Monday, 12 July 2010

Should musicians play for free?

Today Matt Stevens posted a tweet that simply said "Do you think its bad advice to tell new bands to play for free?" Immediately this sparked a lot of discussions between Matt, Darren Goldsmith and myself (amongst others).

I know when I first started playing in a band at university that we tried our best to create a fanbase so that we would have people to play too. At first this begun to prove difficult - we had a lot of friends who wanted to hear our music which was awesome, but we also wanted to reach wider audiences.

I arranged for us to play at an open mic night in Leeds called Lyrically Justified run by Harry Lotta. It was our first ever performance and, of course, we were playing for free. We only had a few songs but got some friends down to listen so that they could hear how hard we'd been working on those tracks. By the time we had finished our set we had not only our friends dancing and shouting but pretty much everyone else in the pub too. That was a great feeling, to know that people who had never heard us before heard something in the music we were making, turned their heads away from their conversations and drinks and listened for those twenty minutes or so of us playing.

However, this then posed a problem. I remember our guitarist Matt saying one day in rehearsals that we should be getting paid gigs. At this time we had played about five or six free gigs in our local area which had all gone very well. The problem I felt lied in the fact that we had no CD or recordings and no website to launch anything from. After trying to explain this to a guitarist he still thought we should be getting paid and began to argue when I told him that we needed to get in a studio and record something.

When I tried my very best to get one of these "paid gigs" I came across the same problem. No one had heard us and therefore no one was willing to risk us not pulling in enough people for the evening - despite the fact that we perhaps could have brought about thirty or so people to come and watch. After getting no paid gigs (with many arguments about it) and various musical differences we decided to do our own things and shelve that band until we come back to it.

So this proves a problem. Free gigs are great to build a fan base which, if you work hard enough, can be an a rewarding way of bring people together to enjoy your music. This in itself poses a problem. At what point would you then switch from free gigs to paid ones? What if the audience that you have worked so hard to build are not willing to then make a change in supporting you by paying to come and see you live?

Interesting Concepts/Food For Thought

One problem with how other people see independent musicians is that some of them think we should work for free - which I know a lot of us disagree with.

So when Darren, Matt and myself were talking about this this morning Darren posed an interesting question - why should we even charge for people to come and watch us?

This then posed a series of interesting questions and concepts. Within bandcamp an artist can charge their audience a fixed price, pay what you like or free download options. A lot of us use this "pay what you like" option as it attracts new listeners to come and listen without feeling obliged to pay straight away - if they like the music the listener can come back and maybe pay later or decide on a price that they feel reflects the work of the musician.

Personally I think this is one of the most important tools at our disposal. This can bring people back who have heard our music and shows that we don't expect them to pay a fixed amount that we think they should pay - they can decide for themselves.

Darren then also proposed an interesting concept - if people can pay what they like on bandcamp then why can't they do this at a live gig? This would attract people to come and watch as they know they wouldn't necessarily have to pay to get in, the venue would be able to attract income through a bar etc and at the end of the gig if they feel it deserved something the audience could make a "donation". This would make a good experiment with a few local bands who could bring a crowd with them for support and each band could sell merchandise. This would require each band to be on board with the idea and a venue to also allow you to do something like this - but the possibility is there. I know Matt and myself were very keen to try this.

Another interesting concept is that of house gigs. I first heard of house gigs from my university lecturer when he was telling us of the social networkings of Steve Lawson and how Steve goes about his music making. At first I was very sceptical but after hearing Steve's awesome music I was very keen to go along and see what it was all about for myself. Everyone at the gig didn't really know one another but there was a brilliant feeling of everyone coming together and enjoying the intimacy of Steve's music. Just before Steve started playing we all made a donation towards Steve's expenses and then relaxed for the evening watching Steve and Lobelia play. Steve then sold some merchandise too - of which I got an awesome deal on two of his CDs (I'm old fashioned like that).

I know that all of us who were discussing these ideas had a lot of excitement at the different concepts that were floating about. This may have posed more questions than answers but it's always good to keep asking questions and thinking of new ways to promote and engage our music with others.

If anyone has some ideas on this matter it would be good to discuss them further below :)


  1. Nice post. I've actually done this at gigs with great success. One of my favorite places to play here in Seattle never charges a cover. They offer a small guarantee to the musicians. Some I know scoff at this venue for not paying enough. But every time I play there I ask folks to pay what they want for admission and for my CDs and always walk away with a great payday for myself and my band.

