9 Times It’s OK To Ask Musicians To Play For Free

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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

33 Responses

  1. Ash St John

    I’ve accumulated a lot of “exposure bucks” in my career.

  2. Des Moines Bar Owner

    Get over yourself. Bands play my establishment for tips and LOVE the exposure I’m able to provide for them. My place is always full on the weekends. Everyone has a good time. The bands always thank me for the opportunity. If I didn’t give them a place to play they wouldn’t have one. I give them free drinks and boy do they take advantage of em.

    • Rory

      So your place is always packed and the bands play for tips? If you’re packed that means money is going into the cash register. No wonder we musicians complain about being screwed over.

    • Z.

      So, your place is ‘always full’ on the weekends, which means unless you’re a bad business owner you SHOULD be making good money, and yet you don’t want to pay the musicians?

      Is your bar called “The Boar’s Nest” by any chance? Cuz this seems like some pretty Boss Hogg level greed right there……

    • Youareahog

      …. they are saying thank you for the opportunity because they are being nice to you…trust me on this one.
      If guests aren’t going ‘ugh what is this band?’, it means they are good enough to be considered as professional musicians. You dare to talk about ‘practice’, my family paid more than 50,000 US dollars a year to get me through my masters, you try to play an instrument as I do or those your ‘dinky little bands that thank me that I provide so much for oh by the way I have no respect for their professionalism (oh wait you weren’t the one giving them lessons?)’
      Practice? You make me laugh so hard on my ass, clearly you haven’t performed in front of multiple people. And if you did that’s worse because you KNOW what it’s like to do things for free that you trained professionally for, for FREE. People like you disgust me.

  3. ©

    Yea… Des Moines seems like the best place that even exists for someone to get exposure…
    Not that there aren’t good Iowa bands, until they move to Minneapolis or any other city that has a more active music scene.

      • ©

        Yes, unfortunately. So bands need be gimmicky to do well from Des Moines, good to know. I’m guessing they still live there and play shows in your bar…. for the exposure of course.

  4. Anonymous

    Until bands are selling out 500 cap clubs they don’t deserve to be paid. It’s all practice up until that point. Don’t be an entitled brat. That’s the problem with this generation. I’m sure you all Feel The Bern and want free stuff.

    • ©

      What kind of audience do you have at your day job? Do you deserve to get paid for that?
      Also, Bernie is an idiot. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree on that one since these are people WORKING for money and not asking for a handout paid by people.

      If they were musicians who never wrote or performed anything asking for successful bands to financially support them while they stayed at home or made other bad decisions, then it would be a more fitting comparison.

      • rek

        Also, Bernie is an idiot.

        Also, Bernie is an idiot.

        oh yeah i forgot you guys have not bought him yet.

    • Rory

      I’m guessing you have never played an instrument or been in a band before or if you do play an instrument it sounds like a cat being strangled while being run over by a car. So we shouldn’t get paid until we play a big room? What if that room doesn’t exist in your town or the only venue that size only books touring bands are booked there. It’s just practice up till then. WTF does that mean. Or I forgot you’re not a musician and don’t realize that WE DO PRACTICE DURING THE WEEK IN PREPARATION FOR OUR SHOWS WITHOUT PAY. Not to mention individual practice, writing and composing and recording. Plus we cover our own expenses. A company doesn’t pay for them. Do you get paid for every second you are at work and I hope you don’t have to pay for the equipment you use. What generation are you talking about? Millennials perhaps? I have two of them as sons and they are slackers or feel entitled. I’m a Gen Xer. Do you want to attack us as well. What does Senator Sanders have to do with music? Figures that a dumb ass like yourself would have to bring politics into a discussion about something not related in anyway to politics.

      • Rory

        A typo I would like to correct. My son’s are not slackers. Sorry guys.

  5. Adrian Wilson

    I’m excited about this article because it sparks a valid conversation from both sides. The system has never been perfect; we are constantly in a state of change. New acts do need to develop. More experienced acts who add value to a venue do need to get paid. And we all need to eat, period.

  6. David Maldonado

    The bar owners replying on this thread are ridiculous. I never play for free because, I make your food and or drink taste great. I’m the host of your establishment to create repeat business for you. You guys are missing out on why you should have live music. However, if you don’t think you need it, you’re probably getting the wrong band/soloist, and you haven’t experienced the magic of a true professional. I get hired for your small establishment, AND I also create my own shows from 300 seats to 2000 to generate revenue. This is not a hobby folks – it’s a profession.

  7. Ari Fine

    Interesting topic! I am just starting to get my name out into the public by performing at certain small venues (mostly coffee houses and other “hipster” venues). For the gigs I have played at, I generally come to a clear cut understanding with the venue manager if I am or aren’t getting paid. Even if I don’t get paid, I still enjoy having an audience to listen to my work and appreciate the music I have to offer. Do you think I should be more demanding, in terms of generating revenue, at these types of establishments to get my name out faster or keep going the same course I’m going?

  8. Roger Bixley.

    10) You can get away with it without any negative impact to your reputation because the area is lousy with dozens if not hundreds of talented bands that are willing to play for free.

