After reading about the restaurant owner who was “saddened” after asking bands to play for free for his grand opening (even though it seemed he posted the ad just as an experiment), it got me thinking. When is it OK to ask musicians to play for free? When have I been asked to play free shows? And was that OK? Is it OK to capitalize OK? So many questions. And boy did this start an existential debate within my egg shaker sized music brain.
I’ve had to do some deep soul searching for every free gig request I’ve gotten. And I’ve come to a few conclusions. Here are a few times when it’s OK to ask musicians to play for free. Feel free to add any I missed. And feel free to pass along to anyone wondering if they should pay their musicians or not. This guide should help them decide.
1) It Will Be Great Exposure
In all my years as a musician I’m still trying to hunt down a definition for exposure. But if you assure me it’s a positive thing then I’ll take your word for it.
2) Your Bar Or Restaurant Can’t Afford It
I get it. We’re all hurting. Even though the economy has “come back” after the great Bush recession, it’s still hard to make ends meat. Or just make meat in general. Or so I’ve heard. Yeah, business is hard. And running an establishment is really tough. I sympathize. And thank you for offering exposure bucks. The fact that you’ve gotten your landlord, bar tenders, servers, food suppliers and the IRS to accept exposure bucks for payment, I suppose I could probably too. Wait, you’re paying the rest of your staff real bucks? Like bucks with dead presidents on them? I’ll take a few of those too thank you very much.
3) There Will Be A Full House
Great for exposure you say? Awesome. You’re being so generous to offer your full house an open bar and an open kitchen. I now understand why there’s going to be a full house. What’s that, you’re charging your patrons full price for food and drink? I’m confused, where is that money going? Not to me. Got it. That’s ok, as long as your daughter gets her piano lessons paid for so she can grow up to play your bar for a full house someday. Ohh dreams.
4) It Will Be Really Fun
Sweet! I like fun. No stage, no sound, no lights? No problem! No listeners, no dancers, no attention? No problem. I get to do what I love. Hell that’s payment in it of itself. Priceless. Just like MasterCard. And PB&J – what I’ll have to live on after your super fun gig.
5) We Can Sell CDs
Once I figure out who wants to buy CDs and once they figure out a place where they can play said CDs, this sounds awesome! Wait, you’re not going to provide a seller for me? I have to hire someone on my own? That should be fine. I’m sure they’ll accept exposure bucks too. Once everyone sees how awesome a job our merch seller is doing I’m sure they’ll want to hire her for their event – in exposure bucks. Gonna have to probably have to reorder CDs from the manufacturer and most likely get back into the studio with that fantastic producer again once we run out of all the CDs we’re going to sell in your establishment. I’m sure they will, as well, accept exposure bucks. Man these things are valuable.
6) We Can Put Out A Tip Jar
Are you placing me outside on the street to busk? If so, no problem, just want to prepare appropriately and bundle up. Oh, you actually want me playing inside? For your guests? Even better. You’re not going to walk person to person encouraging them to tip us? No problem. I’m sure they’ll all feel super comfortable walking up to the front of the stage in the middle of our performance, in front of everyone, to drop in a few bucks. Not awkward at all.
7) It’s For Charity
Which charity? You don’t know yet? Ok. Can you give me a gist of the cause? No? Ok, well, I’m sure it’s noble. And the event space you’re renting and the caterers you’re hiring are all doing it for the same noble cause yeah? No? Well, I’m sure they need the money more than me. I am trying to lose weight, so this should help. Thank you.
8) It’s For God
Oh, you mean it’s at your religious establishment. Can you ask your god to talk to my landlord? If he agrees, we agree.
9) There Will Be Industry People In The House
Wow and you want ME to play? I’m so honored. Thank you thank you. If you don’t mind me asking, who are these “industry people?” Oh you do mind. Ok, never mind. But they are “A&R?” That sounds cool. I know that term normally gets thrown around these days and is virtually meaningless, but I’m sure in this case it’s meaningFUL. “Label people,” you say? Gotcha. Still figuring out the exact labels? Ok. Well, since every label is the same and they all treat musicians completely fairly, I’m honored you asked me to be a part of this very exclusive opportunity. Man, I should be paying you for this incredible, life changing moment. Wait. I wasn’t serious. Oh, that was part of the deal in the first place? Only $400? Do you take exposure bucks? Because I have a ton of those.
Photo is by Beit T’shuvah