“A performer’s reputation is enhanced by or diminished with each musical interaction.”
–The Musician’s Way, p. 306
I suspect that almost every skilled musician has been asked to perform free of charge, often by strangers and organizations that can afford to pay.
Assuming that you normally earn fees to perform, here are some tips to help you handle such requests productively.
1. Set Standards
A basic standard that I use is this: If event staff will be paid, the musicians should be paid. For example, if at a fundraising event the piano tuner and caterer earn professional fees, so too should the musicians.
2. Convert from Free to Paid
Sometimes people seeking live music lack experience and don’t understand what’s appropriate. In such cases, you might describe the comprehensive musical services that you provide as well as the rates commonly charged by professionals. Also, you could explain that musicians invest heavily in their training and equipment and that they incur financial, time and opportunity costs to perform – costs such as for transportation and from tying up dates when they could be hired to perform elsewhere. Occasionally, you might help cash-poor organizations access grants and corporate sponsors to cover your fee.
3. Dispel Myths about “Exposure”
It’s often worth paying to get specific exposure – e.g., to perform a showcase at a booking conference – but general exposure at a gig seldom generates any return on your investment. For more thoughts about that, see David J. Hahn’s article, “When to Take an Unpaid Gig.”
4. Trade for Valuable PR and Advertising
Although general performance exposure may be worthless, if an organization’s event will generate abundant media exposure, you might execute a contract stating that, in lieu of a fee, the organization will credit your group in all of their ads and notices.
5. Be Courteous & Professional
Be unfailingly courteous with anyone who seeks a performance so that you underpin your reputation in your community. Ideally, pique the interest of those who contact you and turn them into followers and fans.
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In sum, if we earn income by making music, then we might periodically donate performances to causes and people that we care about. But if we give away too much, we inadvertently teach our communities that live music isn’t worth paying for.
© 2015 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © bikeriderlondon, licensed from Shutterstock.com