  9. Chris Daniels

    I’m in a band that is asked to play for charity, political and “exposure” events all the time. Ari’s 9 rules are way off course. Here are the three that work.
    1) If it advances your career in a meaningful way: We’ve played for Obama twice, for various local politicians and media outlets, we’ve taken gigs because we wanted to try out new material for the next album (we have 14 out), we’ve taken gigs for industry exposure…in each case the entire band agreed to do this … not just the “leader.”
    2) If it is a cause that everybody believes in: We have done things for everything from environmental causes to various events to promote cures for disease and for poverty issues and various women’s issues including support for shelters…all these are worth doing — not to get anything out of it — but because it is something we can contribute to make the planet a better place.
    3) If it is only a cause that one person is connected to – and believes in – then we have a simple policy: It is OK for Jane or John Doe to play the gig and donate her time – the rest of the musicians, like sound techs and waiters, should be paid something – ours is a $100 minimum per player.
    A club wanting to expand their draw is BS – they bought the booze they sold – the waiters are getting paid (even if it is crappy). The band should get something tangible — and a bar or food tab does not cut it unless it’s an off-night “tryout.”
    Great exposure is a debatable issue – if it is a political person — guess who is the focus? It’s not the music. If it is for a fundraising event for a media outlet — then you might get some exposure — the point is be smart and be ethical. Playing for free sets a precedent that – once set – is almost impossible to reverse — Spotify is kind of a good example.

  10. Amina

    It would be nice if musicians also stopped asking photographers to shoot their bands etc…. for free, because “it will give you great exposure.”

    • W

      I’m going to have to agree with Amina. I work full-time in the industry doing things like biography and press release writing, website and press kit design, consultations on things like music business and marketing. I can’t tell you how many times artists have offered to “buy me a coffee” wanting to “pick my brain”. I tell them that if they want to talk business, they are going to have to make an appointment like everybody else.

  11. Bunsen

    you know, some musicians might just want to play man, thats all. if they think its gonna be fun, then there is nothing wrong with taking a gig for no money… It’s not a big deal… some of the most fun gigs I’ve ever played were for free…

  12. Jim Gelcer

    Re Exposure: My standard response is “This is Canada. You can die from exposure.”

    Jim Gelcer

  13. Venue Owner 20 years

    Let me get this straight. Even though bands BEG me to LET them play my club FOR FREE and I allow them to sell their merch where they keep 100% of their earnings I should just pay them just because? Do we live in a capitalist society or not? They’re willing to play for free. They agreed to it. This sounds a lot like socialism to me. Oh they should get paid just because? Please.

    • Northeast Musician

      and doctors shouldn’t get paid til they are doing heart surgery, right? you are a special kind of retard.

  14. Music Mom

    My son and his band are happy to play for free. They just love performing. They’re not doing it for the money. Once money is involved it ruins the experience. Or so I’ve found.

  15. jeff g

    It’s kind of a free choice issue, isn’t it? Neither “right” nor “wrong”. If you’re not into it, don’t do it. If you succumb to pressure to do something you don’t believe in, that’s on you. If want to play, and the money doesn’t matter to you (for whatever reason), and you choose not to because someone else says you “shouldn’t”, that’s on you as well. Some places pay and some don’t. It’s simple economics, and up to the owners. You’re not going to change that, on the argument that they’d appear more politically correct if they paid bands. If your band has the chops to get paid to play elsewhere, then where’s the debate? You just play where they’ll pay. The whole “You’re ruining it for the rest of us by playing for free,” or “club owners aren’t being fair to us,” is total bullshit, they aren’t there for the purpose of coddling your band. Chances are, they aren’t even there to “build and support the music community.” As musicians, that’s OUR job. As club owners, their job is maximize their bottom line and stay in business. No harm no foul. To try and bring in an “ethical” defense for or against the practice (or to imagine it matters) is pointless. It’s like arguing for or against eating at McDonalds. Eat where you choose, play where you choose. Do it or don’t; but stop the useless whining about whether others do it or don’t. Of COURSE it’s “…Okay To Ask Musicians To Play For Free.” Every bit as it’s okay for musicians to say, “Sure,” or “No Thanks.”

  16. Djangophile

    All great points, but one thing is missing: we are awash in an OCEAN of mediocrity. Aside from the fact that many amateur musicians *will* play for free, there are so many sub-par, uninteresting and homogenous local acts, they saturate the market and essentially introduce a sort of artistic ‘inflation’, where the value of live music is about the same as condiments and napkins on your table.

  17. Full-Time Musician

    Great discussion. I’ve found that if you create music that is valuable, and know you’re worth, you’ll get paid. Sure, they’ll always be people who want you to play for free. Just simply say “no”.
    A friend of mine once told me about the power of saying no.
    I know it’s counter intuitive for a musician vying to be heard, and trying to find success, but it forces you to only put your energy in opportunities that further your craft and career. Music and business have to be married for a successful career. What other businesses perpetually give their products, or services away for free? Find your voice, write the hell out of some great tunes, find your audience/market, sell said tunes to said market, repeat. Easy to say I know, but insanely hard to do. That being said, I’m assuming you’re like me, and didn’t choose music because you thought it would be easy. You chose it because you love it. Keep up the good fight.

  18. UniversityEducatedProfessional

    The definition of good exposure is ‘industry executives in attendance’.
    No matter how big the crowd, if there are no important industry people watching, it DOES NOT COUNT as ‘exposure’.