Why “Don’t Play for Free” Is Not Enough

Just say no to “pass the hat” gigs.

Just say no to “pass the hat” gigs.
Photo by Gregory Nissen

In response to my first column, the first comment was an admonition to musicians that they shouldn’t play for free.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last two weeks because I felt that this was an unrealistic route to change, but I hadn’t been able to say exactly why. Here are some reasons why I think that the statement isn’t sufficient to address the problem of unpaid gigs.

1.) No one person can change a system. If you turn down a free gig, is it a strike? No, because you are not an employee leveraging power. (Although Italians launched an effective “culture strike” in 2010.) Is it a boycott? Not exactly, but more similarly, in that it’s a withdrawal from a practice for an ethical reason, with hopes to change the system through a negative multiplier effect. If no one plays without compensation, something has to change.

For a musician simply to remove himself or herself from the industry might be noble, but it will do little or nothing to change the industry as a whole.  If it ends there, it’s a relatively passive, individualist form of resistance. The power to effect real, systemic change comes only in the communication of grievances and organizing.

Communicating with the venue and fellow musicians about why you refuse to work for free is a start, and then trying to work with the venue to get it to change is even better. If that fails, getting together with others is how you turn your individualism into a community act. Now, an organized boycott—that’s a thing! And probably the only thing that you’d want to do if you dare speak up at all, because there is safety in numbers.

2.) Don’t reprimand musicians for free work; reprimand promoters for demanding unpaid labor. Venues and promoters have the primary responsibility for ensuring their workers are paid. It should not be the responsibility of a worker to have to ask for pay, it’s the responsibility of the employer to explain the payment conditions and to pay fairly and on time.

Image courtesy Arun Joseph via Flickr.

Image courtesy Arun Joseph via Flickr.

3.) Sometimes you don’t know you’re playing a free gig until it is over. This is well evidenced in the controversy over the 2013 Chicago Beethoven Festival, where musicians and venues alike were not paid by organizer George Lepauw. Lepauw explained that “the Festival experienced a combination of factors which unexpectedly led to the discrepancy between expenditures and income”—which means they didn’t have the money.

The dreaded discrepancy can come for any reason: ineptitude, bad ticket sales, a failed grant application, or some weather disaster. In each scenario, the promoter has taken a risk and lost. It wasn’t the musicians’ fault or the fault of anyone else legally contracted to do the work, and they should not suffer for someone else’s bad event management.

4.) Unpaid labor is often coercive—some people really can’t say no if they want to stay in the field. There are many forms of social pressure that go into getting a musician to play without pay:  current position with a group, promise of a future job, respect for seniority, some sense of obligation to friend or teacher, the prestige of the gig, or the idea of cultural norms for a genre. If musicians are not truly free to say no to a gig without fear of future detriment to their careers, then coercion is part of the unpaid deal.

Abuse is a strong word, but I think that it applies when thinking about the compromises a leader, teacher, or promoter may ask of a musician. But why would another musician be angry when they know that this practice is widespread? The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness writes, “One reason people blame a victim is to distance themselves from an unpleasant occurrence and thereby confirm their own invulnerability to the risk.” Perhaps it is our own fear of being caught in a similar position—and anxiety about what we’d do—that causes such frustration.

To change coercion, a lot of cultural practices around performance would have to change. At the very least, there should be independent checks on institutions and people with the power to exploit their underlings in this way.

5.) “Paying your dues” through unpaid gigs means reinforcing the labor status quo.

A friend of mine moved to New York City from the Midwest, where she was a highly sought-after jazz pianist. After two years of unpaid gigs, sitting in and showing up to jams, she finally started getting into the network of paid work. If she’d been wealthy, those two years wouldn’t have mattered. If she’d gone to school in New York, she would have passed this hurdle young.  The problem was that she had to pay rent during those two years, and so the job that made more sense was not in music.

So asking someone to “pay dues,” which is really a form of coercion, means that those who are already at an economic disadvantage within the field will be even less likely to make it if they have to spend time earning wages elsewhere. They simply cannot play all the free gigs someone with wealth can, and thus they won’t be able to put in the time which leads to getting paid.