    If you try it, let me know how it works. I'm always curious to see others' results.


  2. It's good to hear some positive feedback Jason as quite a few people have said that they haven't had a lot of success with it themselves. I know I will try it as soon as I can and I'm sure that I can make it worthwhile for everyone involved.

    If anything, I don't know many people who have been to a pay what you like gig so I'm hoping it will be as much of an experience for them as it will for me :)

  3. It's pretty common here in Berlin to "pass the hat" after gigs, mostly in small cafe-type places. On a good night you can do quite well.

    The other thing I've seen, though not that often, is a suggested price at the door. Sort of like those suggested donations at museums ans galleries.

    So it's definitely something you can work with.

  4. I think the answer is to put on your gigs, like Bandcamp but live - pay what you want and take the profits and share it between the acts. Book quality bands you'd like to see your self. Put on good stuff and good things will happen :)

  5. I'm a working musician. My feeling is if I'm experimenting, working on something new, mucking about etc.; or for charitable events & fundraisers - no prob.
    Otherwise, how do I eat?
    This is not just about some extra cash or whatever else it means; this is my JOB. I can play any kind of music there is, reasonably well. If you want stellar keyboards on your gig/CD/recording and I can provide. It's what i do. Would you hire an electrician and expect them to work for free? Of course not.

    Another issue is if I have a group playing my original music, I'll need to pay the musicians I've hired. (My music is tricky and I need competent players to pull it off.) And no one I'm hiring is simply "available to be in a band" anymore (a function of my age group no doubt). Everyone does lots of gigs - that's what it means to be working.

    There are many sides to this argument; pay what you want is a great model and needs to be explored further, and I'm up for that. Donations are cool too. I can't play Venues that don't offer guarantees too far from home, because it's unreasonable to expect someone to travel 4 hours for no $$. If it wasn't your music, would you?

    So...unless I've made a prior commitment to you & your music previously, I'll need - and I expect - to be paid. I got a family to feed. But - like any business, every situation's different, and everything's negotiable. :)

    - my 2 cents.

  6. From a non-musician point of view (but a related field) I know that one of the major theatres in Liverpool experimented with a 'pay what you can' idea. One performance per week was open to people who paid what they could afford to. The result was that most people paid more than the theatre expected they would. The idea was short-lived because market forces took over, but it was an interesting idea.
    I am certainly happy to pay to see musicians/bands play but if they were new to me an idea such as 'pay what you want' is appealing.
    As an actor I am all too aware of the economics of staging a production. The first way to save money is not pay the actors, and due to the sheer number of people wanting to work in the industry, there is always someone who will work for free/expenses/biscuits. However, if you want the quality (trained professionals who can deliver the goods) then you have to pay. It is the same with musicians - you've put the hours in and probably sacrificed other areas of your life to develop your skills so it is not unreasonable to expect decent remuneration.

  7. This is certainly a difficult area.
    For bands just starting out then free gigs are an ideal way to gain experience, confidence, build up a fan base and streamline their act. They may then move onto poorly paid gigs, but the dynamics start to change as more is expected of them. Any venue paying acts will want a return. (A good example of this would be The Beatles during the Hamburg years, long hours, awful conditions but it probably made them.)
    However, there comes a point when things must change.
    If you are an amateur and playing music is purely for fun, this isn't so important. You can rely on your income from other sources.
    But, professional musicians don't have other employment. Performing/recording etc. is their work.
    They spend many hours perfecting their particular skill and should be rewarded financially. They have homes to keep, children to feed and bills to pay just like anyone else.
    If musicians don't get paid, eventually we will be in the position where the only available musicians are amateurs.
    I have worked with both bands and classical musicians.
    There are similarities in the problems faced by both groups, however classical musicians tend to have far greater costs attached to their performance and recording. Bands need to recognise that decisions they make also have an effect on other genres of music.
    In short, cut your teeth with some free gigs but as experience is gained a fee should follow.

  8. This is something I have given a lot of thought to this week. I've lso been chatting to a few musicians about it as well.

    I think it's about time to STOP GIVING IT AWAY!

    I think I'm about to start a my space...