From time to time, bands are approached by various entities and asked to play for free.  The pitch is sometimes “for exposure.”  Sometimes nonprofits will ask for bands to donate their time.

Here’s the thing.  Our band is an actual business.  It’s registered as an LLC with the Secretary of State of Colorado; we are a small business with taxes and payments to service providers just like your accountant or web designer.  We are not hobbyists; we are people with music degrees and the student loans to prove it.  There is a tendency out there to think of musicians in a band as slackers with no real goals.  But we have real revenue projections, a marketing strategy, etc.

This is for real.

So this is the email we got today.

I work with (a weekly publication). We are looking for a group to play for our Best of Boulder East County party on (an upcoming date). The event is taking place at (big NoCo venue)  and the set length is around 45 minutes. While we can not compensate with money, we are offering free ad space in the (weekly publication). On top of that, you would be playing for some of the most recognized East County restaurants, businesses, services, etc.

I queried a little about what other intangibles they were offering, like an EP or show review, whether they would assist with booking opportunities with the “restaurants and businesses,” etc.

There was a nebulous promise to do some of those things, not all.

After attempting to get a few more details, my response was:

After giving it a whole lot of thought, I’m going to decline.

The trade-offs for the band aren’t there, in exchange for what we’d be giving, especially since some of us would be driving from Denver. Long story short, it will cost us money to participate, with no reasonable return on investment, not even in publicity that would actually be helpful to growing our following.

We played a full round of paid shows this year. We have a robust marketing program, which includes a strong email list in the NoCo area. We have invested a considerable amount of resources and time to get to this point.

Respectfully, as an aside, are the other services providers, like caterers and the bar, also donating their services and supplies? It’s something to consider.

Thanks again for the offer, and I hope your event goes off without a hitch.

You see, we started this band because we truly believe in the adage that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.  Many of you have the same philosophy; we have met many of you that flip houses, make artisanal foods, raise goats, sell real estate…all because you decided to get out of the rat race and simply do what makes you happy.  We’re happy too, and we think it shows up in our music.  And I know that many of you have been asked to do things for free too, and that just like us, you’re happy to help, but it also has to be mutually beneficial.

Does this mean we’ll never do anything for charity?  No.  We have donated show proceeds to the Red Cross when Louisiana was hit by flood waters, as well as for Northern Colorado, we’ve collected food and supplies and donations for victims of the Black Forest fires outside Colorado Springs and are dues-paying members of area community radio stations.  Heck, we’ve played the People’s Fair two years running, and CHUN is a nonprofit too.  There is always more to do, and we’re ready to take up the challenge.  But just like your business, there needs to be a good reason why we forgo generating revenue, and there’s only so much you can write off.

Playing too many shows for free means we don’t pay household bills.  It’s that simple.

Let’s be clear: this request didn’t come from a charity.  It’s a privately-held, for-profit company that is trying to get advertising business from the party attendees.  That’s fine, but that company should recognize what a real win-win looks like.  Is it always about pay?  No.  In a sense, they should be looking at the participation of bands like sponsorships.  Sponsors get something for their contribution.

What were they offering?  At the end, it was a free ad (may or may not be to our target audience) some free food, but NO drinks.  The cost-benefit analysis didn’t make sense.

I’m bringing this up because this sort of thing happens all the time, and oftentimes the public doesn’t realize it.  But you should be aware, so that you can make a decision about how you will support the local small businesses that get you grooving.  If they’re playing a free show, maybe pick up a CD or make a point to see another show and leave a tip.  Or maybe even let the venue/event planner know your thoughts on marketplace fairness.  Or just talk to the performers and find out what’s up.

Thanks for listening.


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