This is similar to the arguments around the widespread use of unpaid internships, and exacerbates unequal access to future paid work. Both depend on eager new entrants into the already crowded workforce willing and able to accept training and experience but no wages.

Image courtesy Walt Otto via Flickr.

Image courtesy Walt Otto via Flickr.

6.) The “if you do free work, you’re taking away my job” argument. This is written generically to show the parallel to other forms of labor protectionism based on rank. If someone is more established in the field, chances are they went through some form of the exploitative system and have come out on top, into the promised land of paid gigs. Now, they seek to protect their status by shutting down the current avenue of advancement in the field—free labor. Instead of focusing on shutting down worker’s opportunities for advancement, established musicians need to use their reputations and prestige to try to end this system of exploiting incoming musicians. This does not come from yelling at musicians for taking free gigs; it comes from demanding fair contracts for all and asking audiences to demand the same.

Are there times and places to take unpaid gigs? Yes, as David Hahn and others have written, charity and friend favors and maybe even “having fun” are good reasons to do things, but these are best assessed as what they are, with no blinders—tradeoffs made to positively affect some other part of life than one’s income. Playing music is part of a total life experience—from earning to gifting to community building—but I believe that musicians should have an informed choice when putting their labor into service and should never be coerced into unpaid work when it will hurt their ability, or the community’s ability, to survive.

9 thoughts on “Why “Don’t Play for Free” Is Not Enough

  1. Les

    Musicians love doing what they do and it is this fact alone that creates the problem of playing for free. Can you imagine someone applying for a job as, let’s say, Cashier, and being told by the employer, “The job doesn’t pay anything, but you’ll get good exposure.” Of course you can’t. Cashiers, waiters, bartenders, postal workers etc, ALL expect to be paid for what they do. Musicians need to take the same attitude: if it doesn’t pay, I don’t play. The jam session is a different beast however. “Sitting in” at jam sessions and open mic nights is a tried and true way, not to get paid, but to meet other musicians who may need someone who can do what you do. And at a jam session, you’re not obligated to play any longer than you want, nor are you required to play any song you don’t want to play. I was having out with a woman who was having an art show at her very beautiful home. All of the art was hers and it was all for sale. The prices were very good. One of her friends (an art teacher at a local college) took her aside and gave her GRIEF for not putting her prices higher! A few days later I went to a “student art show” at a major art college. EVERYTHING was expensive. There was nothing for less than $800. It seems that the art students had collectively made a decision to be paid fairly for their work, and those that didn’t pay their prices were just out of luck. So here’s my suggestion for musicians trying to get started: Don’t play for free. If you can’t get a gig that pays, keep practicing/rehearsing until you can. And don’t expect ANYONE to pay you after they’ve gotten used to getting your services for free. Sure, employers SHOULD pay you, but let’s get real here: Nobody buys the cow when the milk is free. Musicians need to learn how to deal with the world as it is, not how they want it to be. Join the Musicians Union. Practice. Rehearse. Play with other musicians, especially successful ones. Don’t play at “such-and-such” event/bar/restaurant for “exposure” or “experience.” Play for love in private and for cold, hard cash in public. The world has too many “starving artists” already. I played my first gig, for $5, in 1968. I’ve also played many “door” gigs, but the band always made money, though often it wasn’t much. But I’ve never played for free and never will. And I’ve played a lot of gigs that paid very well as a result of this attitude. You’re not a Pro if you aren’t getting paid.

    Reply
    1. Rita

      Les, it seems you’re missing the point. Your argument is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t address the systemic problem of a completely unhealthy music scene — at all. Individual decisions are just that.

