The Dos and Don’ts of Working for Free: The Musician’s Guide
Making money from your music gigs isn’t easy. Few creators are able to make a living solely off their music. In fact is different.
In fact, Incredible and talented musicians often have to work multiple jobs on top of playing gigs just to be able to afford gear and all the other expenses that come with creating.
And even if you are getting paid for your music it’s not always with money…
When you’re first starting out—whether you’re in a band, making your own music, or DJing—there are times when a promoter, radio host, or collective approaches you about playing or creating for them without a budget to compensate you with money.
If you’re making it work on your own for other parts of your career like digital distribution and self-promotion, reaching the right fans is one of the biggest obstacles. There are tons of gigs out there where getting ‘paid in exposure’ makes sense. Each opportunity can be a building block towards making your music profitable in the future. You just have to pick the right ones…
So how do you decide if and when it’s worth it to work for free and gain exposure that could lead to paying gigs in the future?
These Dos and Don’ts of getting paid for your work will give you the guideline you need to make every gig you play worth your time.
Do: Research who’s making money from a gig
Let’s get one thing straight: There are many gigs you simply shouldn’t take if you’re not getting paid money.
These can include festivals, clubs, bars, or any venue that is significantly profiting from your work. There are exceptions, like fundraisers to keep a space open, or shows that support a good cause.
But always look for proper compensation early on and use your judgement. If you’re not getting what feels right, don’t do it. No amount of exposure is worth it if you’re playing a sold out show at $30/ticket where drinks are being sold all night.
Always start by asking yourself, “What am I receiving in return for my work?” The answer is usually exposure. And in most cases, exposure means a new audience, which means potential new fans and followers for your music.
But if there’s money involved remember that you are doing WORK for a gig and you should be compensated accordingly.
Do: Make mixes to reach many audiences
Submitting mixes is a great way to gain exposure and reach a wider audience. A lot of magazines, publications, brands and online collectives put out weekly or monthly guest mixes by various artists.
Even though you’re probably not getting paid to make the mix, you’re being advertised as an artist for free so it can even out.
Plus, if fans of other artists included in the mix hear your music, they can become fans as well. You’re reaching multiple audiences with one simple gig. Mixes usually get shared by everyone involved, so it’s a great organic way to boost your reach with the help of other artists.
Before agreeing to make a mix for free, it’s always good to do some research on who’s asking.
Does the collective/website/magazine have a big following?
Do some of your favourite artists follow them?
Does the audience fit your sound?
Always do your research before agreeing to the gig.
Do: Interviews on the radio
Much like mixes, doing interviews or performances on the radio is a great way to gain exposure. If it’s a smaller operation like university or online station, the hosts are likely volunteers and don’t have a budget to pay you. But doing an interview is a great way to talk about yourself and your work as an artist and get some airplay.
Get to know some of the shows in your community. Radio slots are often hosted by fellow musicians, so they’ll be understanding and open to you reaching out for some press.
Radio shows are usually digitally archived as well. So even after the show has aired, you still have a recording that you can share via your band’s social media channels, newsletter, or press kit.
If you’re considering a radio gig, always ask yourself: Is my time worth the possible opportunities and benefits? 1 hour’s work to get a valuable asset for your press kit or plug your next show could make a ton of sense… But if the shows aren’t recorded, maybe it’s not worth it. So stay aware!
Don’t: Be afraid to cross promote
Sharing is caring—as independent artists we’re all in this thing together. Making a mix for a friends radio show or collective and having them return the favour for you is a great chance for both of you to reach a wider audience and help each other out.
This works extra well if you live in different cities. A music exchange across borders or cities is a great way to push your sound into new zones and fanbases. You might not not be getting paid cash. But the new audience you can gain makes it totally worth it.
This can also be applied to distributing music too. If you both run labels or are distributing your music at the same time, why not promote each other’s stuff?
Cross-promo is fast, simple and effective for reaching all kinds of new listeners.
Do: Give songs to compilations
Another great way to get your name out there is to give songs to compilations. Chances are you’ve got a bunch of unreleased music sitting in your DAW anyways!
