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
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