Should Musicians Play for Free?

Should professionals ever play for free or exposure?

The intersection of art and money is complicated and fascinating. Not everything overlaps, and it’s important to know the distinction.

In order for me to take a gig, it needs to fit into at least one of the following six categories:

  • Artistically rewarding
  • Pays really well
  • Fun hang with friends
  • Travel somewhere interesting
  • Part of my education
  • Build relationships with important people

If a gig falls into 5-6 of these categories, it’s a dream gig. Your criteria may differ, but I think it’s important to have one.

Examples of two gigs I played last week.

Gig 1: Premiering new improvised piece with some of the most renowned jazz musicians in Seattle

Pay: $20 + one drink ticket

Of course, I can’t pay my bills on 20 dollar gigs. The music was wonderful, I had the opportunity to be featured, great hang, and I deepened relationships with musicians who I admire, respect, and want to collaborate with in the future.

Gig 2: Drove several hours to play one short set with a festival big band with famous guest artists

Pay: $400 + lodging

Good money, awesome band, connected with great musicians, fun hang!

Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves about money and professionalism have a direct impact on our career and success. I encounter well-meaning and frustrated musicians who run into pitfalls due to the stories they tell themselves.

Treating Music as a Day Job

In traditional employment, you get paid for every hour you work. Successful artists take a longer view. Demanding money for every note may seem savvy, but it can cripple the arc of your career.

Several years ago, I met a trumpet player who said he wouldn’t leave the house for less than $100. While I admire his dedication to being a professional, this instantly closes the door on important projects and connections. Although he still lives in town, I haven’t seen him out anywhere in years (including on the well-paying gigs). In fact, many of the musicians on the $20 gig above are also on the high-paying and prestigious gigs.

Some of our most important projects won’t pay anything today (in fact, recording projects and self-produced tours can put us deep in the red), but this is how we build a body of work over the long haul. This provides professional credibility, meaningful relationships, and opportunities down the road.

Saying Yes to Everything

Saying yes to every gig isn’t a bad idea when you are first starting out or move to a new town. But believing that musicians are destined to starve puts us into a scarcity mindset. The desire “take everything we can get” put us into uninspiring gig situations that don’t pay the bills. Creating better gig situations requires initiative, leadership, vision, and guts.

Whining

The music industry has fundamentally changed, and I encounter musicians who constantly complain about the new world: not selling CDs anymore, dominance of YouTube and Spotify, the phone isn’t ringing for gigs.

While these frustrations are real, (especially for those who used to make a good living playing 20-30 years ago), those who are thriving have the discernment to see the world as it is and take advantage new opportunities: low recording costs, no gatekeepers, free worldwide distribution for audio and video, opportunity to connect directly with fans.

Competition

There is an abundance of highly-skilled musicians in the world. Being great at your craft is essential, but trying to succeed by beating out everyone else is largely a losing battle.

If you are an interchangeable member in an ensemble (even if you’re really good), you’re susceptible to being undercut by musicians who are willing to play for cheap or free. Artists who are thriving provide a unique experience and resonate with an audience. (See my article Why Only Is Better Than Best.)

Should Musicians Play for Exposure?

This is a hot potato for musicians—as many say, we can die of exposure. In his Freelancer course (perhaps the best $50 I have ever spent), author and thought-leader Seth Godin provides a great framework for exposure:

Questions to ask about exposure:

  • Do they pay other people for this work?
  • Am I learning enough to consider it part of my education?
  • Is it public work with my name on it?
  • Is there a history of people working for free and then were taken more seriously?
  • Is this work we’re proud of that we add this to our portfolio?

Sometimes people offer us gigs for “exposure” that really offers none at all. If it adds to your portfolio and helps us build credibility over the long term, the gig is worth considering.

I just took two gigs for “exposure” that are both no-brainers:

  1. Live in-studio radio performance/webcast with a touring artist. This will help promote our gig (which does pay well), music is great, and it will be a well-produced piece of video content on the web (which I need more of!)
  2. Presentation at a state conference for music educators. These types of presentations help me build credibility and book lots of paying workshops.

Would love to hear your thoughts on any of this in the comments.

Also check out Godin’s inspiring talk for young musicians at Carnegie Hall.

– ST

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