Restaurant Owner ‘Saddened’ After Asking Bands to Play for Free…

Should You Play for Free?
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Are you willing to trade a paycheck for exposure?

This actually happened more than a year ago, but the owner of this restaurant agreed to share the results with Digital Music News.  The only condition was that we wait at least a year (but preferably longer) and that we hide the specific city where the place is now located.

In exchange, we’d get to find out how many qualified bands agreed to play his restaurant opening for free, how many complained, and whatever else happened.

Basically, as part of his splashy restaurant opening, one of the owners — a former gigging musician himself — was trying to figure out if bands like his were still offering themselves for free.  “I was definitely saddened by the whole thing,” he admitted after the experiment.  “I sort of felt like s–t for posting that and the responses, but I sort of get now what [my band] was up against.  Basically back in the day, when [my band was] playing local [gigs] trying to work up the money to tour, we insisted on getting paid on our performances whether a wedding or club date.  But we were constantly getting undermined and undercut by bands offering it for free.”

Here’s the ad that went out (the only thing we did is blot out the exact location, but it’s somewhere in California).


And, here are the results.

  • More than 10 quality submissions within 24 hours of the posting.
  • One serious band with media coverage and a substantial following looking to expand their base (for free).
  • More than 18 quality submissions within 48 hours.
  • ‘Probably 10 or so’ that were willing to play for free, probably to practice gigging in front of people.
  • Overall, more than three dozen submissions.
  • Mixture of smaller bands, younger groups, and DJs.
  • One angry complaint from a Grammy-nominated artist claiming that the restaurant owner was ‘exploitative’ and questioning why they paid caterers but not musicians.
  • 3 different solicitations from professional companies handling band submissions, including Sonicbids.

The angry letter actually came from a Grammy-nominated musician:

Dear Exploiter,

Are you paying the caterer?  The limo drivers?  The event planners?  The venue?  Of course you are, but I’m just wondering why [they] don’t see this as a great opportunity also and will do it for free?

You suck. I’m sure you’ll get some poor band to do if for free. Hope your party flops big time.

– Grammy nominated musician

There’s actually a pretty interesting wrinkle in all of this: some bands will smartly use free gigs for ‘free practice,’ which means getting out the kinks in front of a live audience.  That practice of ‘practicing live’ actually flips the whole equation on its head, and makes the band — not the venue owner — the real winner, especially if there are a lot of kinks that need ironing out.  And if the gig sucks, the joke’s on the venue owner (who gave away free rehearsal space and a built-in crowd).

After all of that, the restaurant decided to go with a ‘mellow EDM style DJ’ and paid him $2,400 all in for several hours (plus drinks).  The DJ was one person plus a helper (friend), with a lot of PA equipment brought in (and the vehicle to haul it).  Plus of course the playback hardware, collection, mic, etc.  “I think he got another gig out of that too but I hope he didn’t go for free.”

Currently, the bar/restaurant isn’t booking gigs, because according to the owner, ‘it’s not that type of place’ and frankly, making money with bands is a tougher way to make money.  “I need lots of bodies drinking lots of alcohol,” so instead, he’s going with a range of different EDM styles and occasionally a live DJ.

When we asked his advise for other artists, he said: “Really I think bands are wasting their time trying to get exposure unless it’s the Super Bowl, especially if you’re DJing.  My advice is charge a reasonable price.”


Top image of Hugh Laurie in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, shot by Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira (CC by 2.0).

23 Responses

  1. Stefano Capobianco

    Wow, I have to call absolute bullshit on this guy. A gigging musician who asked for bands to play free then decided to pay a DJ 2400? Then says, “charge a reasonable price”? Absolute unbelievable f’ing Bullshit. I hope his business fails miserably!

  2. Irving Mindreader

    Bands who are willing to play for free or who see such gigs as a chance to rehearse in front of an audience deserve a special place in hell. If more local bands delivered better performances, the live audience for unsigned/independent music would be healthier. Your marginal talent and unrehearsed dreck only serves to dilute the market you complain isn’t paying you well enough. Congratulations. You have NO business being on stage.

