Yes, even if you are running a charity it’s not cool to ask musicians to play for free, ESPECIALLY if you’ve never met us. You’re asking us to bring anywhere from $8,000 to $50,000 worth of delicate gear to your event, do a special rehearsal in your honor, block out X hours of a day when we could be making money… why do people think it’s so weird to pay the band? We help you promote your event as a free service. We bring everybody’s mood up through the roof, helping them to spend more money at the event. We are typically broke and dealing with a heavy workload… please, charity organizers, I love you and I love what you do. When you organize an event, please include putting together a budget to pay the band. Even if it’s only a few hundred bucks. Even if they are your friends. Musicians have to sacrifice enough opportunities, enough income sources to get good at what we do… stop thinking that we owe the world more free music. You’ve got the internet for that, for crying out loud!
Most good arguments have exceptions, yes, and there are ways that you can ask for musical favors which do not come off as annoying or disrespectful to the artists in your community. Here are a few ways you can ask for our help, nicely:
1) Offer to pay for gas or transportation to the event, and/or cover the cost of parking if necessary; and if it’s at all within your means, please offer us an honorarium to help us cover our costs in general. (What if we break a string, or a reed, or a cable, or get a parking ticket while playing for you?) It’s one thing to ask for a “free” favor. It’s another thing entirely to ask someone who is chronically underpaid and undervalued to pay for the privilege of doing you a favor.
2) If you can’t pay us decent wages, don’t ask a musician for a lot of time. Asking us for 1-2 songs, at an event where you have already arranged to have a PA… that’s the musical equivalent of asking your friend to bring a dish to a potluck. Asking a band to donate two and a half hours of entertainment and bring all the sound equipment is the musical equivalent of asking your working class line-cook friend to cater a party of 60 people for you, for free, on a day when she would typically be working to earn her rent.
Please understand that we artists are some of the busiest people you know. Besides running the front end (web promotion, booking agent, manager, secretary), back end (accounting, gear and vehicle maintenance), and maintaining a rigorous, time-intensive practice schedule so that the show is good… often we are working more than one job too. Many of us support families on top of this workload. We are dogged with requests to work on projects for free. We are not surrounded by car mechanics, landlords, grocers, instrument repair-people or dentists who will work for free so the lack of money and time in our lives is a constant source of stress. When you ask us to play an entire concert for your charity, you are asking us for roughly 5-8 hours of time commitment even if you are in the same town. If you wanted to offer a three-piece band the exceedingly modest rate of $10 an hour per artist for this work, your gig offer should be between $150-$240. (As I write this, I’m praying that you think it’s ok for bands to ask for more than just $10 per hour per musician! That’s not really a living wage these days.) You have to account for travel, pick-up and drop-off at different locations among the band members; arriving early before the guests arrive to do a sound-check, and waiting until the event is finished to move out heavier gear such as the PA. Plus, as I mentioned earlier we may have to book a special rehearsal to put together the set for your show, this adds another 5 hours to our work time which we do not charge to the customer. (Or, it was included in that “outlandishly high” $1500 quote we gave you for the event where we need to book a week of rehearsals to put together 45 minutes of new material for your special program, and travel a total distance of 300 miles. Or the “uncompassionate” $600 rate that we offered you because we happen to love the animals that you help rescue.)
3) Don’t offer us “exposure” unless you are literally going to bring our show to national television or national radio. It’s no favor to us, this offer of local exposure for free work. When Jimmy Fallon asks me to play on his TV show, I will get thousands of dollars of gig opportunities, loads of website traffic… in other words I will receive substantive financial gains from his offer to play a free show on national TV. When I play your local event for free, I will end up with two business cards in my wallet, from people who hope that I will work for them for free later. Possibly, one of them wants to date me but pretended to make a professional contact. I will only find out later when I’m sorting through my massive email pile. (Another aspect of my job which I can never charge the customer for.)
4) Don’t offer us alcohol as part of the “sweetener” unless you intentionally want to insult us. Sure it’s fine to offer me a drink at the party, but if we’re talking on the phone and the two best things in your deal are “exposure” and “free drinks” I have to quell a surge of anger and annoyance in order to stay polite with you. I don’t often drink much in public… too much trouble in that situation… and when I have to load in, set-up, and tear down equipment that cost me $8,000, which is almost impossible for me to replace in a timely way if it’s forgotten or ruined, no I am not going to “let it go” or “get wasted”. It wouldn’t be professional. This is my job. I am not showing up at your party so I can cram as many snacks and cocktails into my gob as possible. I also have to drive home.
5) Be flexible… ask us if it would be easier to contribute a song at the beginning or the end of your event. Please also understand that we musicians find most of our work on weekends. We don’t get a lot of Tuesday afternoon offers. If you have an event on a Saturday which uses up my afternoon or evening, and I book that show, I might have to lose a show that could have earned me $200 or $2,000. It’s much easier to say yes and feel appreciated if you show that you value my time by asking me what time slot would fit best in my schedule. If you really need a few hours of music on a weekend… please don’t ask any professional band to do that for free. That’s supposed to be a paid gig, my friend. We’ve trained for years to be able to do that job well, and when we make it look effortless, it actually requires years of discipline, experience and spiritual practice to pull that off. We deserve decent compensation.
6) You can ask for bigger favors if you’re very close to us, or if it’s on behalf of a close friend who is having hard times. When someone who worked sound on my show for years gets in a motorcycle wreck, or a dear artist friend is dealing with cancer, those are special circumstances where I might offer the equivalent of $500 of free work if I can spare the time. Please note that at these artist-benefit events, it’s typical for us to respect everybody’s time and to book enough acts for the evening that it’s a light burden for most of us. Also we get the additional benefit of hanging out and celebrating with the artist family whom we love but never have time to see.
If you are cold-calling me for the first time, please don’t ask me for $1200 worth of free work. That’s roughly what you’re asking for, when you want my band to come play a free show for you.
7) If you’re working with a low budget, help the artist help you.
You can help us earn a little more money at your show if you provide us with a table and a volunteer to sell our merchandise. If an organizer is cool, and offers gas money, an honorarium (small amount of wages), a merch table, and spends time to introduce us to professional contacts at the event who can help us arrange for well-paid work in the future, if they offer us water before we play, food and drink if it’s there, help with parking if we need it… that’s the kind of person that we are glad to help. If you are just looking for free music, and your plan is to cold-call a bunch of bands until you find someone who is rich and dumb enough to help you out… I wouldn’t guarantee the quality of that music. Don’t believe me? Go hang out at your local open mic if you need some evidence of what non-pros sound like in a public setting. Being an entertainer is a lot more than knowing how to play your instrument.