You’ll get some great exposure

Chris JonesA reader recently asked if I would consider, at some point, addressing the issue of playing for free. I replied: “Sure, for 80 bucks I will.” After some negotiation, my fee was reduced to barter payment of a used lime green iPhone cover, and a half peck of apples.

After receiving that bounty, I could have admitted that I would happily have written about the subject without the bribe, but I decided that was poor strategy for a corrupt writer. It occurred to me then that professional musicians spend a lot of time in their careers trying to conceal the fact that they would probably work for less or sometimes for nothing.

When is it right and beneficial to work for less or nothing? Is it ever right?

I can’t think of a better subject for World of Bluegrass week, by the way, a time in which artists from all over the world come to one place and do a lot of playing for free. These aren’t all up-and-coming artists, either. Some acts that usually earn fees of five figures are doing it too (I’d be more specific, but never having seen a five-figure sum, I don’t actually know how to count that high).

In most cases, the giving away of one’s music during this week is a good thing. The Wide Open Bluegrass festival (formerly the Fanfest, and before that, the Let’s Freeze Our A**es Off By the Ohio River Fest) is an important benefit for the IBMA and its trust fund, which helps people in our community in their time of need.

We all are happy to donate our time for benefit concerts for friends in the business. I have been the beneficiary of one of these gifts from fellow artists, and it was extremely helpful and meaningful.

When it comes to showcases, though, I think it’s a more complicated question. We showcase during IBMA week—and at other times—for different reasons. For new bands, it’s an issue of gaining some exposure, which in turn, it is hoped, will lead to future paying work. Established bands will do it sometimes, if it’s an opportunity to help out a festival they like that has booked them in the past, or plans to in the coming year. Some will play to help promote the visibility of their record label, and by extension, themselves. Some just do it, as I have done in the past, out of friendship.

This all makes sense, and I think we all view this IBMA week as different from other weeks of the year. Playing for free is now an annual tradition, as ritualistic a part of the WOB as experimenting with sleep-deprivation, then blaming the hotel ventilation when we go home sick as dogs.

I would caution up-and-coming artists about giving in to the carrot-on-a-string type of showcase, though. I’m referring to the scenario in which bluegrass events get as good a showcase lineup as they can, promising the possibility of a future booking at that event. Sometimes this is valid, and it serves as a kind of public audition, but other times it crosses the line into using artists that are good enough to add credibility and interest to a showcase, but with no real future obligation to hire them.

This is fine for a band making its first ever WOB appearance. For a more established artist, though, you may be sending the wrong message about your value. Again, these decisions are sometimes made out of personal friendship with an event producer or other business person, and I think that’s fine, as long as that’s understood. I would just proceed with caution.

This brings us back to the overall question about playing for free, and if and when it’s appropriate outside the WOB.

Unfortunately, for some reason, people have the idea that artists in general, but particularly musicians, should be willing—even happy—to play for free and/or give away their recorded product. This may be because people in more traditional professions have a hard time thinking of music as a real job (and by “traditional,” I don’t mean professions that don’t use electric instruments or minor chords). They acknowledge that you probably put some effort into making that CD, but deep down believe that it wasn’t really work, and it was mainly to give away to friends and family anyway, wasn’t it?

Also, the law of supply and demand (supply: high, demand: lower-than-we’d-like) leads people to believe that you’re grateful for any opportunity to play in front of an audience at all, which is why professional bands get “offers” all the time to play weddings, funerals, private parties, street gang cease-fires, etc. for nothing.

Yet, no one suggests that other professionals give away their products and services. The same people who would like to get free CDs don’t then walk over to a food vendor and say, “If you give me a free plate of ribs, I’ll mention your company’s name to my well-connected friends.” (Okay, I may have tried that once, but I didn’t get far, and not just because I don’t actually have any well-connected friends).

I’d love to hear the conversation in which the host of a private event explains to the taxi service that if they shuttle their guests back and forth for free, they’ll be getting some great exposure for their business.

Sometimes I think it’s worthwhile to remember that while we will always play bluegrass music recreationally, the professional side of the music is where its development has taken place through the years. The bluegrass sound was created in the 1940s by musicians who were being paid for what they did.

There are lots of witty retorts you can use for people who want you to play for nothing (“Get real, pal!” for example, and some even wittier than that), but really it’s okay to just politely explain that as fun as what you’re doing appears to be, you’re doing this for a living. Your product is the result of many years of rigorous travel, lack of normal sleep patterns, and hard work honing your art and your uncanny Jimmy Stewart imitation. As well-stocked as the food buffet may be, you’ll respectfully decline the offer.

  • I’m reminded of a quote from an old friend Tom Paxton who once said “Play for exposure? People die from exposure!” Another story seems appropriate, this time from Woody Guthrie who when asked to play for free, and it was stated that this was a “really good cause” replied “I don’t play for bad causes, I only play for good causes and they pay”

  • Lucien Holmes

    I’m reminded of the (possibly apocryphal? but doubt it somehow) response John Duffey gave to the California promoter who lowballed the Seldom Scene in the late 70s or early 80s. Not yet a fixture for many musicians, California was hot to attract the talent away from the established festivals in the heart of it all.

    “Love to have you! You all are just the most exciting thing in bluegrass” enthused the promoter. “How much were you thinkin’ of payin’?” Duffey asked. Upon hearing the response, Duffey asked laconically, “Well now that’s fine. Which one of us did you want to come?”

    There are so many reasons to love that man and love that band, but I think that one of his less lauded contributions is the line he drew for fair(er) pay for bluegrass musicians everywhere.

    Thanks as always for the article, Chris.

  • Lenny Nichols

    I’ve been known to tell people that my playing is free. However, I need to be paid for rehearsal time, equipment expenditures, travel expenses, hauling equipment in and setting it up, tearing it down again, etc.

  • Lenny Nichols

    ..I also used to play with a couple of old blues guys. They would say that if you played for nothing, people might think you were worth nothing.

    BTW I agree, there are benefits for certain people and organizations that I will play free.

  • Chris Jones

    Kevin, I’d heard that same story. I also witnessed this first hand from Duffey: I was playing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival (with Whetstone Run, a name that just might ring a bell for you) and the Scene was playing there for the very first time. The main organizer introduced them with a speech about how they’d wanted to get them there for years and somehow it never worked out. He said, “We finally have them, so please make welcome . . .” Without missing a beat, Duffey walked up to the mic and said “Well, we never played here before because you would never open your wallet, you nerd!”

    John Duffey is very much missed.

  • Chris Jones

    Sorry, Lucien, my reply was meant to be directed to you (though the Whetstone Run reference was for Kevin).

    • janice brooks

      Chris I keep forgetting your mid PA roots.

  • Resonator Guitar Guide

    Most will say there’s nothing wrong with playing for free when the situation is right. One thing to think about is even beyond the artists, venues that overplay the “carrot and a stick” card loose credibility with the audience. Everyone knows the cram-6-bands-on-a-bill venues and they tend to write them off or only show up if a good friend’s band begs them to come. In this case, not only are you supplying the audience, you’re doing it for free…no good.