Before you hit Lady Gaga-, Aerosmith-, or Tiesto-status, you might stumble upon many different opportunities to showcase your talents for the rest of the world with a less than optimal monetary return—you’ll be asked to play for free. Many jump at this chance. I’d be thrilled that someone even thought of me and wanted me to play for free! This strategy can serve a genuine purpose if you’re just trying to play a house party with your close friends and want to have a good time or you get the chance of a lifetime to open for your favorite band in front of their fans (who hopefully will love your music as well). With so many artists out there, exposure is key so you think playing for free is part of the game. Many scenarios seem like a genuine opportunity, and some are, but they all come at some cost (literally).
You have to ask yourself what is the opportunity cost of playing this unpaid gig. If I play this gig and don’t get paid, I could have been playing this other gig and making X amount of money at another less-than-exciting venue. I could play this gig over here for free (losing money on gas and other incidental costs), but I will be gaining some much-needed exposure because the headliner caters to the same crowd that I’m targeting. David J. Hahn defines the exposure dichotomy well in his article “When to take an Unpaid Gig” (http://bit.ly/amw7Lh), describing key ways to evaluate a gig’s worth. He explains that there are two different kinds of exposure: general exposure and specific exposure. General exposure refers to playing in front of a group of people who might or might not care about your music, and the music might even be secondary to their experience (e.g. a random slot at an open mic night or playing at a bar on a Friday). At the open mic night, chances are the only people who really care about what you’re playing are the people you came with (friends and family). At the bar, most are looking to have a few drinks and maybe try out a pickup line or two on the lonely damsel in the corner. Yes you might get lucky and some people will really dig your music, but there’s no way to know for sure before going into the situation. Specific exposure refers to a gig where you’re playing in front of your target audience who are concentrating on your every pickstroke and lyric (or at least equally enthralled by your groove no matter how distorted or muddy). Strategically speaking, a band who gets the opening slot for a national act within the same genre is doing a service to themselves by playing for free because of the potential for picking up many new fans. You could even use the gig for merch and CD sales or rack up the number of fans on your mailing list.
The best advice for these two scenarios is this: play unpaid gigs of general exposure very rarely, if at all. Play unpaid gigs of specific exposure at certain points, but don’t make it the norm. If you’re a jazz guitarist playing at a nice restaurant, you really shouldn’t be playing for free because once word gets out that you play for free in one place, everyone will want you to play for free. It will turn into a cycle that will get harder and harder to dig yourself out of because you’re already used to saying “yes” to free. A good rule of thumb would be to offer discounts to first-time or loyal customers. If you want to play a bar or restaurant and have a short resume, offer to play at a discount at the beginning until you establish a relationship with the venue. You can then get a recommendation to play at other places. You can take a different route by offering to play five gigs a month, with the last one being free. If you can establish a good relationship with whatever venue you’re trying to play, you can start to get repeat gigs or branch out to other places. I remember playing a local show at my favorite metal club back in high school. We were supposed to sell tickets for the show ourselves. We did well for the club and then later were able to snab an opening slot for a national act! I was ecstatic! Unfortunately our lead singer messed up his end of the ticket sales and lost me money, but that’s beside the point. In conclusion, I’m not against unpaid gigs at all. In some cases, they are extremely tempting, so it’s important to know your goals and how you want to approach your career before you take an unpaid gig. In fact, many national touring acts pay big bucks to get a slot on festival tours because they want the publicity involved in getting in front of thousands of people every day. On a smaller scale, you should be doing the same. You probably should never pay to get a gig unless it makes financial sense in the long-term. If you’re smart about your unpaid gigs, they should eventually lead to paying gigs.