Play for free, but not for nothing
I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.
-Joni Mitchell, Real Good for Free
Despite my best aspirations as a performer and a songwriter, I have more in common with the one man band than with Joni Mitchell. I play for free. Okay, I mostly play for money, but when I play for free, I do it with joy, and I hope I play ‘real good’.
I’ll play for free, but not for nothing. Lately, I’ve had reason to consider the difference.
I’ve seen a number of posts on Facebook recently, intended to remind people of how hard musicians work, for the entertainment of others.
Like this one:
Fair enough. Maybe not everyone knows how hard it is to be a musician, although I would argue that there are other professions we could stand to know more about, that are probably underpaid for what they do. Paramedic springs to mind.
Which leads me to wonder if the issue is more about musicians’ self-esteem than with education of the public at large. But I’m not here to offer therapy. Nobody asked me to be a musician. I make my own choices. I presume others do the same.
That’s why it’s important to keep things in perspective. The fact is, while musicians may understandably be tired of doing benefits, or of getting asked to play ‘for exposure’, many roots musicians wouldn’t even be in business if it wasn’t for thousands of people working for free to support them.
Seems to me a more pertinent effort would involve thanking community radio DJs, house concert hosts, folk festival volunteers, and organizations like Folk Music Canada and the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals. They don’t play for free, they work for free.
But playing for free, or not, misstates the issue anyway.
I hosted a benefit last week. I worked for free. Everybody worked for free. And by everybody, I mean a list of first-class musicians, whose work was to play, plus a whole lot of volunteers, whose work was to work. Nobody got paid, except the beneficiary – who has worked for free on behalf of musicians for years.
Still, although no one was paid, I would argue everyone was compensated. Everyone received fair exchange. They got the satisfaction of helping a friend. They got the sense of contributing to a community that also supports their work. They got the boost of being in a splendid lineup in a great venue. And they all made their own decisions about what made it worth it for them, as we’re free to do in this country.
If artists don’t think they’re getting fair exchange, they must not offer up their services into the bargain. Play for free, but not for nothing.
Fair exchange is a much more important issue than dollar value. Face it, you can’t run the economy of roots music (or the arts in general) in Canada on dollar value. The dollar value of a folk festival ticket would be out of reach of most audience members, if it wasn’t for volunteers, sponsors, and in-kind donors. I’ve seen the break-down of hours of unpaid work that go into putting a festival on. It’s staggering.
Musicians are often the only people on a folk festival site being paid.
Again, the volunteers all make their own decisions about what makes it worth it for them, as we’re free to do in this country.
“The economy of free” is a phrase you hear a lot online these days, promoted by folks like pundit Jeff Jarvis, who argue that putting something out there for nothing helps you to build your brand, and your audience. That then allows you to sell things or services that people are willing to pay for. I think most musicians instinctively understand this. Our blogs, our posters, our Facebook and Twitter feeds are all work we do for free to build brand and audience.
Still, it’s easy enough to wind up cash-poor, on the basis of your own life choices.
So it’s important to remember that there are more kinds of currency than cash. Brand value (reputation) is one. Audience is another. Do those things pay the bills? Not in and of themselves. But you can’t sell anything if you don’t have a reputation or an audience. Conversely, increasing those things allows you to sell goods or services. So you need to take all of that into account when calculating how and when to offer your services, at what compensation.
Notice that I didn’t say ‘price.’ Price limits the calculation to one aspect of the equation, and hence presents a skewed picture of the world. Price is only about money. Is your work only about money? Of course not.
Calculating compensation means artists can play (or write, or paint) for free all they want, and should, without guilt or resentment – as long as they never work for nothing.
As for self esteem: consider thinking in terms of your work’s value, rather than its price.