Play For Free?

I’ve been seeing this image getting passed around quite a bit online lately and it’s been getting a lot of cheers and thumbs up. But for me, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the attitude that seems to be emanating from the second paragraph and by extension, in plenty of the responses I have read.

What’s most unsettling to me is that there is this sort of “stick it to the man” sort of vibe about it. Like some how, this arch villain restauranter wants you to make them money, pay you nothing and expect you to like it. Now before we get to deep into this, I do just want to say that I have certain doubts about the authenticity of things like this that tend to get passes around on the internet. But even if it is fake, it represents an all too real discussion that I’ve heard in reality many times.

Now typically when a situation like this is discussed, it’s from the artists point of view. Most respond with a sentiment that reads sort of like “why should I use my own gas to drive down to a place, for no pay, so that someone else can make money?”. That’s a quite rational statement to make, if you’ve taken an honest evaluation of your position as a performing artist.

If you can make that statement, when you can easily book a room down at a club and sell your tickets and project what you expect to make that night, then you’re certainly in the right. Why should you do someone a favor when they’re going to be in the dominant, money making position?

But here’s the other side of the coin and the one that most people either don’t see or want to admit they see. Most performing artists don’t fall into the above category. Most are bedroom musicians, hobbyists and other types that are just looking for a shot, somewhere and somehow. They, for the most part, are unknown and have no clout in the local market.

So is it fair to waggle your fist in the air about being taken advantage of? Let’s look at the deal from the restauranter’s point of view. The restauranter has spent many years developing his business by investing his own time and money into what translates into a certain amount of butts in chairs, who order food each night.

Much like the restauranter, you too need to develop your business, or audience in this case. What the restauranter has done is to use his clout to provide you with a full audience that you other wise wouldn’t have had on your own, free of charge. When you look at it that way, that’s not such a bad deal is it? And all you need to do is to do what you’ve been wanting to do: play music.

I think it’s a win win situation for both parties. The counter argument doesn’t really hold water because financially, the arrangement proposed doesn’t make any financial sense. If you were to play for free and do well at it on a weekend with a good amount of people, those 300 or so folks will go home and back to work and eventually tell people what they did over the weekend. And with any luck, they’ll visit your website and tell their friends to go see you. And once more, that’s publicity you wouldn’t have had otherwise and it’s up to you to capitalize on it.

But as far as the counter argument is concerned, the restauranter is now expected to come to your house and cook for free. When you play for free, you’re using stuff you already had and you’re only donating an hour or two of your time. But if our restauranter were to cook for free, we’re talking serious labor in having to transfer a kitchen, food, people and loads of other stuff to your house. The money and time required to do that couldn’t possibly be justified by the amount of money he would hope to make later by word of mouth advertising done by the guests at your soiree.

But let me ask you this, have you ever been to a town festival or community event where business were handing out free products and samples of ice cream, smoothies or other food? I’m quite certain you have and would it shock you to know that they all were essentially “playing for free?” Those community events have more people through them that will statistically improve their chances of earning new business than you soiree ever would have. That’s why they’re there and not at your house.

And when you get down to it, if you’re in it to make money, it’s business the whole way around. Your investment is gas money and rehearsing, driving to those gigs and playing for free. When you can turn all that hard work into paying customers, you’ll start having some clout which you can then leverage into working out deals with venues.

But until then, it will be a lot of hard work and I suppose that’s why it’s easier to sit around complaining about it than actually doing it. I still think that you’re getting a pretty good deal, but if you don’t think so, I’m sure someone else will be happy to take your spot.

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