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.

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  1. Chris Lusty 1 February, 2012 at 13:05


    Bang on, and thanks for recognizing the lowly volunteer. I’ll dig up something that I wrote for our local paper and send it along to you.

    Chris Lusty
    Mariposa Folk Foundation

  2. John Zytaruk 1 February, 2012 at 13:10

    Excellent piece on a pertinent subject. I agree with all your points-so well expressed with the phrase “play for free-not for nothing.” I love playing benefits whenever possible! Really the only time I get mad is when there is a budget and everyone is getting paid for their work and services EXCEPT the musicians.

  3. Paula Fredericks 1 February, 2012 at 13:35

    Excellent post, Roots Music Canada! We all have to make decisions about what we volunteer to offer of ourselves, our talents, our time… When we over-give, beyond where it “feels good” as the old TV ad used to say, we end up exhausted and resentful. So true that we must calculate the “how and when” to share what we do with those who would (usually unknowingly) suck us dry. It is up to us to draw the lines. We need to take a look at the year ahead, perhaps, the same way a corporation sets up a “budget” for donations, sponsorships and the like, and decide how many gigs (whatever field we’re in – it applies to all of us) we’ll offer without firm financial compensation. Photographers have to limit “free” photo shoots, entertainers set a limit of benefit concerts, house concert hosts establish how many shows they will host. We can be a bit flexible, maybe. But not to the point where we start to hate being asked. Learning to say “no” isn’t easy – especially when our whole world seems to revolve on volunteerism and there is always a need emerging…someone who is gravely ill, a sudden death leaving a family in need, a new festival, an artist friend who is crowd-sourcing funds for a new CD. But we do NEED to learn to say “no” and keep balance in our lives.

    We will never outrun technology and how it has changed things up – these days we can create darned-good photos, record on our computers, create websites, printed materials…the list grows daily…without spending thousands and hiring a “professional.” But “creative” folks aren’t the only ones affected. Sometimes perhaps they forget that computers of one sort or another have “chipped” away at every walk of life…from the team of meter readers at the power company to the bread truck driver to the typesetter. Going out on a limb here, but I think that people in the creative careers actually have a better chance at controlling their destinies – with opportunities to EDUCATE their “customers,” showing people the difference a professional can make, and getting ever more creative in the use of the huge number of FREE services we enjoy these days for sharing stuff with the world. We also have the best research facilities in history, and the most access to our customers, too.

    We can never afford to stop educating, or be reluctant to adapt.

    Respectfully, we’ve been operating a network for house concert hosts and artists for going on six years without charging a single profile fee. No one made us do this. We still do it because we enjoy it and think it is important. We occasionally sell an ad. Each year we host as many shows in our own living room as we can. I spend considerable time corresponding with artists about where and when they might find places to play – well beyond house concert venues.

    Roots Music Canada’s reference to value, rather than price, is key.


  4. Jane Eamon 1 February, 2012 at 14:07

    Ah yes the debate over art for free vs. survival, a topic near and dear to my heart. I’ve long been a supporter of art for free…and not because I’m independently wealthy, but because I want folks to share in my art without strings attached. Playing with that in mind is never free, it allows me the opportunity to share what I love to do without the mind-numbing appearance of failure when I only sell one CD. I can get on with the business at hand, sharing my art, and know that folks have a choice to take a CD or not. It’s been so good for my own self-esteem.

    But we do have to make a living and I think there’s a fine line between art for the love of doing vs. being taken advantage of for your art. “It’s a worthy cause, you’ll get exposure” type stuff. That boils down to making a choice and sticking to it.

    We need art and music to survive as a culture. We can’t do without it. We need that emotional impactful thing that only something created with the soul and heart can bring. We can educate our audiences to appreciate and want that. We can fill their minds with pap and put them to sleep. But I believe in my heart that authentic art will always come through regardless if somebody pays for it or not.

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of people vying for the same dollars. We get stuck in this treadmill of getting gigs and getting seen and hopefully getting paid. I think it’s easy to lose sight of why we do it in the first place. And that’s a tragedy. We do need to share what we do – it’s our choice how we do that.

    Playing real good for free indeed…..


  5. Ryan Ayukawa 1 February, 2012 at 14:21

    Well conveyed, David. I’ve read the LA “article” and Vancouver Craiglist posts which have sparked debates over the play for free and how much artists should be paid. It’s important in all this to remember all the other contributors as you’ve pointed out – festival volunteers, radio personalities, and in agreement with Jane, I think it’s especially important to recognize audience in the equation. The audience have to be there to appreciate what you do as well – whether it’s at a festival, folk club, house concert or on the radio. I believe we can’t lose sight of the audience and all the other people who make art happen.

