3 Reasons Why You Need To Stop Playing Gigs For Free


Let’s imagine you and your musician friends want to host a special performance at your home. You are sitting down to plan this event and begin thinking about this really great restaurant that would provide excellent wine and hors d’oeuvres for all of the guests. It’s a newer joint in the neighborhood; you’ve been there before and really dig the food. So you call up the place and get the owner on the phone, asking him if he’d like to come cater his wine and food at your gig. The guy agrees right away, desperate and excited for this new opportunity. He asks what the compensation will be for catering his products at the event, to which you reply: “Yeah man, so here’s the deal, we don’t really pay our caterers. But you can totally put out a tip jar, that’s cool. Here’s the other thing though, we are really looking for someone who can bring more people to the gig. You need to bring at least 10 people in order to serve your stuff, but if you bring 20+ people we will consider throwing you a little dough we make from the cover charge. Doing this event will be really good exposure for you!” Bursting forth with excitement, the restaurant owner agrees, thanking you for the opportunity to serve his food and wine at your gig, and immediately begins texting all of his friends begging them to come to the show.

Does something seem wrong with this picture? Of course! If you were to suggest this outrageous proposition to a restaurant owner they would laugh in your face, feel insulted, and hang up the phone. So why are you doing it? Why are you playing these exact same types of gigs for free? Why would you disrespect yourself by allowing these venues to make a profit off of you, with nothing in return for your hard work? As musicians, we need to start supporting our profession and stand up for ourselves. Here are three reasons why you need to stop playing gigs for free:

1. It devalues the profession.

When you play gigs for free, you are sending the message that the title “musician” is not worthy of being an occupation. We don’t need more people believing that being a professional musician is nothing more than a silly dream or something you can “always do for fun on the side”. Now let me be clear about something: I am not talking about charity gigs. I’ve played many charity gigs myself, and you should always use your musical talent to serve others in need. Just make sure your charity is not the profit of a business owner, because you are a business owner yourself. Your services both deserve compensation.

2. You’re cheating yourself.

Think about everything that you have done to get to where you are now. When you play a gig, you are displaying thousands and thousands of hours of hard work to an audience. You’ve suffered through lots of frustration, sacrifice, and even money to hone your craft. Don’t let all of this time and energy go to waste by giving it all away for free! You are so much more valuable than that! Art is what drives culture forward, and you have chosen to be an ambassador of art. You are giving a great service to your community, but you still need to survive just like everyone else.

Depending on what instrument you play, you may have to haul a lot of gear to and from the location of the gig. That can be a lot of hard work in itself. I had a weekly Monday night gig at this little joint in Astoria, Queens for a while. One time I showed up to the place and saw my drummer and bassist standing outside the door talking to the manager. When I got to the door, I asked what was going on, only to find out that business was too slow on Monday nights for them to continue to have music. The manager said he didn’t want us to play that night, however I demanded that the band was to be paid. Not only did we deserve at least a week or two of notice, but also we brought all of our gear and spent considerable time traveling to the gig. We, of course, ended up playing that night, and walked away with our pay.

The total time for traveling and setup should factor in as well. I’m not much of a mathematician, but if you are playing a 3-hour gig, it takes 2 hours to get there and back, and it takes 1 hour for set-up and tear down, the gig is taking up 6 hours of your time. Your time is valuable and you should be getting paid for it. Don’t cheat yourself by playing gigs for free!

3. It hurts the music economy.

So maybe you’ve read all of this so far but you’re thinking: “I’m not really a professional musician. I don’t care about getting paid; I just love to play. So what if I play a gig for free? I have a day job!” Well hear me out on this one. If there is any reason why you shouldn’t play gigs for free, it’s because you are hurting the music economy by doing so. A huge problem professional musicians are having right now is that venues are not willing to pay for music, or are only willing to give insultingly low amounts.

Why? Of course part of it is that much of the world has been suffering through bad economies lately, but another reason is that musicians keep playing gigs without getting paid. Venue owners are being conditioned to believe that they don’t need to pay musicians because they can find someone else who would do it for free. Many of these culprits include young students who are desperate to play and grow in their careers, and hobbyists who just want to perform. This behavior also aids in devaluing the profession. Just as a restaurant owner could never make good business constantly giving his products away for free, neither can musicians. We don’t walk into restaurants and expect to get a free meal; that would be absurd!

Hobbyist and professionals alike need to come together as a music community and start standing up for paid live music. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the future generations of musicians. Let’s bring back the value to the title “musician”, start respecting our efforts, and build the music economy back to where it once was!

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