When To Take an Unpaid Gig
**Guest post written by David J. Hahn, originally featured on MusicianWages.com.
"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. 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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David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of MusicianWages.com and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father. View all posts by David J. Hahn HERE.