The economics of playing for free
Dan Ray, guitarist and co-front man for The Clanky Lincolns
So you have a new band with zero name-recognition. You ask yourself, should I offer (or accept an offer) to play for free in exchange for stage time in front of actual humans? Or reduce my price in consideration of our newness, or some other reason?
The answer is NO. Don’t do that. Here’s why.
Remember “supply and demand”, from Econ 101? This is how a free market works. Bands supply. Venues demand. These two groups negotiate a market price. If you charge $0, then you just dipped the price for all other bands. Bookers now have the thought “Why should I pay X’s asking price when I can get Y for free?” in their heads. Your free show just hurt everybody’s pay.
You might say, “But my band’s brand new, I’m not really competition with those guys!” No, you absolutely are. Hard truth time: from the venue’s perspective we’re interchangeable. The bar doesn’t care about how you play, what they care about is the profit margin they earn on hiring you. On that crucial measure, some bands outperform others. And a free band is way ahead on profit margin before the first note—a good deal, if a venue can get it.
If you’re ok playing for free, it’s easy to get taken advantage of, and to never earn from your work. How much time did you spend in rehearsal? How much money do you have invested in gear? How many years of lessons did your parents pay for when you were a kid? Do you think that has no value?
I’m not saying there aren’t special cases. My band plays benefit shows. We are playing free at a party next month for a big local charitable organization. We took that gig partially because it’s a truly massive piece of exposure for us. If we don’t leave that evening with at least five leads for future gigs, shame on us.
Value yourself and what you provide. Don’t apologize for being new. Defend your scene. Set a rate that reflects your worth and supports a fair market price, and stick with it.
CBC’s Take: If your goal as a band is to make money, playing for free/cheap is the worst way to start. Your value as a group is based on your market rate. If you took $75 for a gig at a bar, that venue isn’t going to magically offer you $500 to do it again. Know your worth, know your competition’s worth, and price accordingly.