Playing For Free: Will It Help or Harm Your Career?

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Man, am I tired of hearing musicians whine that they don't get paid enough to perform, or how "insulted" they are when asked to play for free!

If you are a fantastic performer, even a free show can be a good opportunity; it can lead to new fans, potential sales, and potentially more gigs. Remember in '87 when U2 played from the roof of a building in downtown LA (to make a video)? The net result of this classic free show was more fame, more exposure... and more money. At the height of their career U2 paid to play, that day - but it was a publicity stunt masterpiece and part of the marketing campaign that helped The Joshua Tree to sell 25 million copies worldwide.

On the other hand - if you are a mediocre performer, even a paid gig can be a waste of time, as far as advancing your career goes. If you're not generating momentum, those small-time, under-publicized, average-sounding paid gigs will lead to... more of the same... culminating in that sinking feeling that you're in a loop.

Many musicians don't "get" the music business, and it's often no coincidence that they are not rich musicians. The real fundamental is the same as it is in any other business: (this is important) If you can make money for other people, they will pay you to do so. Do you assume that the world owes you a living to be a musician? It does not, and that kind of thinking is a dangerous error for the aspiring rich musician.

As well as developing your musicianship, you should be developing your following. This is of critical importance. If 1,000 + people come out to see you play every time, you won't need to beg for scraps. Venues and promoters will be calling you (or your agent) left and right. So, the question is, how are you going to make this happen?

One of my friends is a DJ with this kind of draw and then some. He's booked constantly - and he doesn't have to beg for anything. He picks and chooses shows from numerous options every weekend. Promoters agree to pay him fat dollar for one reason, and one reason only: Because he makes them money. That's the equation, right there. Do you think they book him because they admire his artistry? No. They might love his work, but they book him because his name on the poster pays their bills.

But there's only enough limelight for a certain number of stars. You can absolutely be one of them - but it's competitive. You have to be better entertainment than the others. You have to cause a sensation. Your show has to deliver. Most importantly - you have to pull a crowd. Aim to present something that people will make the focal point of their weekend, that will cause them to organize a big group of friends to come out en masse. Be the crest of the wave of their weekend, and they will love you for it. This kind of buzz is a kind of positive feedback loop. More buzz creates bigger crowds which creates more buzz... until your ability to deliver the goods no longer outshines the numbers you are pulling - and then it caps off.

The word "following" is absolutely critical. Not only do you need to generate exposure to your music, you need to be actively building your following. How many people are in your loop? You need to connect with people. The reasons why they will come to your show are not only because you are there, but because there are lots of other people there too. People go out to be social, to experience the feeling of being in a crowd, as well as to hear music. They also go out to see things. To be visually entertained. Are you visually entertaining? You'd better be, if you want to be a rich musician. You don't necessarily have to be pretty (although it helps) - but you do need to be expressive, creative, virtuosic, or know how to create a spectacle. Better still - all of the above.

It's all about leverage at the end of the day. The venue only cares about staying in business. Surviving and thriving. So you need not only musicianship, but ability to self-promote. Learn to deal in the currency of the music business; if you can make money for a venue, they will hire you. If you can't, why would they? How many people are on your mailing list? Your Facebook fan page? What's your regular crowd draw?

I'm a musician, but I don't assume that the world owes me the right to get paid for music. It is ruled by supply and demand just like everything else - and on the hierarchy of human needs, food, water, air, shelter and sex come above entertainment. It's therefore a tough game; but the greater your skills, the less it is a game of chance. The winners are winners for a reason.

So the short answer to the question of whether playing for free will help or harm your career is, "it depends". Playing for free can be tremendous if it gives you the opportunity to put on an excellent show in front of a good sized crowd. However, if the crowd is low volume, unlikely to appreciate your style (wrong audience demographic), or if there are other factors such as poor quality sound, the show time is too early or too late, lack of production control, or lack of opportunity to sell merchandise or promote to fans (i.e. email list, future event flyers, etc), it might be a waste of time.

Sometimes, free shows will not give you the opportunity to showcase your talent in the best possible light. The best possible light is essential: You should never do a show that makes you look or sound bad. Playing to an empty room is best avoided, if possible. Of course, contracts must be fulfilled - but playing to an empty room can lower your social value. It can communicate at a subconscious level that you are not worthy of attention; otherwise you would be getting it.

However, if you get an opportunity to impress a large number of people (or certain key individuals) and increase your following, DO IT! Then when you have the following, you can call the shots.

The ultimate factor in your success is you. Develop a "sixth sense" for a genuine opportunity, and avoid scenarios that get you nowhere.

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