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Promotion, Entitlement, or Just Plain Theft? The debate about playing for 'exposure'

Michelle Jones

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Published: August 5, 2014 at 1:17 PM [UTC]

As a musician, I get asked on a daily basis to play somewhere for “exposure” or “promotion.” Whether it is for a charity event, showcase, or grand opening of a location, I have to communicate to the person asking that this is MY CAREER. This is how I pay my bills (mortgage, electricity, insurance, etc.). This is how the musicians that work with me pay their bills. We have studied our entire lives to get to this level, with many years of college, training and experience. We don’t have other “day jobs” as people like to call it. We are not hobby musicians. We are PROFESSIONAL musicians and this is our career. We know that our service and performance is an actual commodity because people do pay for us to do it. It is an actual product. Just like with any “job,” one is trading their time and talent for a paycheck. A musician’s performance is his/her time and their talent, and s/he should receive a paycheck. Our performance IS our product, and just because there is usually no tangible “take away” for the guests at the end of our service does NOT mean that we do it for free. The reason for our service is to provide much more than background music. We are there to create a mood, a feeling, and an engagement of your audience. Live musicians add so much more to any occasion as there is a physical and emotional exchange.

However, with more and more people feeling entitled to getting the best product or service for the cheapest price, I was alarmed when I saw a fellow wedding vendor posted about an inquiry she received for a wedding cake fewer than thirty days in advance, and some of the comments and replies:

Original post on Facebook on August 2, 2014 – republished with permission from Anna Hightower, owner and founder of “Anna Cakes” link to

Anna Cakes: Is this a joke? Lady is asking me for a free wedding cake in exchange for this...
Social Media Outreach:
Of the 170 guests attending, 120 have social media, all of which have a minimum of 200 Facebook friends. The statistical outreach from Facebook alone is intended to reach 24,000 individuals. Considering guests additional social media outlets, including: Twitter and Instagram, the potential outreach of sponsorship logos via images shared is 48,000 individuals.
Sponsorship Marketing:
Each guest will receive a wedding program, this will include the wedding itinerary and sponsors’ logos.
Immediately after the outdoor ceremony, guest will be prompted to take pictures in our “PhotoBooth Station”. This creatively decorated station will automatically take pictures of the guests. All of the guests will be given cards with the URL, of where the images will be available to download. All the images will be placed in a template, the header boarder will read “#(name withheld) Wedding?”, and the footer boarder will list wedding sponsors’ logos.

A few replies/comments:
(name withheld): Glad it's not just photographers that get asked to give away their work for exposure. I told my bank if they eliminated my mortgage I would tweet it out to all my friends - they suggested I use the hashtag ?#homeless, ?#paymenexttime
(name withheld): Sounds like a NASCAR wedding. Will your logo be on the wedding dress?
My reply: Is she also asking guests to pay a door entry fee? Maybe you can negotiate for a take of the door or have a tip jar. Or maybe she can invite cake makers to bring samples of their work for guests to enjoy - like an open mic night. This is how clubs and restaurants treat musicians all the time. Based on her post, I'd say she owns a restaurant and is used to treating vendors like this.

Anna Cakes continues the story and the comments continue. If interested, please read the full story here: link to full story

It amazes me that people seem to think that we as vendors are always looking for the spotlight, and always needing a venue or an event to display our talents. While this may work for some artists, it does not pay my bills.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I give away my time and talents frequently, so frequently that I have received the President’s Volunteer Service Award from the President of the United States. I volunteer for many non-profit and charitable organizations, as well as donate real money, but those opportunities are MY CHOICE. For example, it really is excellent exposure and publicity when I play for a bridal show. They get live talent to help bring and entertain potential brides, while I get face-to-face time with potential clients who will hire and pay me for my services. Another example is meeting planner conventions. I am performing in front of the very people who will recommend me over and over again to their clients who will potentially hire me and my ensembles. Again, this is MY CHOICE. The key difference? I still PAY the musicians who perform with me out of my own pocket! I am paying them for their service. For me, it is a way to showcase my ensembles to the potential clients who will hopefully hire us for future work. But, I do not think my fellow musicians should be required to do it for free every time, too. Yes, there are times that I ask musicians to donate when it is related to charity event, but they are not obligated to do it. They have the right to refuse. As I explain to potential charity clients, I can choose to donate my time, but I cannot ask my fellow musicians to always donate theirs. Just because you are a charity or non-profit does not mean you cannot make a profit.

There are hard expenses in every business, and my work is no exception. Every year, I have to pay for licensing, CGL insurance, accountants, attorneys, taxes, advertising, website, instruments, new equipment, maintenance costs, agent and publicist fees, professional association fees (to even get the work), gas, vehicle and maintenance costs, sheet music, licensing fees when we play cover songs, computers, software, office supplies, phone service and internet access (most clients use e-mail or phone to book you), self-employment taxes, health and workman’s comp insurance (did I mention all the types of insurance I am required to carry?), rehearsal space, union dues, batteries (we go through 28 AA batteries EVERY show), strings, performance clothes, technicians to run and maintain the equipment, dry cleaning (for performance clothes), stage makeup, hair and personal upkeep expenses (we are expected to look professional, and that costs money and time), and many other things too numerous to list. As much as I would love to barter my services for most of these items, the reality is that I would be laughed out into the street if I tried to pay the IRS this way. My mortgage company only cares about cash.

