“Sorry, we can’t pay you…but it’ll be a great exposure gig.”
If there ever were a line in the music business which was a bigger crock of bullshit than a band telling a booker “we’ll PACK your room!”, it’s the old “exposure” line delivered from a booker to a band.
And while I understand that there are a few times throughout a band’s career where they should actually play for free, it seems like most “opportunities” are nothing more than fluff and never really pan out in the end.
Here are five reasons bands should never play for free – followed by three reasons when they should.
1. You Are A Business – You eat pizza, right? Has the local pizza shop you get your pizza from ever given you a free pizza? You walk into that pizza shop and expect to exchange a little currency for that pepperoni and mushroom, right? Think of your band in the same light. While you may not be making Foo Fighters money in your first year or two as a band, you’ve still got flyers and posters to pay for, rent on the rehearsal space to cover, gas and expenses getting to and from your gigs and probably a laundry list of other items that need to be paid for. Every dollar counts. Don’t give away your goods in the name of “exposure”.
2. There Is Always A Budget – And if there isn’t, it’s probably not a gig you want to play anyway. If someone calls you and asks your band to play their event but immediately follows their pitch by “we don’t really have a budget”, your reply should be “then we can’t play your event”. Every event – be it a church bake sale or Coachella – has a budget. If that budget can afford to include a service in it’s festivities, it pays for it. If it cannot afford something in the budget, that item gets CUT. Why should the band be treated like something of no value?
3. Exposure To Who? Is Rick Rubin going to be at that gig you were offered? No? How about Irving Azoff? Oh, he’s not either? Maybe the head of marketing for Apple Computers? Then who are you going to be “exposed” to? A bunch of pedestrians who would be at a particular event either way? Maybe they’ll buy your CD, maybe they won’t. And if they DO buy your CD, are they coming to your next gig? My experience says “No”. And that’s what you want that exposure for, isn’t it? But if you’re the kind of band who wants to “expose” yourself to little old ladies walking around a town art day or some sort of backyard party at your local church, then by all means -go for it.
4. It Cheapens The Industry – Now more than ever before, a band needs to view itself as the currency generating commodity that it is. When you get booked at a bar to play for three hours, you’re expected to either bring your fanbase out to consume mass quantities of alcohol and food or entertain the built in crowd the club already has. That’s an exchange of goods for services. How many sterotypes exist about musicians and bands? They’re broke. They trash hotel rooms. They party too hard. They’re unemployed, unreliable, unmotivated….why further those stereotypes by playing for the promise of “exposure”?
5. There’s Always A Paying Gig On The Same Night – How many bars are there in your state? How many American Legion halls? VFW’s? Dedicated music venues? Those are all paying gigs. If you’re having trouble getting a gig, you’re either not working hard enough or you’re not good enough. That’s it. There are no shortage of bars, shows, events, clubs and parties that will pay you decent money for a set or a night of your music. Don’t sell yourself short by saying that there are no other options.
Now, certainly, there are exceptions to every rule. And this one is no different. In the decade that I’ve been booking shows, I’ve asked PLENTY of bands to play for free. But in the past three or four years, that number has dwindled. Perhaps it’s because all of the shows I book are actually revenue generating events; perhaps it’s because I, like a new band, have paid my dues with the free gigs. But here are three bona-fide good reasons you should feel good about playing a freebie once or twice a year….
1. It’s A Cause You Can Believe In – It seems like there’s a benefit show for some sort of illness fundraiser every night of the week. And if you’ve got some connection to breast cancer or leukemia or diabetes or the homeless or the hungry…and a promoter or event organizer asks you to donate your time to play a set in the name of raising money for a great cause, go for it! We’ve all got our convictions – and it’s respectable to donate your time now and again for a good cause. I’m going to stop short of using the “k” word, but it’s certainly good mojo to give back now and again.
2. It’s An Opening Slot For Radiohead- Or whoever your favorite band might be. But this one has a caveat – if you’re a HUGE fan of a band playing a headlining set at your local venue and you feel that playing a set in front of their audience will help you in some capacity and YOU asked THEM (or the booker) if your band could open, then do it for the gipper. But if the promoter or band asked YOU to play in front of them, then you should always get a couple of bucks for your time (and expenses).
3. It’s a Conference Or Showcase- Nobody gets paid to play SXSW or CMJ or MMC or Launch. Or, if they ARE getting paid, it’s because they’re the sought out headliner. Many music conferences and industry showcase nights can lead to bigger, better paying opportunities. Shake your money maker.