• Phil McDonald

Working for free - Should you do it?

I saw Facebook post a while ago organising a charity event, asking for local performers to play. Within about three responses the inevitable question of money came up and the ensuing argument about whether or not musicians should perform for free. I've seen this crop up a few times over the years so I thought I'd have a look at both sides of the argument.

Firstly, I think it's helpful what we mean by free work. There seem to be two options here - Charity gigs where you're expected to play for free and other non-charity gigs such as open mic evenings where you'd play to an audience but not get paid. There's a venue near me which offers performers a free drink which is a bonus. I'll take the more controversial issue first, that being the charity gig. I should add that I'm not going to come down on one side or the other here, so don't shoot the messenger!

Let's say, for the sake of argument, the charity gig is quite a big affair, decent sized venue, good sound system and a good turnout audience wise. Some people argue that you shouldn't play for nothing as the bar staff, sound guys and security staff are all being paid. Why should the musicians work for free? Good point. It does seem to be the norm that artists and bands do these gigs free of charge. I've seen people refuse to play this kind of gig without pay, stating the above argument that if everyone else is being paid then so should they. Other artists are happy to play for free especially if the charity is close to their heart. As I stated earlier, it's up to you where you stand on this issue. I'm not judging either way.

The other free gig is the open mic style format or the showcase kind of gig where new or inexperienced performers can play. Now, in this case, I would say play these by all means. There's no substitute for practice and this kind of gigs tend to be weekly affairs so there's a lot to be gained by performing regularly. Firstly, you'll gain a lot of experience and get to hone your stagecraft which is important. Secondly, you'll get to meet a lot of people which can be advantageous. Networking is very important for the solo musician so by getting out and about a lot you'll make some good contacts. Lastly, you never know who's watching and what opportunities that could offer. It's not unusual for promoters, managers etc to keep an eye on the scene to look for new emerging talent.

Overall, working for free can be very positive and it a great way to gain experience with a view to furthering your career. By playing regularly, at least once a week you'll be amazed at how quickly you improve and gain confidence on the stage. It's also great to give new songs an outing to let them develop in front of an appreciative and supportive audience. Even if you're more of a seasoned player with some lucrative paid gigs coming up, doing some open mic nights won't do you any harm and from a networking point of view, can be very useful. I'll let you make your own up over charity gigs although I would advise caution where in a non-charity scenario, someone offers you a gig with no pay in return for "exposure" In my experience, the exposure you'll gain is approximately zero and a credible venue would pay you, even if it was a cut of the door money.

I discuss this in more detail on this week's podcast which you can listen to here or via your favoured app.

As ever, thanks for reading.


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