Why You Should (Almost) Never Play for Free

By: Pat Watters  
​Published: January 21, 2017

I used to say “You should never play for free.” And for the most part, I still stand by that statement. This article is intended to explain what you should never play for free. But I now believe there are a couple scenarios in which it’s ok to play for free. So first, I want to define them: 

A Benefit for Someone Who Heavily Supports Your Band 
If someone who has supported your band through thick and thin has fallen on hard times, due to sickness, loss of job, or anything else you deem worthy, there’s nothing wrong with playing a benefit show for them for free. 

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An Opportunity That You Know Has Bigger Opportunities behind It 
This one can be tricky. Sometimes, a venue will SELL you on additional paid bookings if you do the first one for free. In my experience, that’s a tactic shady venues use to get free shows. But if the person booking entertainment for X festival also books for Y venue, and asks you to play Y venue for free, it might be worth it. But do your research. Contact other bands who have played the venue to gauge the value of the opportunity. 

Ok. Now that we got the exceptions out of the way, here’s 4 reasons you should never book a show for free. 

  1. It Devalues Live Music 
    ​The live music community is a very real and vibrant thing. When you choose to play for free, you are telling the world that what we do collectively has no value. Just because it’s fun… just because it’s your passion… just because you WOULD do it for free if you had too, doesn’t mean you should. When you play for free, you devalue the collective effort of all live musicians in your market.
  2. It Devalues You and sets a Precedent 
    If I gave you a free cheeseburger, even if it was the best cheeseburger you ever had, you would be mad to pay me for it the next day. Even if I only charged $2 for it, you’d feel like you were being taken for a ride. The same is true for your music. If you give it away, you’re telling the venue you can be had for free. Anything more feels like too much. 

    Many musicians will play for free, assuming that the venue will pay them next time. Let me tell you, from personal experience, they won’t. Or they won’t pay you what you’re worth. You’re much better off establishing a regular rate up front and offering a discount for the first show. Let the venue know that if things go well, you expect to be paid the regular rate for future shows. Playing for free sets you up for a lot of crappy future paydays.
  3. It Will Cost You Money 
    The overhead of music is higher than most people realize. In gas money alone, a free show is a loss. The cost of your equipment has to be factored in. And then there’s your time. Venues like to assume that just because you are smiling when you play, it’ isn’t work. But it generates money and takes your time and equipment. It is work. Treat it as such when billing. 
  4. It (Almost) Never Leads to Future Paying Gigs 
    Most of the time it’s a lie. “We’ll pay you next time” usually means “We have no intention of ever booking you again.” 

    I wouldn’t say that if I hadn’t lived it. When I first started playing live music, I was booking 5-hour solo shows at a local bar where the owner said he could only pay me $75 a night (red flag #1). One night, he told me he couldn’t pay me the full $75 that night (red flag #2) but he wanted to have me back again soon. So he asked if he could pay me $35 now, and pay me the remaining $40 next time (red flag #3). I agreed, and played the show. The place was packed (red flag #4). I went on my way, and was never invited back. 

    If they can’t afford to pay you this time, they’re never going to be able to afford to pay you.
  5. Free Begets Free 
    Bands that play for free get a reputation. Not for their talent. Not for their energy. But for their price. Do you really want to become the band that plays for free? Do a free show, and watch your phone ring for similar “opportunities.”