While all art has some value to someone, some art is clearly more commercially valuable than other art. An original Van Gogh will sell for more than an original Van Nobody-From-Down-The-Street, and Nickelback will get paid more to play a concert than your local band will. Some of that is because you don’t have the backing of the music media machine to get exposure for your music and get it into people’s heads so they will eventually buy it and/or pay to come see you play it. Without the backing of a label, how do you get exposure for your music? Do you give it away and hope people listen to it?
Who doesn’t love the Red Hot Chili Peppers? They didn’t get paid to play the Super Bowl.
Some advisers like SonicBids say “Yes, give it away!” and others like electronic music artist Whitey say “No, make them pay!” in response to the question of playing or giving away product “for exposure” instead of pay. Realistically there are situations where giving it away makes sense, and that depends on a few things, including your experience level, the quality of your product (music + production quality/performance), and what you realistically have to gain/lose from the exposure opportunity. First, you must be truly honest with yourself when answering a few questions:
1. Does your music suck?
News flash: it might. It really might. Even if it’s the best song/album that you, personally, have ever written, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suck commercially (read: people besides your friends won’t pay to hear it). Continuing to practice your craft (songwriting & performance) will help you get to where you no longer suck. This writer sums it up best:
“Musicians who are great (and work hard) deserve to be paid. Musicians who suck and work hard don’t…yet.”
— Ari Herstand, Digital Music News
“Sucking” is subjective, though, and one man’s “suck” is another man’s “awesome,” so also consider whether you’re reaching out far enough to find actual “fans” who like you for your music instead of “friends” who like your music because it’s you. Practice helps, though, and the more you push yourself to write and perform, the less you will suck in the long run. As a side note, you must also consider the target audience size for your music: the more niche your genre, the better you have to be at business and marketing to reach your fans. You play Swedish Polka Death Metal? You might need an MBA.
2. What are your goals as a musician?
If you want to play “for fun” rather than trying to make a career out of your music, you have the luxury of playing more free shows and giving away more music than a band who’s trying to “make it” in the music business. Even if you are playing primarily for hobby satisfaction, it’s always nice to break even financially on a show or a record, and you can afford to do more things if you have more band money to cover expenses instead of coming out-of-pocket every time. If you’re trying to make a career, though, you must be vigilant about how your income and expenses are balanced and minimize your risk in every decision you make — just like any start-up business must do.
3. What do you have to gain or lose from the “exposure” gig?
Not every “exposure” gig offers a return on investment (ROI), so consider what you’re getting in return for what you give away. Start-up bands have to play as often as they can reasonably afford for exposure, but bands with an established following ought to be a bit choosier. That’s when the Exposure Trap starts to become a problem — if someone’s coming to YOU asking you for a free CD or a performance at their event, that means there’s demand for your music, so don’t short-change yourself. Consider the paying gig(s) you’re not taking, the revenue you’re not collecting, and whether or not the exposure is to enough people in your target audience or not. If not, it’s probably not worth it unless it’s some charity gig that gives you the feels. Don’t know who your target audience is? Well, that’s a-whole-nother post.
4. Do you have an alternate money-making strategy to pair with your free gigs?
To remain financially solvent, your money has to come from somewhere, or else your band “business” is losing and will eventually go under. If you’re playing gigs for free and giving your CDs away, then how are you getting paid? Unless you’re independently wealthy or have a rich-but-stupid benefactor, you’re going to need money to keep your music machine going. Consider soliciting sponsorship dollars or ad sales if you have a really big reach, but until you have that ad-worthy reach, again, don’t sell yourself short. If you don’t suck, charge money for your performances and/or merchandise. Start by setting your price at a reasonable markup from what it costs you, and back it off from there with discounts or giveaways once you have an idea what price people will actually pay (or haggle with the promoter from there, if we’re talking performance compensation). Once you set your product’s worth at $0, it’s hard to start charging more, but people always love a sale off the regular price or a coupon (and some just love to haggle). Sometimes you’ll be surprised how much your fans want to pay to support you, their new favorite band.
Though many musicians maintain an anti-free-gig and anti-pay-to-play stance, everybody must pay for exposure for their band in either dollars or sweat equity if they want to grow their audiences. Do some research and try a few things to find out which types of opportunities actually help your band and which types don’t help. Measure the impact. Analyze it and re-evaluate. Try again. After awhile, you’ll find your balance for leveraging exposure opportunities to benefit your band instead of just saving someone else money, and your fan base will grow. A larger fan base is the goal: if a band rocks hard in the woods, and no one is there to hear them, do they still make a sound?