When you start playing live shows, the first opportunities usually are free gigs. But when you are few years into it, you cannot help but to ask, should you play free gigs? My view has changed on this over the years, and today it is a more complex issue than ever.
Should you play free gigs, or does it devalue you as an artist?
I hear a lot of musicians talking about how other artists playing free shows is killing the industry. I have been a full-time musician for over two decades. And during those two decades, I have been lucky enough to have regular paid work. But at the same time, I have played many gigs for free. If I get paid to play, why would I do free shows?
Let’s make this very clear; no one pays you what you think you are worth. The market decides what you are worth. Can you bring people to your show? Stop blaming the promoter or the manager. Sure thing it is the promoters job to let people know that you are playing in the venue. But if people see that you are playing in the venue, do they care?
Can you fill the Madison Square Garden?
If the Rolling Stones are playing at the Madison Square Gardens, people will come, because Rolling Stones is a household name. They have what we call pulling power. It is the promoters job to let people know that the gig is happening. If people don’t know who you are, it is not the promoters job to fill in the venue with people who might or might not be in the mood for some random music they have not heard before.
It is your job to build following for your act. I have two suggestions here that have been proven to work. Play as many shows as physically possible. If you get paid, great! If you don’t, do them anyway. Set out to do 100 shows. This will make you a better performer and will help you build a following.
Collaborate with as many artists as possible. And think small before you think big. If you ask The Rolling Stones if you could collaborate with them, I doubt you will never hear anything from them. But if you ask ten local artists who are in a similar situation than you are, the chances are few of them will agree to collaborate with you.
Now let’s think that if out of those 100 shows you did, 50 would be collaborations with 50 other musicians. That would expose you to 50 other artists followers as well. Collaborations are always a win-win situation.
Take things online
Collaborations are not only for the live shows. Head over to Melosity.com and find 10 artists who you think you would like to work with. Record one of your songs into the online studio, and get other artists to collaborate with you on the track. When the track is done, both of you share it with your followers online.
Then you do the same thing again in reverse. Record one of their songs for a change. This will give both of you fresh new content to share with your fans.
Build a reputation
No one will build a great reputation as a musician by sitting at home and waiting for the paid gigs. Go out and play a lot. Until you are in a situation where your calendar is filled with paid gigs, fill that calendar with unpaid gigs. Help other musicians, fill in when they need you. Do it with professionalism and enthusiasm. Play charity events. Offer a venue who have no music on a quiet night to play a free show. Offer to play support for other bands.
When you do this a lot, first of all, you will get a reputation for being a hardworking musician. You will gain a lot of valuable experience. Sooner or later that phone starts ringing with paid shows. So yes you absolutely should play a lot of free gigs.