  6. rosemary 1 February, 2012 at 16:01

    thank you, david. beautifully stated, as always.
    some thoughts: the market economy and the gift economy (i.e., art) may never truly integrate… who knows. but i believe artists (people working within the gift economy) will always be paid in value, that is, with the inspiration and vision to create more art. a gift isn’t a *gift* unless it’s given, right? if it flows out, more flows in. so very different than the concrete, market economy. dollars are no more a reflection of art’s worth than a song is a reflection of the worth of a piece of architecture. as for artists making a living, i hope we see that day. in the mean time, let’s all make a beautiful life. it can only help. 🙂 xo rosemary

  7. jim henman 1 February, 2012 at 16:39

    I would like to thank the person who wrote this very thoughtful article . The content reflected many of my own thoughts and experience . Having been in and out of the business in varying degrees over the last 40 years , I have found this to be even more true today . The competition for peoples ears and time has increased by staggering amounts these last 10 -15 years . The access to internet and vasts amount of other forms of entertainment has made it possible for a person to be exposed to a supply of music , entertainment , etc . which would have seemed impossible 10-15 years ago . Sometimes what others see as “playing for free” can be a very powerful business tool in the right hands . Especially if you are selling a marketable product (read CD) and you can delivery a very good live show with great tunes . Jim

  8. Kimberly 1 February, 2012 at 20:41

    What a great post!
    The community support, the people, all the fun and all that we get to bring to life as musicians is just priceless. How blessed are we? =)

  9. Beth Sheffield 2 February, 2012 at 07:39

    It seems like it boils down to being respected for what you do and what you bring to the wider community. It’s what we all want: it’s what we all need.

  10. Willy Blizzard 6 February, 2012 at 22:50

    Well written article David. Clearly you know whereof you speak. It seems all these points come together in our latest (paid) ad: “Broke, but still touring.”

  11. Kim Jarrett 25 June, 2012 at 18:59

    Great post, David. I agree that compensation is the key word here. I love the flexibility that being a musician provides. Yes – financially it can be ridiculously challenging but I find if you adjust your expectations, and your budget, it’s a great job to have. You can set your own terms, and you’re free to take on other work, and “real” jobs, anytime you wish. And the control is yours – I just say, “no thank you” if the compensation doesn’t suit me. Same as I do for any job.

  12. Nancy Dutra 23 January, 2013 at 16:35

    Think of all the work and money that is spent by the wonderful folks who host house concerts and allow strangers to sleep in their homes. Generous souls who, as you say, “work for free but not for nothing.”

  13. Barry James Payne 29 April, 2018 at 14:08

    I too have played countless shows for free. Getting exposure out of the gate was very important in the early days of my debut release and so I lined up every little gig I could find and was happy to do it. It paid off as I am now involved in a well-paid concert band and my own shows pay decently enough. And I have added a few other things to my basket of tricks to offer.

    Still I find myself working a day job to survive like so many other musicians. This is supply and demand at work and perhaps timing, luck, and talent. If I was so great, people would be knocking on my door daily. I’m not so bad, but I’m no Irish Mythen either. So, as others have alluded to above, knowing my worth and turning down or accepting a non-paying gig is my decision.

    I still play the odd PWYC (no guarantees there!) now, but with goals in mind. A birthday party, a friend coming to town, visiting a friend, a benefit, etc. and we do always get something monetarily, in addition to a meal, a drink, meeting wonderful people, etc. Where I have a problem with the whole free vs not is when I see everyone around me getting a piece of the proverbial pie to the exclusion of myself.

    That’s the hard part – on one extreme, Spotify making billions and seemingly paying a pittance to the artists whose music they stream (that’s a whole other discussion we could have about their calculations versus say terrestrial radio). And on the other end, the sound person always gets their cut, the promoter, the graphic artist, the poster guy, etc. And I’m not harping on anyone else who is able to charge for their services, because as you say, these are my choices. They have set their price and deserve everything they are paid. It’s up to me to set my price or go home or enjoy the experience for what it is. It’s part of the deal.

    Hats off to all of the people around us who do help to make events happen and “work” for free. The volunteers, organizers and organizations. They ARE numerous and don’t always get a shout out. In that sense, we have nothing to complain about.

    In order to create a buzz and subsequent value, it costs money to a great extent. If the return on investment is not working, if you consider that we are all indeed small businesses, it may be time to close up shop, cut your loses and just play in your living room for your dog.

    It is a difficult business to navigate and understand how to make revenue streams happen in this new business model. I think that would be a great discussion for someone to start – revenue streams for musicians/artists in this new digital age of free everything. Where are they, what are they, how much do they pay, when do they pay, what are the chances of getting paid, what are the funding orgs, etc.?

    What I do know is that there are many musicians making a decent living because they have had to learn the other side of the business, not just the playing side. They work hard. Not only have they learned how to play their instrument well, they put on great shows, write and get grants (another discussion), sell tickets to their shows, write great songs, put their time and energy into the right areas to get well paying gigs, create great marketing plans, work efficiently, sell records, sell merch, etc. to make it all work. It’s a ton of work, but if you’re not putting in 30-40 hours per week, aside from playing time, then you’re not going to make a living wage. How much is your “brand” or art worth if you’re not putting in the time with the passion?

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