As creatives, we are all too often asked to volunteer our time and resources for free. Film and music people are notoriously known for being expected to give their time for nothing more than recognition and a thank you. As a musician and a filmmaker I have worked at no charge in order to practice my art, be recognized and network with some fantastic people. I love making music and film and usually jump at the opportunity in whatever manner it may present itself. For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on the music end of things but this is applicable to any creative endeavor.
Many bar and restaurant owners know that a lot of musicians are dying to get a break and will play for free. You can’t blame them for using this as leverage while they make money off the efforts of these artists usually with little or no promotion. Not only do the bar owners expect you to play for free, they also expect you to promote the shows, fill the seats and help sell liquor and food with your music.
While some establishments will split the door with you, most will ask you to sell tickets and that is the only money you make. If you are lucky (and smart) you can negotiate door sales and a base rate. While this works great in theory, some unscrupulous owners will lie about what they made at the door and in some cases renege on what they agreed to pay the band. Your business skills will improve the more you play, although it will probably come with hard lessons. Sounds like fun, eh?
My story begins with the seminal 1990’s heavy metal band Centrafuge where I played bass and was the unofficial band leader. We had some success on local radio, won a few Battle of The Bands, put out a decent selling ( 1000+ copies) of our debut album and were the local house band at one of the big bars in town, “Rock Central Station”. Our manager at the time had toured North America extensively with some successful bands and had an “in” at the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles. Sounds like a dream come true, doesn’t it? Go to Hollywood and be discovered. The big catch was that most of the bars on Sunset Strip at that time were “Pay to Play”, which meant we had to buy $250 worth of tickets and then sell them to people on the street but we couldn’t sell them in front of the bar or on the same block as the bar.
This was much more serious than just playing for free, we had to PAY to PLAY!!! Adding insult to injury, there were flights, hotel rooms, car rental, food … and we had to rent amps and drums when we got there. It was a major expense to get down there to possibly be seen by someone important who may or may not like us. In the end we pooled our nickels and dimes and made it happen, however, our manager did not disclose all the details for our gig….
We arrived on Sunset Strip and checked into our hotel. We ran into a stagette about an hour in and that’s how the trip started:)
It was a wild one as we explored Hollywood, The Sunset Strip, Universal Studios and the magic that is Los Angeles. We saw Dennis Hopper on a chopper and ran into Dan Aykroyd at the House of Blues on Sunset; it was a grand time.
Our manager promised great things for our gig on Sunday but failed to mention we would be playing after Gospel night. As a non-promoted Canadian metal band it was not the best fit to put it mildly. We put on our best show that we had played to date; we were pumped for this regardless of the circumstances! It was fantastic and I paid some extra cash to record the show for prosperity.
It was one of the best experiences of our young lives as a band and as individuals. Was it worth it to go beyond playing for free and paying to play, HELL YES!
Now every situation is different and I am not promoting the “Pay to Play”model or playing for free but you have to ask yourself if the rewards are worth taking a chance regardless if there is a payday at the end. Life is too short for the “what-ifs” and “should-haves.” I recommend weighing the risks and taking chances if you feel you can move and grow towards your goals and the person you want to become creatively. Get out there, have fun and follow your passion!