‘Come Play for Free, it will be Good Exposure’: Musicians, Performance, and Exposure as Currency

In case you’re unfamiliar with the issue, try this social experiment**: Walk into a room full of musicians and announce that you own a small restaurant or bar and that you’re looking for a musician to play there. Tell them that you don’t have the budget to pay them, but you can give them a free meal and a few free drinks, and besides, ‘it’s a great opportunity to get some exposure’.

Now just sit back and listen to sarcastic and vitriolic responses like;

 “Why don’t you come over to my place and cook a meal for me and my friends; we can’t afford to pay you but it will be great exposure for your restaurant.”


“Hang on; let me get the details of my ‘exposure account’ so that I can give you an ‘exposure invoice’.”


“What the fuck! You want me to play for free!”

(**Seriously; don’t do this. It’s likely that you will leave that room one or two limbs lighter.)

From the side of musicians this is a pretty simply argument: Musicians provide a service like any other and they should be paid money for that service. You wouldn’t ask a plumber, or an architect, or a chef to work for ‘exposure’, so why should musicians be expected to do so?

Exposure as currency

As a musician, this is a perspective that I can empathise with. Not only do I rely on the money that I make playing music, but I believe that the product I’m part of is of a high enough quality that it adds value to the bar/restaurant/festival/etc. Therefore, I should be fairly compensated for this service.

But of course, the words ‘fairly compensated’ are problematic in themself. While I consider that I am fairly compensated for most of the gigs I do, this seldom takes into account the hours I spend practicing, or the time I spend travelling to gigs, or the investment I put into equipment, or the fact that I need a reliable, registered car in order to get to gigs.

Fairly compensated also has different definitions for different contexts. I recently performed at a large festival in Queensland and the band I was playing with considered the amount being offered to be fair, particularly given it was a higher fee than other festivals pay us. But when you took into account the fact that we needed to pay for flights, hire car, food, and some accommodation, we were effectively only covering our costs. But despite this, we still decided the gig was worth doing because it put us in front of a potentially very large festival audience, gave us the opportunity to sell CDs, and it looked great on our bio. And besides, it would be a hell of a lot of fun.

But no matter how you spin it, the fact of the matter is that we did this gig for ‘exposure’, and we were well aware that that’s what we were doing. But we had enough confidence in our product that we were certain we’d sell CDs (which we did), pick up new fans (which we did), and impress the right people (which, given the feedback we got, we did). So, on this occasion, exposure was a currency that we converted into tangible benefits.

But then this is still a long way from playing for just exposure, and venues that do pay a nominal fee that only covers the cost of petrol are not targeted in the same way as venues which pay nothing at all. This is probably because these venues are the sort of places that musos or bands start out playing at, and in most cases they’re the kind of gig you quickly grow out of. In some ways, these gigs are the backbone of a good music scene because they allow new bands and inexperienced musos to get up on stage and get valuable experience.

Playing for exposure

So with this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that every muso has done at least one gig for free. It may have been some of the first gigs you did, or a favour for friend’s party, or a charity gig (although some would argue that you shouldn’t even do charity fundraisers for free). Even getting signed to a major label requires you to do industry showcase gigs for free, and probably the biggest of these is SXSW where even big name bands are effectively paid nothing, or are forced to rely on corporate sponsorship.

So it would seem that the concept of playing for exposure exists at every level. And that at every level there are musos who are willing to do it because they see the tangible benefits that exposure to a new or larger audience can bring.

So this raises the question: Why the anger at small, local businesses who often naively ask musos to play for a free meal and a couple of drinks? I recently saw this anger play-out when a young colleague of mine was trying to get his foot in the door of the Melbourne scene. He was working for a bar and convinced the manager to put more music on during the week. He then dared to offer the spot on the Melbourne Musicians Facebook group. The reactive and malevolent responses that followed, directed at him personally and the bar, were astounding. The bar quickly distanced themself from my colleague saying that he was acting without their permission, and my colleague was forced to delete the original post and publically apologize.

While I agree that musicians should be paid appropriately, I see several problems with reactions such as this. Firstly, no one was being forced to do the gig – if you’re not happy about the pay, then don’t do it – ignore the post! Secondly, my colleague was not asking anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t have done himself. Likewise, he seems to have been making a genuine and honest effort to add more music to the bar. Even thought the ‘payment’ was inappropriate, a simple and polite discussion may have lead to more music at the bar AND a fee being paid. Instead, musicians chose to fling mud and vilify the bar and a fellow musician, and looking at the bar’s Facebook page, they do not seem to have added anymore live music as a consequence, let alone more paid gigs.

A few months later I was doing research for an NFL blog I write for. I was particularly interested in some of the numbers around the Super Bowl – things like the amount of money made, TV ratings, player payments, etc, etc. But one number stood out to me the most: Zero. This is the amount the NFL pays performers for the Half-Time Show. And these are not small-time local acts. In fact, since the 1990s we’re talking about some of the biggest international acts on the planet. Some more research also led me to discover that according to the Wall Street Journal, the NFL is trying to coerce artists to give up a portion of their future performance and album sales for the privilege of playing. This, in effect, means these artists would be paying-to-play. Fortunately, there are no reports of artists conceding to these demands as yet. (That Wall Street Journal article is behind a paywall – try this Forbes article)

So this got me wondering: On one hand a small bar is committing a crime against humanity for wanting musicians to play for food, but one of the biggest sporting organisations in the world who could certainly afford to pay almost any fee asked for by any musician, expect artists to play for free.

