Monday, March 2, 2015

"We can't pay you but it will be great exposure": Never Play For Free!

One of the most annoying things that any professional musician has to deal with are club or bar owners, promoters and the like is when they want your services, but claim they cannot or don't want to pay you.  The excuses run anywhere from "you play the first gig for free and if the crowd likes you then we will hire you", or my favorite, "we can't (won't, don't want to, too cheap to, etc.) pay you, but it will be great exposure".  The problem is further exacerbated by eager amateurs who are willing to do anything to play somewhere in the hopes of getting some kind of recognition and so because of them, they will get many of the gigs, and they undercut real professionals who depend on their music to make a living. 

Now I have run bars and clubs as a manager, and I have hired bands to play, and I always pay them according to a mutual agreement that we have.  The truly professional musicians will always hold up their side of the bargain, which is to start on time, bring in and play to the crowd, which gets them to stay and buy more drinks and food, pay for their drinks at employee prices.  I have often thrown in a free dinner for each member of the band as part of the deal.  I and they agree that they have to promote their gigs on social media and their other networks, and I have to promote the gig and the gigs of other bands for the bar through advertising, social media and print.  If they cannot fulfill their side of the bargain, then they do not get rehired, but I will still pay them for the gig they did play.  However, I will never hire musicians that are not professional.  They should expect to get paid and I will pay them, but they also have to hold the crowd so that I can make money too.  It's a double-edged sword, and the professionals know it, and when they have gained a reputation for being professional, they will bring in the crowds, and they will be rehired and play again and again.

As a bar manager, I get so many promotional CD's from a lot of "players", and most of them are truly awful.  Some of them are good, but still need some polishing.  Many bar and club owners take advantage of these players, by offering them a gig if they do it as a promotion for themselves only, not get paid, but may be allowed to "pass the hat" or sell their own CD's, etc.  The band would be solely responsible for promoting themselves and bringing in the crowd.  I know of one such club in NYC that has a clause that if the band cannot bring in at least 50 people (even if it's 49), at $10 a head admission, the band will not be paid, which is no great sum anyway when they do get paid.  On an average night, 4 to 5 different bands play, all agreeing to the same clause.  The house makes their money both at the door and at the bar regardless. The fact that so many bands agree to terms like this is what has undercut not only paying gigs for real professionals, but has led to diminishing quality of music in clubs and bars.  The only place to see and hear the best musicians are in the most expensive clubs or venues, where you usually drop at least $100 in cover charges and food and drink minimums before the music even starts.

A lot of people seem to think that open jam sessions are a great idea because it gives the chance for developing players and even a few pros to come out and hone their chops and get exposure.  The house will charge a small cover charge, hopes that enough people will come in and buy drinks at the bar so they can make money.  However, I stopped doing open jams when I could see that they were actually counterproductive to both the house and to professional musicians.  Lots of bars adopted the open jam as a way to make money without having to pay musicians, under the guise of "exposure" and if you have ever been to these jam sessions, the great majority of people who show up for them are generally awful, some of them with giant egos, and too many who come there behaving as if it's some audition for them and try to direct everyone else on stage.  The only people who end up showing up are the players and their friends, most of whom don't have money for even one drink, or who like to use the lie "I'm on the list" (there is no "list" at an open jam), most other patrons walking out when they hear how awful most of the players are, or when some players big ego is displayed on the stage.  This doesn't help my business in the least, and it certainly doesn't really help players who are sincere in developing and displaying their skills, so I stopped open jams.

Unfortunately, many unscrupulous owners will continue taking advantage of eager young (sometimes older) amateurs who will do anything to be seen and heard.  If you are at a professional level of musicianship, then you are not only undercutting yourself, but every truly professional musician whose music is his/her livelihood.  Why should a bar or club owner pay anyone if they can get them for nothing?  If you are a serious amateur, I have news for you!  There is no exposure!  The only thing you will be exposed as is a fool, because promoters and and other club owners are not usually in attendance at these open jams or promotions, and if they are, it's usually to take advantage of you in the same way that the owner of the place you're playing in is.  In this way you also undercut and hurt those whose music is their whole livelihood.

Imagine that you are a professional in some other field and you were asked to work for nothing, because it will be great exposure.  Can you imagine a doctor, a dentist, plumber, lawyer, contractor, etc., being asked to perform their services for free because it will be great exposure?  It doesn't happen, so why should it be different in music and the other arts?  The truly professional musician and artist has spent years of sweat, trial and error, heartache, failure and success in order to achieve their level of skill, as much and more than many other professions, and so they deserve as much compensation for their work as anyone.  If you are the musician or artist that agrees to work for free (the exception perhaps being a worthy cause you believe in), then you are hurting every other musician and artist that has given themselves to their art and deserves to make a living from it.

Don't work for free!  Maybe you will sometimes agree to work for less, but NEVER work for free.  Don't hurt yourselves and others, and don't allow those who certainly don't work or do anything for free take advantage of you or anyone else.  This is good for everyone and eventually raises the bar for the quality of the music and art itself.