      Reply
      1. Les

        Rita,
        The music scene in the US has gotten progressively worse in the last fifty years. When I started playing I worked 7 nights a week and was never without work. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I wasn’t playing for free, either. I was playing mostly in nightclubs. We played the same club 7 nights a week for MONTHS. The musicians coming up now simply do not have that opportunity and they never will, because the clubs are dead or have gone “disco.” When club owners figured out that people would show up and dance to a TAPE they fired all the bands.
        What it comes down to is this: Too many musicians; not enough gigs. And THAT is something that no amount of protesting can change. To exacerbate the problem, anyone with a guitar can call themselves an “artist” with no training, no union membership, no experience, and no license.
        There was a time, not long ago, when a good musician could work constantly, even during the Great Depression. There was no TV and audiences could only hear music on a crude Victrola or in a nightclub. So they went to nightclubs to socialize, listen, and dance. And people DO love music. Now you can hear anyone you want on YouTube FOR FREE. You don’t have to leave the house. Or you can go to a dance club where a “disc jockey” will spin records until your legs give out. That DJ is not working for free.
        Yes, there is a systemic problem, but it is not something you or anyone else can do anything about except on the most basic fundamental level: Don’t play for free. Ever.
        To change the way society gets its entertainment (and THAT is the problem) is impossible.
        The Musician’s Union has been addressing the issue of underpaid musicians longer than I’ve been alive. The best way for a musician to get justice is to join the Union. More Musician’s Union members means more justice for musicians.
        But I don’t hold on to any hope that things will improve for musicians because there would have to be some extreme changes in our way of life and our technological culture for things to get better.

        Reply
    2. David

      Many interesting thoughts in this article. Perhaps the best thing about such posts is that a conversation is going on. Yes, by all means join the Musician’s Union: The AFM! Remember that for Freelance Musicians, a 1978 court decision made the band leader the employer, not the club owner or the hotel. When you play a club, you are not an employee of the club. A band leader needs to have a contract with
      the client in order to have any kind of leverage. It’s an independent contractor situation, and that status has proven very difficult to change. Also, there are many good paying gigs. Competent musicians who can be stylistically adaptable can find work. Successful band leaders need to pass up non-paying gigs, and seek out paying gigs for their bands. This may involve playing songs and styles that are not one’s favorite. On the other hand, I think that for bands playing their own original music; consider putting on your own shows. Bands are independent businesses, might as well take that and run with it.

      Reply
      1. Rita

        Please don’t tell other people what they should do, or what their careers are like. “There are many good-paying gigs”? Ha! Really? I wouldn’t presume to speak for your life, don’t speak for mine. There has to be a better way than preaching.

        Reply
        1. Les

          Rita,
          There actually ARE many good paying gigs, but there are ten times, no, more like fifty times, as many musicians trying to get those gigs. You’d be amazed at how many throats some musicians will cut (not literally) to get a gig.
          In the old days, musicians quit playing dives and got a day job because they were tired of playing dives, and there were a LOT of dives in which one could get paid to play. Those dives are almost all gone.
          I worked the strip clubs in Boston while I was in college, but about the time I graduated the clubs all went to tapes and musicians who’d been working there 7 nights a week (for YEARS) were suddenly being seen around town driving cabs and working as waiters. I imagine that they felt much like Buggy Whip Manufacturers did in 1909 or so…
          You, Rita, don’t have to do anything I or anyone else suggests, but be aware that the world is not going to conform to your idea of justice for musicians until musicians stand up, throw open the window, and yell at the top of their lungs, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” After that, they need to follow it up with a little action such as not playing for free, no matter what. When potential employers can’t find musicians willing to play for free, they will either stop looking, or start paying. Either way, you’re better off.

          Reply
      2. Les

        I agree wholeheartedly with David. In the real world of pro music, bandleaders MUST have an enforceable contract or risk paying their musicians out of their own pocket. A Gentleman’s Agreement may be fine for a gig that pays only $50 or $100, but when things get serious you must have a contract. One that will stand up in court, if it comes down to that. Or get paid cash in advance. That works too!
        L

        Reply
  2. Declan

    Excellent addition to the ongoing debate, Daphne. See similar at Barry Dallman’s blog — it’s not just in the USA that this contentious issue keeps arising, sadly. Let us hope that one fine day……

    Reply
  3. Jeanne

    Daphne, you talk about the benefits of organizing as a community of musicians, but you don’t mention the professional musicians’ union that is already in existence: the American Federation of Musicians, which has been around for over 100 years and which attempts to combat this problem every day. You can learn more about them here at http://www.afm.org – many AFM locals and members are very active in their communities trying to stop this practice.

    Reply

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