Should Musicians Play For Free?

Right about the time a player builds up the skill and repertoire to start gigging, the reality of musician pay starts sinking in. Even the pros who play music to put food on the table will tell you that if you’re in it for the money, you’re doing it all wrong.

Does that mean you should be willing to perform live music for free?

To be clear, we’re not talking about weddings, pit bands, or recording sessions for soundtracks, video games and commercials — the professional engagements where paying a musician is an accepted standard. The scale is all over the place, but in those cases music is a line item on someone’s budget.

In the world of local bars, clubs, private parties, and frat houses, there’s no such standard. Though live music is a magnet for paying customers and adds atmosphere to any social setting, there’s a widespread expectation that semi-pro and amateur performers will play for free or damn close to it. And we players, passionate to a fault, are ripe for the picking. The bank account says no; the heart says yes.

It’s worth acknowledging that whenever bands do play for free, it hurts the greater contingent of players right on up to the pros. It undercuts every musician trying to turn a dime and it devalues music as a commodity. Not to make an enemy of the club owners, but a venue that makes money on a band’s draw while offering no compensation is clearly exploiting the performers.

We know it, and still we give it away.

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Reversing the trend would take a community of like-minded musicians - a union of sorts - willing to say no to the club owners. Boycott the venue and the bands that play for free, and force some form of collective bargaining. That’s worth some serious thought, too, though it’s really hard to pull off. In the meantime, your band is jonesing to play out.

In case you’re in no mood to take on the whole world, let’s think about it just in terms of you or your band, in a vacuum, isolated from any other music or business context: should you perform for free or not?

There aren’t many other jobs we’d do for zero dollars, but the payoff for playing music does not come in cash form. It’s in the greater rewards — the fulfillment, the soul food, the pure joy of playing (at least, if it’s not a lousy gig). And beyond that, a band can come up with all kinds of hard-to-quantify justifications for taking the unpaid gig: it’s great exposure, we need the experience, we’ll increase the mailing list, we’ll get more clicks and downloads, we’ll sell merchandise at the show, and on ad infinitum.

So let’s put the passion on some sort of scale with the money for a minute here. Right brain, meet left brain. First, consider a paying gig.

Say a 4-person band is offered a bar gig for $500, which many players would consider pretty cushy. And for the sake of round numbers, call it a five-hour commitment to load the gear, travel, set up, play, break down, get home, and unload.

  • $500 / 4 people = $125 per person
  • $125 / 5 hours = $25 per hour

The $500 gig breaks down to $25 per hour, per person. Okay, so when you work it out to an annual salary, living the dream is paying about the same as if you were a night manager at Arby’s. Still, the pay is a modest show of respect from the club and at least you’re not going into your own pockets for the night. On balance the band decides it’s worth it and takes the gig.

Now consider the gig that pays $0.

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The band decided that $500 in cash is justifiable, so would the same $500 be made up in exposure and new fans? Could be. Is it worth $500 in click-throughs to your site and downloads page? Could be. Would it be made up in merch sales at the show? Could be, if you sold a stack of discs and priced your t-shirts like you’re U2.

And if you sell nothing, now or later, might it still be worth $500 to feel that good on stage for that long?

Could be.

That’s the decision you have to make. In the end, you have to decide whether the gig you play without pay really does have enough value artistically, promotionally, and emotionally.

If the intangible benefits don’t add up, and you offer up your time and talent for nothing while the venue club reaps a monetary benefit, you’ve been a sap. But if the bigger picture does work for you, don’t complain and don’t look back. Play for free and let the music be your reward.

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