With any “job,” one is trading their time and talents for money. With that money, one pays for housing and other living expenses. If there is extra money, then one can add some extras in life, including giving back to the community. Whether their gifts are of money or their time, it is their choice and should not be expected. One should always expect to pay for anytime they are asking someone to do something for them when it is their career and livelihood. One cannot assume that a performer only desires the spotlight so much so that s/he is willing to do it gratis. This has always been an issue in the performing arts, but it disheartens me to see the spread of this entitlement mentality across other professions, too.

In short summary, you have to make the decision and set guidelines for yourself. If the event is really a right-fit for promotional opportunities, then you should consider it. Weigh the benefits against your hard costs. Also, keep in mind if you actually want to work with this client; those who request so much for free are usually the most difficult with whom to work. If it’s one where the client thinks they should get something for nothing beneficial to you in return (especially no guarantee for future work), then it really is just plain theft.

I invite you to read more entries about my experiences in the music business at this link

Posted on August 5, 2014 at 7:56 PM
I have dealt with this also for years, and it's not just musicians, as you have pointed out. There just seems to be a mindset in this country that what artists do isn't "real", that it is not worth paying for, that we are weak and somehow second-class as people, therefore it is okay to treat us badly and make ridiculous demands that no one in their right mind would accept.

Following Nancy Reagan, I just say "no" a lot! All kidding aside, unfortunately, since there are no boundaries set up in the treatment of pro artists on this side of the Atlantic, we have to set them up ourselves.

I actually had a woman demand that I audition for her, to play for free at her wedding, that I was doing as a gift! Wow. 'Nuff said.

From Paul Deck
Posted on August 5, 2014 at 10:41 PM
You do a gig pro bono, and yeah, you get publicity. You get known for accepting pro bono gigs. They multiply like rabbits.
From Michael Baumgardner
Posted on August 6, 2014 at 2:54 AM
I hear this from a lot of professionals besides just the music world. Honestly, it sounds like whining to me. If you don't want to play then simply decline. Why act all uppity and offended about it? Some people simply have poor etiquette or don't realize they are imposing. The other reality is that many will participate for exposure so it's hard to blame some people for asking. Either way, the ire should be directed at fellow musicians who offer services for free. You usually get what you pay for though.
From Barry Nelson
Posted on August 6, 2014 at 4:09 AM
Its not just in the music world Michelle, when I used to be a mechanic people thought for some reason Id rather work on their cars at my house on my weekends off for less money. I put a stop to it by explaining that with out lifts,air tools, a climate controlled shop, etc, that I should charge double as it was more work
Posted on August 6, 2014 at 7:55 AM
I think free entertainment online we get means that people don't value real life performances, or artwork, or food for that matter. Why would you go to a concert when you can watch it for free on YouTube? The internet age is hitting hard against those who set their career on the fine arts path...
Posted on August 6, 2014 at 12:51 PM
It's not just in the music world. I'm an attorney, I was $120,000 in debt out of law school. So many people expect u to do pro bono work, but really? How do u expect me to pay my student loans, living expenses, office expenses, taxes, etc if I work for free? People think nothing of saying " hey , I have a quick question for u" which inevitably leads to free legal advice . I spent long hard years studying to earn that knowledge,, y do people think I should give it for free? I do many times, but by my choice.
From Michelle Jones
Posted on August 6, 2014 at 2:19 PM
To the first poster (sorry, there was only a string of numbers in place of a name): I agree! We are offering a service based on our expertise, education and experience. This is not unlike any other job where one trades their time for a paycheck. It comes down to the perception. As to your wedding story, that's a terrible experience! I'm so sorry that happened.

Paul - you are absolutely correct! If you play for $50, then you have set your worth. If you play for free, then that's your worth, too, and word spreads. As I said, certain charity work is always excluded, but it has to be my choice to say yes or no.

Michael - you bring up a great point! I believe that many people honestly don't realize the imposition when they ask. And you are also correct that there is a problem with musicians playing for free that are diminishing the opportunities for paid work for others. "You usually get what you pay for though." - Well said!!!!

Barry - wow! You also make a great point! It is a challenge to do your job without the proper tools. Just like on a gig, one needs the proper equipment for the job. It has happened where I have shown up for an "acoustic" gig and was expected to have amplification equipment (although it was NEVER mentioned in the contract or any correspondence.) I had offered it to them in our initial discussions and clearly specified the price with it, and they said "no, just acoustic." So we signed the contract with these specifications. Not only was it more work to play to be heard, they actually expected me to go home and get it. I said "not without an additional fee." I played acoustic. Again, examples of where people expect something for nothing.

Posted on August 6, 2014 at 2:20 PM
This why I got out of photography. Everyone wants it for free. They don't appreciate that it took thousands of hours of training, and experience and the cost of the equipment that you have that makes you worth using. The "it'll get you a lot of exposure" is usually not the kind of exposure you want and its not affective. And even then, they end up being the worst "clients" as the free stuff is just never enough.
Posted on August 6, 2014 at 3:40 PM
Up here in Canada, you can die from exposure!
From Josh Cohen
Posted on August 10, 2014 at 6:56 PM
I recall a Haiku-ish poem I once read (my apologies for not being able to cite the author!):

"The Wedding Reception"
These hors d'oeuvres, superb!
the reception, elegant!
you think we underbid the gig?

From Michelle Jones
Posted on August 12, 2014 at 12:54 PM
@Josh - ROFL!!!! Perfect!!!!

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