Consider the audience this compilation might reach, and who else is going to be a part of of the compilation.
Compilations are usually shared by every artist included on them. Which means you’re multiplying your audience by the number of artists on the comp. That’s some big exposure for a little effort. So contributing to a comp is a situation where exposure makes a lot of sense.
Do: Make it for a good cause
Compilations are often beneficial to the greater good—labels use them to help alleviate fees (putting out music isn’t cheap!)
Sometimes they’re created to help raise money for a charity or good cause. Like this Power Puerto Rico Compilation put out by two-founding members of LAGOM in Montreal. 100% of the proceeds are donated to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.
When it’s for a good cause, exposure takes a backseat to helping others. Working for the greater good through music is one of the best parts of being a creator. So this one explains itself as a major ‘Do!’
Playing Live? Go Pro.
Playing live gigs deserves it’s own section in this article because it’s a big subject with it’s own set of Dos and Don’ts.
Music is your job, so treat it like one. The most important aspect of making music a career is to not undermine yourself.
Your music will never be a career unless you treat it like one. Approach your music career with professionally. Others in the industry will take you seriously and treat you as a professional.
Start with these Dos and Don’ts and cultivate a career that gets you paid right.
Do: Negotiate your guarantee upfront
In general, if you’re playing a live show at a venue or festival you should always be getting paid or compensated with money in some capacity.
While smaller venues or underground DIY spots definitely won’t have as big of a budget as an established venue or festival, the promoter should be offering you something.
Negotiate a figure before you agree to play and get it guaranteed in writing (more on this below).
A good promoter should already have a number in mind of what the payout will be. If it’s not a set price or guarantee, they should be willing to offer you a door-split (percentage of ticket sales or cover charge) or cut of bar sales. And, this should go without saying, but promoters should be paying every artist on the line-up before they pay themselves.
Don’t: Skip the contract
Having a contract is an important component of any agreement— gigs are no exception.
It’s a good idea to make yourself a template contract you can send over to promoters when you’re working out a booking.
The contract should detail the fee that you’ve both agreed on for compensation, payment terms and any late fees if the terms are not followed through on.
Don’t be afraid to ask for partial payment up front. This can be a little bit uncomfortable at first, especially if it’s a smaller event or you know the promoter personally, but it can establish trust between you and the promoter and create an atmosphere of professionalism.
Do: Get a booking agent (eventually)
Booking agents aren’t for everyone. Early on it’s an expense you may have to skip.
But when you start playing regularly, having a booking agent can not only maintain a level of professionalism, but also save you a lot of stress (it’s never fun when you accidentally agree to two shows in one night!).
Agents will also work with the promoter to pin down the details of your payment arrangement, as well as any accommodations or tech requirements, which can be especially useful when you start to tour or play out of town…
Do: Get your expenses covered
Here’s a good way to look at it: Did the promoter contact you to come play in their city? Or did you contact them and ask to play? If it’s the former, don’t be afraid to ask for help with your travel expenses and accommodations—after all, they asked you to come to them!
Playing out of town can be expensive. Here’s a list of potential expenses you or your agent should consider when asking for a guarantee:
Travel (Plane, train or bus tickets, car/van rental fees)
Transportation to and from gig within the city
Don’t: Expect too much (especially when you’re first starting out)
Remember that you shouldn’t expect too much too quickly. One out of town tour doesn’t mean you get to start demanding penthouse hotel rooms and a bowl full of only brown M & M’s.
Playing in new cities can be a great way to network and a smart move for long-term success, but keep in mind that promoters often have small budgets to work with. If you asked them to play, it might not be within their means to cover a flight to Berlin.
However, if they agree to let you play, they should be able to offer you something, whether that’s a guarantee, door-split, or some other form of compensation you both agree on.
Be smart, get paid
Exposure is a key ingredient for growing your music career. But to make the most of your time and resources, you need to research and understand every gig from every angle.
Use these tips and your judgement to navigate through the new music gig economy and make the right decisions at the right time that fit your arc.
The right plan can and will tip luck your way. So do it right, do it smart, and grow your audience in all the right ways.