As musicians, we live in the space between work and play. This isn’t to say that being a musician isn’t work. We have to put in lots of hours practicing, learning songs, and making sure we are fully prepared for whatever work is on our plates. We do, however get to do something much more enjoyable than sitting in a cubicle and crunching numbers. Does getting to do what you love for a living mean you should occasionally do gigs for free?
There are two opposing ends to this debate.
The Angry Professional
On one hand, you have the guy who, like this infamous craigslist response, are insulted at the thought of a free gig and quickly become angry. The “Angry Professional” as I like to call him. This side of the argument is easy to understand. If you took the “free gig” approach to almost any other profession, it would seem ludicrous: “Hey Doc, can you do something about these back moles, pro bono?”
For this guy, free gigs are never an option, and you should feel ashamed for even thinking of asking, and no I will not refer another musician who will play for free. The upside to this approach is that he is a great musician who will get the job done well. If you’re looking for someone professional who you can pay very well, this is your guy. The downside is he’s a little bit of an a-hole when it comes to money. “Hey, are we getting paid overtime for that last song? We ended at 9:04 and the gig was only supposed to go til 9…” While the Angry Professional has a point, he needs to loosen up a bit.
The Idealistic Opportunist
The other end of the debate is the idealistic opportunist. “Hey, it’s great exposure, and you never know what could happen!” This guy will drive out to the desert for a 5 hour jazz set, no questions asked. He expects you to be there too, because you love music, right?? The upside to this approach is that this guy once played with Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty (I guess that’s an upside). The downside is that he has thrice gotten stranded on his way back from the 5 hour desert gig because he ran out of gas and money to get home.
Fortunately for you, there’s an easy system that’ll tell you whether or not to take a gig.
The 2/3 Rule
I learned this from a professor of mine and have lived by it ever since. There are three factors that weigh in on your decision to take a gig.
How much the gig pays, obviously. In the case of a free gig, the answer is nothing. This is the biggest and maybe only thing that the Angry Professional considers.
The musicians you’ll be playing with. This can make a big difference on your experience at the gig. If you’re going into a gig knowing that that one sax player who’s a tool is going to be there, you’re in for a rough night. Future you is going to hate past you.
The type of music you’ll be playing. Is it stuff you love playing and already know? Or do you have to learn 200 songs for that one desert jazz gig? Is it playing in a Rebecca Black cover band? Again, think about future you.
So we understand the three factors now, right? Alright, here’s your rule:
Every gig you take must have at least two of these fulfilled.
In order for you to take the gig, you need to either have:
- good money and good people
- good money and good music or
- good people and good music
It doesn’t matter if you’re playing “Friday” for the umpteenth time if you’re with your buddies and you’re making good money. You’ll all laugh about it later as you happily deposit your check.
It doesn’t matter if that sax playing tool is going to turn around clap out the downbeats to you again if you’re getting paid well and you’re playing fun music. You’ll still be generally happy with the music and very happy with the check.
It doesn’t matter if you aren’t getting paid if you’re playing music you love with musicians you love. You’re going to have a blast playing music, and that’s worth enough to take it.
Occasionally, the stars will align and you’ll get a gig that has all three. Enjoy it, that’s the dream.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If you’re just starting out and you have no contacts, free gigs with good musicians can be a great way to get connected to paying ones. Or if it’s something like a charity event or an event for a friend, consider it a donation of your time. But beware of taking too many free gigs. Other people could easily take advantage of your willingness to play.
Follow the 2/3 rule and take a free gig if it’s music you really want to play, and with musicians you really want to play with. Yes, even if it’s in the desert. Who knows, Rob Thomas could be there.