoyable performance for our audience. The Featured Performer shares the door proceeds with the soundman (who provides the equipment and monitors sound for all the performers). An interesting note is that when we started the coffeehouse admission was free and audiences were thin – we started charging admission ($10 adult/$5 seniors/kids under 12) and now there’s hardly ever an empty chair. If you don’t value yourself no one else will either!
    I’ve also played ‘for free’ for charities, but they’ve provided me with an income tax receipt for the value amount of the performance. Music is a business for me and I treat it that way come tax time.

  34. Kole says:

    Along with the donating your time to a cause you believe in.—I have explained this time and time again to musicians. If you feel connected to a cause or even better are a supporter of a cause your time IS money. Money to a cause is as important as the experience provided at the benefit. As a full time, touring musician I am unable to make financial commitments to causes i believe in but will always donate my time. Because I value my time as much as my money I am happy to donate. My experience with non profits overall has opened many doors for me as well. I tend to meet people that are more proactive and typically more likely to tell their friends how much fun they had. I weigh the pros and cons of every show I book. Sometimes I am really broke so tips and a nice dinner is fine with me. Other times, like you said, it is a captivated audience in more of a listening room type setting. Great article, I think as long as you feel whole (either by money, or your soul) you will be successful. Thanks again!

  35. shane cole says:

    David, SO SO SO well said, with efficiency. i needed the affirmation of this article. it is a very great, honest mentality.

  36. shane cole says:

    sidenote: i am so amused how people think of a fundraiser and automatically jump to the conclusion that there must be live music…no questions asked. like, they’re determined that some band is going to push this event over-the-top.

    realistically, the band fills dead, awkward silence; and, they raise less money than the band spent on mileage, sound, and gear. i’ve been known to talk fund raising people out of having a band. ipods work great, when you want some ambience in the back hall of some random event venue.

  37. shane cole says:

    Pete, i think what you’re seeing is not limited by geography. i see it in many, many major cities. i live in Atlanta, and i think there are more guys in the scene that you speak of (who play bars/coffee shop/restaurants because they love the outlet and feel fine about tips) than there are guys that play full-time. Atlanta is not high on the list for places to move to pursue full time music career and generate real income, but through serious networking and branching out to Nashville and touring, i have pullled it off for 3 years without falling back on a 9 to 5.

    i have noticed though, that i have to stay at a safe distance from the musicians and bar owners that operate under the mentality that “musicians just want to jam” or “it’s all about the music” or “if i got paid, it would be work instead of music”. i don’t want to jam. i want to make music with people with a similar mindset, generate income, and push art forward. at least in the south, these are the 2 conflicting schools of thought that i’ve seen in my short years.

  38. [...] collaborations that will be valuable to your career down the road. It’s important to know when to take an unpaid gig, but occasionally they can pay off in the long [...]

  39. Kerry says:

    Hey David.Great post!It really got me thinking.I have a small dilemma.I’m playing gigs at the moment,mostly in smokey bars.I have asthma and this is my only source of income.Would I be crazy to give it up?

    Cheers!

    • You’d be crazy to stay! Your health is much more important than any gig. Get the same gig in a non-smoking venue or pursue a different kind of gig – that’s my advice.

      • Yes, get out of there! As someone who used to work in a smokey bar, it feels so much better to wake up in the morning and not feel like I smoked a pack of cigarettes the night before. There are many towns now with smoking bans. If gigging is your whole livelihood, a move might be worthwhile.

  40. Bob says:

    when asked to play at a benefit/ charity etc just say
    “Great I can do that I will just charge you expenses upfront then”

    As expenses are sometimes as large as your fee or at least you do not want to be out of pocket.

    Good hunting

  41. [...] I talked about that recently on Musician Wages with an article about taking free gigs. There has to be something in it for you:  the money, the music or the [...]

  42. Bob White says:

    This is an interesting conversation. I came here from New York in 1998had given up playing for quite a while, when I decided to get back into the industry it was quite a shock.Got called for a date and found out it was for $25.Politely told the fellow at the other end that I had something else for that day. Investegated things further only to find out that a lot of the club owners were really taking advantage of musicians by this exposure thing,m while they were making the money. I have no problem during a free-bee for a legit charity that’s why they are called charities in the first place, but an owner of an establishment is making money, if they want live music they should pay for it, they are getting paid.
    In New York we were all professional musicians that I was working with, all schooled musicians. You would never find musicians from the Tonight show or any other broadway show playing for exposure, what a laugh. The musicians here in Tallahassee and all the surrounding area’s should all wise up, all these club owners get paid for their wares, why not musicians????