So I thought I would pose this question to the good people of the Melbourne Musicians Facebook group. And don’t get me wrong – they are good people. In my time being part of this group I’ve seen a variety of great discussions take place, musicians helping musicians with little expectation of the return, and great some camaraderie.

However, it’s worth pointing out that the group is a closed group so I’ve kept all the responses anonymous. If you’re a member of the group, you’ll be able to find the full discussion thread by going to the group and searching for my name.

Playing for Exposure

What initially surprised me most was the amount of people who said they would do the gig because of the exposure. Most cited the TV ratings and the cost of advertising – essentially they thought of the Half-Time Show as free advertising for their music.

But it wasn’t long before someone pointed out the division, or perhaps even hypocrisy, that existed on the group;

“Interesting responses here from people who I know completely eschew the ‘play for exposure’ idea.”

To which another muso (let’s call them MM1) responded;

“The Super Bowl is different to ‘play for exposure’ at some random event/bar/gig/showcase. It’s the god damn Super Bowl!”

From this I opened up a discussion with MM1. I have not met MM1, but I was familiar and respected their work and success, so I felt they offered a good perspective. And when we got talking about a high profile New Years Eve gig they did, they noted that three years ago they would have done it for free, but now they would stick to a minimum price. However, the Super Bowl on the other hand, MM1 stated, they would not expect to be paid for simply because of the exposure the gig can offer.

This brought me to the following hypothesis:

Playing for Exposure

MM1 agreed – playing for exposure was something that was determined by the level of the artist. If you felt a gig offered the opportunity to significantly expose you to a new audience, then you would do it for free. Otherwise, there was an expectation that you should be paid monetarily.

However, it wasn’t long before some started saying that playing the Super Bowl for free was wrong:

“That’s so bad. Does anyone else working at that event not get paid? Do the announcers not get paid because it’s good exposure? Do the players? So wrong.”

Others justified doing it for free based on the size of the royalties cheque:

“They’d be getting live performance royalties and it would bringing in some sweet $$$$$$”

My question to this latter group was how does this differ from any other gig? Regardless of where you perform you are earning royalties – even at the tiny bar down the road that is paying you in beer. Sure, the Super Bowl royalties would be much larger, but this is simply proportionate to the amount of people who you are supposed to be playing to. The general response was that the amount of royalties earned playing the Super Bowl should be payment enough, and that as a consequence it didn’t matter that the NFL wasn’t chipping in.

The most surprising thing about this conversation was that very few people said they would not do the gig. Given the amount of memes appearing on my Facebook and Twitter feed that criticise venues expecting musos to play for exposure, I expected many more people to take this stance. But then, I’ll be the first to admit that the Super Bowl is an extreme example.

But on the other hand, where does this end? Festivals? Support spots? Saturday nights at a popular bar? All of these examples can offer expose to certain bands at certain levels, and I’ve personally seen many cases where this has been taken advantage of. So long as there are bands and musos willing to say yes to expose as a form of payment, then there will be gigs that offer it. And if my discussion about the Super Bowl is anything to go by, it would seem this is not about to stop anytime soon.

So why then do musicians on one hand get so irate when a bar or restaurant ask them to work for a free meal and some exposure, but willingly jump at other opportunities? The irony I see is that some of the worst offenders, such as the Super Bowl or international support spots, are the ones that can afford to pay. Yet we as musos we get angry at a bar or restaurant who just like the Super Bowl is hoping that there is mutual benefit for the muso and the venue.

Personally, I believe musos should be paid, and I am always cautious about doing gigs for cheap, let alone free. But I also wouldn’t say no to playing the Super Bowl even if it was for free or at a loss. The fact of the matter is that if Beyonce is willing to do it for free, then I have no choice but to accept that as the going rate.

As musicians we work in an entirely unregulated, capitalist economy. There are no minimum wages, unfair dismissal laws, federal awards, or paid public holidays. We need to rely entirely on the quality of our product and our ability to negotiate. But this means that if every quality band is willing to do a gig for exposure, then you have no choice but to accept this as the going rate.

So perhaps the only way to change the attitude of small business owners who want musicians to work for free is to start saying no to the bigger players. If every international act said no to playing the Super Bowl for free it would force the NFL to pay. Likewise, if mid-level bands started saying no to support and festival sports that are too cheap, it would force promoters to pay properly. This would filter down, and the expectation of what musicians are willing to work for would slowly change. The only way to remove ‘exposure’ as a form of currency is to remove it at all levels.

But I also understand that this vision is, at best, utopic. So perhaps while we wait for musician utopia to arrive, let’s go easy on these small bars and restaurants. I’m not saying take the gig, but either ignore them, because they’re probably crap gigs anyway, or try politely explaining to the business owner that if they want quality musicians to play there, cash is the only currency we’ll deal in.

The writer of this article was not paid for writing it – he did it for exposure, and because it was interesting to research.


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