Many people will tell you that accepting non-paying gigs as a working musician is a bad idea, and 90% of the time, I’d agree with them. Live performances will likely be one of your most important sources of income, so why would you go and give that away? I’m not here to tell you that it’s actually great, or even that it’s fair or right when someone asks you to perform for no money, but if you're willing to think about it in the rare occasion, there are some reasons why it might actually be in your best interest to say yes.
I wouldn’t blame any musician for automatically saying no to any such request, but by doing so, you might miss out on a few instances when it could have been a good idea. What makes a free show work for you? Here are a few benefits that you should think about before rejecting any request outright...though that is still probably your best option for most asks.
1. You reach new fans
Whenever you perform live in front of other people, you have the opportunity to impress those standing in front of you. I absolutely respect any musician who doesn’t want to accept an unpaid gig, but if you are going to say yes to one, don’t half-ass it! Whenever you stand on stage and play for a crowd, no matter how large, you need to give it your all, because you never know who may be standing there watching.
You might not get a check before or after a certain performance, but if you rock out and kill it, at least some of those in attendance will remember you and your music, and from there, those people could become valuable. It might not always be the case, but if you're lucky, and if you really do put 110% into the show, they could go online and buy a song, stream your record, or check out your upcoming tour dates.
2. You make new contacts
It’s probably not a great idea to play free shows for the same people over and over, but if an opportunity arises that allows you to introduce yourself to not only a large group of people who could become fans, but ones who could become colleagues or industry contacts, it might be worth your time.
For example, many bands play free shows at industry events like South By Southwest, as the crowds they play to (which might be very small) are typically comprised of people who work in music in some context. Sometimes that doesn’t matter at all, but other times, those watching could wind up helping you get more shows or sign you to management, licensing, sync, or other deals. If you have a chance of displaying your talent and your art to those with the power to turn it into money, doing so without immediate payback could be a good decision.
3. Somebody will "owe you"
You’d prefer they owe you cash, but when it’s a free gig, you know that such a reward isn’t coming. Instead of a booking agent or promoter needing to fill your bank account, make sure they understand that you have done them a big favor by playing a concert for free, which is not typically what you do. Many of these people who recruit you to give it your all on stage for no money will try to impress upon you the other points I’m making in this article, and that they have actually given you a great platform and helped you in the process.
In a few ways, they are correct, but don’t let anybody get away with the idea that this didn’t work in their favor. You need to make sure that once you’re done, whoever set up this show owes you, and keep that person or company in mind for a later time, when you’ll want to be selected for a paying gig or some other benefit. Maybe they can connect you to other booking agents, or get you on a bill that pays? Whatever it may be, it’s fine to expect something later...though a check probably isn’t ever going to come for this one instance.
4. You could make some money
You might not be making anything for performing, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any opportunities to collect at least a few dollars! Depending on the situation, ask those setting the show up if you can have a table at which to sell merchandise and meet people. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to move t-shirts and CDs at a show, especially when you’re not being paid.
Also, as I stated above, if you come away from the concert as the standout act and people remember you, there will be a chance to turn those people into money makers, as you might be able to get them to stream your itunes, buy tickets to later gigs, or even purchase merch later on...if you can’t make a sale right then and there.
Moving a few T-shirts probably won’t net you the same amount of money you’d collect if you’d been properly paid for the show, but since you’ve already agreed to perform for free, finding any excuse to gather a few bucks is certainly better than nothing, right?
Hugh McIntyre is a freelance pop music journalist in NYC by way of Boston. He has written for Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, and MTV, as well as various magazines and blogs around the world. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the blog Pop! Bang! Boom! which is dedicated to the genre of pop in all of its glory.