Can Playing Less Actually Be a Good Thing?

In a word…yes.

I’ve had several discussions with musicians in the past few weeks about the nature of the music industry and our role as performers in making it a viable environment for the creation of new, quality music. The crux of these conversations revolved around the question of what we should be charging for a performance, and every new musician’s dilemma “Should I be playing shows for free?” It’s changed the way I’ve decided to do music business.

If you talk to venue owners the answer is “Yes, you should play at our establishments for free. We’ll give you free coffee and EXPOSURE.” Yes, exposure. Please realize that “exposure” is a code word. It means “I want to get something for nothing.” Whenever you hear this word uttered in the context of setting up a gig it should be a signal that you’re not getting paid enough. I’m sure the venue owners don’t see it that way. Maybe they are music lovers, are current or former musicians themselves, or really believe in the power of music to unite community, and they really feel like providing a stage for people to perform is a service/kindness they are offering. I don’t blame them. If I were a venue owner I’d want to have live music too! Here’s the thing…I’d also value that music and would want to use my business to support those musicians, and not because it’s a gift or a donation, but because they are providing something valuable.

If a venue owner asks you to provide music for free, something that you work very hard at and that costs a lot of money to produce, under the guise of exposure I would encourage you to ask them if they would, in exchange, cater a private dinner for you and your friends…after all, think of the exposure they’d get with all those new people tasting their food/beverages. You could even offer to provide the cooks and wait staff with free coffee.

If you ask the artist, the answer is “No…this is my job, why does everyone expect me to work for free all the time?” They shouldn’t. If you are asked to work for free it is because the person doing the asking does not value you and what you do.

For some reason people have come up with the expectation that music is supposed to be free. They want free downloads and free CD’s and free performances…well where does that leave any room to come up with more quality music? How much can you claim to respect a person and their work when you can’t bring yourself to pay the equivalent of two cups of fancy coffee (that cost less than $1 to make) for an album of songs that you will enjoy for the rest of your life (that cost $1000’s to make)? But venue owners and music consumers aren’t the real problem…we, the musicians, are the problem because we don’t value ourselves enough.

We musicians take it upon ourselves to pour heart and soul and every spare dime into our music: instruments, live sound gear, education, video/audio production, CD duplication, etc. and then we want to share it with people so badly that we forget to ask for compensation. We may also tell ourselves that because we love what we do, and because we want to share our music, that compensation somehow cheapens the altruistic goals of making music, and that we shouldn’t be asking for any.  I fall into this trap all the time. Even when I play a dozen coffee house shows and they all end the same way…$10 in tips and no CD’s sold, and I still tell myself “but hey, look on the bright side…at least it was good exposure!” The problem is, it isn’t good exposure.


If I don’t value what I do, how can I expect anyone else to value it either? I can’t. When I’m out playing shows for free all the time I’m not gaining a following, getting good exposure, or even generating respect for my work. That’s the reality. It’s not good for my career for anything besides practice. It’s also reality that I’m hurting my fellow musicians by feeding the expectation that live music isn’t valuable enough to pay for. Venues won’t pay for live performance so long as there are people out there willing to play for nothing, and venues that do pay don’t feel they need to pay much.

So how much do I ask for, then? I guess that depends on how much you value your time. Playing a gig, let’s say a 3-hour gig, takes 5 hours (1 hour of setup and 1 hour of tear down…which you need to factor in. Lawyers charge for consultation, research and prep, not just the hours spent actually in court and nobody questions it). That 5 hours usually happens on Friday or Saturday night during the hours you’d otherwise be spending with family or friends. For a skilled labor service provider, $20/hr is a respectable wage, maybe even a bit on the low side. That means that I should be asking $100 for a solo performance, and $300 for a gig with my trio.  That is a minimum. Wouldn’t it be something if that was minimum pay for live music at venues? If we musicians asked for it, it could be.

But I feel bad asking for money. Yeah, we all do. Valuing your services and asking for money isn’t easy. But trust me, you’re not taking advantage of the venue in any way. Think of how fast a bar can rack up $300 selling $10 glasses of wine…30 glasses…3 glasses for 10 people. So if you have 2-3 tables of people that came in to hear you and ordered a couple of drinks each then you’ve made them their money. From a budgetary perspective, if a bar spent $300 on live music every Saturday night it would cost them $15,000/yr to provide live music. For a bar, that’s nothing. It’s less than the average salary of a first-year line chef working part time. For all the business that live music brings, they can easily afford to pay for it.  Don’t feel bad for asking.



Are there any exceptions? Sure, lots of them!

  • Music can be a gift. I often gift my music to organizations that I am involved in, like my church. It’s a way to give back just the same as an offertory gift of cash.
  • Music can be a donation. I often play for free for causes and benefits that I support. If my music can help an organization accomplish a noble mission then I’ll gladly donate it. But in that instance it is donation, no different than a cash donation.
  • Music can be part of a service trade. I have no problem playing music in exchange for a service that I also desire. For instance, I’d play a house party for someone who did electrical work on my house. In this case the monetary values of the service trade must be the same so nobody is being taken advantage of.

In all of these scenarios I am still valuing my music, I’m just choosing to give, donate or trade that value in lieu of cash. These are things which I would have given to, donated or purchased anyways.

But what about EXPOSURE! Who will hear my awesome music if I don’t play for free? They will. Just because you get paid doesn’t mean there has to be a cover charge (which is a cost neutral way for a venue to pay for live music, but usually prevents more potential profit than it generates). Believe me…I know how it goes. In your mind you think that playing free gigs will amass an audience so you can have shows like this. GlobalGathering 2009

Problem is, all you’re doing is setting yourself up for a whole bunch of shows like this. IMG_0745-750088

If I won’t play for free then other people will and I just won’t get gigs, how does that help my career? Yes. You will be playing less at first, but the gigs you do play will be worth your time. You’ll play to a bigger audience less often and have more time to practice, write and record. You can distill weeks and weeks of mediocre shows into one really great one. Best of all you can call on your fans to come see you for a really special night on the town they’ll enjoy instead of  bugging them all the time with requests to spend their precious Saturday night coming to see you in some place they wouldn’t normally want to go.  If you want to give your fans a super-low key show then have them over for coffee and a concert at your house.  Over time you’ll play more and more often as you find venues that fit your music and value your performance. There’s a discernment to be made between exposure and good exposure. Choosing the latter comes with the premise that you value yourself and your music.