  43. glennhumphreys says:

    i think you have to try and work out the balance of the situation.. for example if you’re not used to performing then you need to do them for free so there’s less chance of hard feeling if you mess up.. but also ive known club owners to ask for free performances on nights where they will be making a massive profit.. and that’s not right.. i would tend towards refusing free gigs.. as i think a free gig deprives another artist of a money making opportunity.. i think busking would be better than some free gigs! at least you can earn a few sheckles for your efforts, enjoy it, and i once even got a packet of cigarettes thrown at me ( which i thought was rather presumtous.. as i dont smoke!)

  44. phil_style says:

    Just found this article/ discussion. Despite it being a few years old now, it’s still very relevant.

    I’m in London, UK. For so many bands here, you’re asked/ required by the promoter or venue to guarantee a certain turnout before they will let you play. Some venues even require the bands to pre-buy tickets!

    It’s getting out of hand. But there are still loads of bands prepared to financially risk themselves just to get a gig. Despite the hours and money they spend on their craft/ instruments.

  45. Edina says:

    You left out the most important thing I think. If a lot of people plays for free they ruin the market. Thats what is happening in London at the moment, I have to go outside to get pad gigs as when I say I want to get paid they say they can get in another 50 bands play for free. If everybody would say no there will be a market for music. I dont know how is the situation in USA but in UK it is very vary bad.
    I got recently an offer to play in a festival (and yeah I could play in some festivals during the summer for free for explosure but my answer was no). They asked my availibility and fee. And after they said it would be nice for us to play there but lot of people said they would do it for free or just for food, so we do not want to pay. I would love to talk those people and tell them not to do this!!

    About the charity, we musicians live a very poor life I think we need a charity!

  46. Lew Taylor says:

    Great article, posted it on my FB page. On the conflicting free date/paid date matter: I usually will let a contractor know up front that if a paid date calls after a free date has been set, the paid date takes preference, unless I have volunteered my services rather than being solicited to play for free. I will give the free solicitor the right of first refusal, provided that money is then offered to secure my services. Otherwise, because this is my living, I will take the paid date. Any contractor that does not understand the necessity of charging for your goods and services in a ‘for profit’ business is probably a contractor that I would be doing future business with anyway.

  47. Lew Taylor says:

    Sorry, “would NOT be doing further business with anyway.”

  48. Eric says:

    Playing for free? Well,I am playing since over 40 years, I think I know my trade well. I don´t sound like a hobby musician erg, amateur musician. Making music is not only my profession but also my way of life. Playing for free – the answer is NO. Also as a musician I have to pay my bills, there is no reason why I should work for free. Playing for free…definitely NO

  49. ali clark says:

    I never play for nothing unless it’s a jam session (and I’m not in the house band)-it’s a chance to network, socialise and drink beer – plus I quite often get paid gigs out of them. Same with tips, generally speaking but I do recall one occasion when I broke that rule. The bar was full of tv technicians – all the money that got put in the hat was paper (the least-value banknote here in the UK is five pounds, equivalent to about eight of your US dollars). And the hat was full to the brim*
    *excuse the pun

  50. This is really great stuff! The ones that really should read this article are the ones trying to make you play for free. I’m so sick of people trying to get you playing for free whit the argument that “It’s good exposure”. I can not remember one single gig that I’ve played for free that lead to more paid gigs. It’s rather the other way around, unpaid gigs can if your lucky lead another unpaid gig if none at all. Pid gigs often lead to more paid gigs.

  51. Unknown says:

    Great article, I have ‘friends’ that try to get me to play for free when there is really nothing in it for me. They insist that we are friends and so pay shouldn’t matter.

    Whither it’s a good musician or bad musician, they should be compensated. Bad musicians just don’t get the call again. It’s certainly rude to ask a musician to play for free but musicians should learn to say no.

  52. Carlo says:

    My mother actually speaks Ancient Aramaic … we’re a very biblical family.
    Create multiple guitar riffs by using the rhythm of just one.

    The expansion of the electric guitar is the most recent transformation as well as it has a
    wide effect on the popularity of the guitar.

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