  3. Mike

    Um, you left “[redacted]” in the first sentence of the reprinted post after saying you’d blot out the city.

  4. rawhide

    Grammy nominated musician

    or just a loser who has no job.

  5. around

    When live music comes back into fashion, which on the local level it is at a rather low ebb, there will be no stopping it and quality will regulate itself. That day is inevitable; but when?

    • Anthony Bell

      When rubbish like Pop Idol/American Idol/X Factor is wiped from the face of the earth!

  6. Roger Bixley

    Supply and demand, folks.

    (But also: you get what you pay for)

  7. Mick

    If I could have got my friends on the ‘guest list’ with freebooze, they would have drunk more than $2,400’s worth!

  8. KEILE

    Why do people think its ok to pay low low low or nothing to musicians who have put their entire being and lifetime into practicing to play. And then this guy goes and pays a DJ 2400 USD. Where is the RESPECT for work being done. NO I am not a musician but if I wanted a band to do anything I’D PAY FOR IT. Shame on those who underpay and undervalue musicians!!!!!

  9. Max

    How dare any of you to judge how a person decides to conduct their business. If I give free samples of coffee all day outside my cafe should I care that Starbucks is across the street crying about how everyone should charge for coffee. Worry about yourselves and if you can’t handle the business, do something else.

  10. Adam

    This guy is the worst! Forst he CNA bands that he has no intention of even giving a free gig too just as part of some unscientific experiment on how much abuse struggling musicians will take. Then gives a gig to a freakin EDM dj!!! Lmao. I like the part where the author tries to justify how much pa and playback equipment the dj has to set up like its anything compared to a drum kit, amps, guitars, effects, and of course a Pa too. Was to demoralize and humiliate a bunch of already poor musicians and then glorify the lowest pole on the musician ladder..EDM djs. You sir are exactly the type of scumbag who makes being a real musician the hardest job in the world. Could be worse tho..I could be a guy who quit being a musician because I sucked and then opened a crappy bar where I have to listen to even crappier EDMmusic all night and humiliate live musicians cause my dick is too small to get kicks from my own life.

  11. Rock&Roll

    The future does not look so bright for us musicians. That is why, lots of bands are delaying writing music, since there is no money to be made. No one should work for free.

    • Capture Man

      Um.. the future nor the past ever looked all that bright for musicians wanting to make money off their ART, and to be honest it’s better now than ever. But really, delaying writing music? Because theres no money to be made? Their music must be really heartfelt.. Good riddance..

  12. Artie

    When I started out, the musicians union was tough, and it had teeth. Maybe that’s what it will take again. The guts to picket and the (non-violent) stopping deliveries by Teamsters and other unions.

    I know it sounds mean, but people who play for free should be ostracized. Why be friend or support others who are doing you great harm?

  13. Gigs

    It’s a tricky question. If you’re a young musician/group looking for venues in which to play, that’s one thing, maybe. If you’re more seasoned with a good product, there is no reason to work gratis under these circumstances. It’s not a charity gig, after all… (I assume) is a for-profit business and providing entertainment for ones patrons is a business expense. I’ve been playing for a long time and the work is not in the actual playing. The work is in rehearsal, gear loading, transport, load in, setup, sound check, breakdown, loadout, transport and return of the gear to it’s usual place. That’s a lot of work for “exposure”. I say, develop a good product before you bring it to the public. On the job training is a bad idea for entertainers. Once you’re confident in your ability to deliver a good show, charge for it at your local market rate.

  14. Hozay

    This guys attitude is amazingly out of touch, no wonder he “used to” be a gigging musician….

  15. Buster

    The nature of the business is that there will ALWAYS be new bands just starting out willing to play for free/exposure. This has always been the case – I can’t blame the restaurant owner for trying to take advantage of that fact. (However, he should be aware of the old adage “you get what you pay for”, and may not be happy with what he gets!)
    Another thought – Live bands will always rule over DJs, but, unfortunately for large bands, with all the advances in electronics, there is a trend towards 1 or 2 musician acts with electronics that make them sound like a full size band. These guys can easily underbid larger bands, since they don;t have to split the take as many ways..