How to handle being asked to play an unpaid gig

The music industry is a notoriously difficult industry to break into. 

Experience and exposure are some of the best ways to network, build connections, and develop your craft. However, how can you tell the difference between exposure, and just playing for free? When do you take unpaid gigs and how do you handle requests to perform for free?

Is it your target audience?

First things first, ask yourself, will this audience like my music? Choosing to play at an event with your target audience is the difference between gaining general exposure and specific exposure. Gaining general exposure means people will hear your music and they may care, or they may not, whereas specific exposure means that people will more than likely love your music and want to know more about you and where they can hear more of your sound.  If you are a heavy metal rock band or rap performer, I would very strongly suggest not performing at the ladies luncheon for ‘exposure’, as the value of this would be very small if not non-existent, and therefore, not worth your time. 

Will there be lots of media there?

If it is a large event, will there be lots of media to cover it? Although general performance exposure may often be worthless, if an organization’s event will generate abundant media exposure, you might execute a contract stating that the organization will credit your group in all of their ads and notices.

Can you gain valuable connections?

This is potentially the most important thing to ask yourself. What do I get out of this? Will there be industry professionals there whose connections could be important? Will there be other musicians there who I couldn’t potentially collaborate with or work with in the future? Is it worth making a good connection with this venue or company so they keep me on their books for future opportunities? If the answer is yes to any of the above, the exposure may be very much worth it. 

Will you enjoy it?

If you are still unsure whether an unpaid gig is worth your time, ask yourself, will I enjoy this? Perhaps you will get to see some other great bands play, or bring along some friends, or get a really nice meal included, it may be a good night. You may not make great connections or tonnes of exposure but you are using your craft to essentially get you free passes to a fun night. 

Attempt to turn unpaid into paid

Sometimes, people looking for free live music don’t quite understand what goes into having a performer. It may be worth just describing what goes into bringing a music performance to life. Explain the financial, time and opportunity costs you incur to perform including costs for transportation and from tying up dates when they could be hired to perform elsewhere.

Whatever you decided, whether to perform or not take the gig, never fail to be courteous with anyone who asks. Keep your reputation strong and positive, otherwise you may also cut off any paid connections in the future. Furthermore, make your decision on whether to take it or not assuming that someone will call you with a paid gig. If this gig is valuable enough for you to play unpaid, then it must be valuable enough for you not to cancel for a paid gig. You should never cancel a gig last minute, paid or unpaid so make sure it is valuable enough to take up your time. 

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