Pricing a Gig: When Do I Do A Gig for Free?

Posted on June 17, 2013 by


Pricing a PerformanceMonday morning here again and the conversation has once again turned to pricing a gig. This time the hot topic seems to be the age old question of: When do I do a gig for free?

While there are some who come from the rather militant perspective of, “never!” our answer here at Temple of Poi is the less clear and more subjective answer of, “it depends.” And that is, of course, the challenge with the question.

In the end, the answer to the question is very, very personal and all about your perceived opportunity when you’re not getting cash. The choices I make now, 11.5 years in to being a full time fire dancing professional vs the choices someone new to the ranks of being a professional are based on very different criteria. I mean, at some point after doing this for 7 years I just got a little more jaded and practical and a lot less willing to really give it away.

I hardly think my hardened attitude is appropriate for someone just out of the gate and I would hate for people to use my specific criteria when I didn’t use this criteria 10 years ago either. At the same time, perhaps some of the general criteria I use will help other’s understand what to consider when entertaining the idea of giving away a performance.

For me, the answer to this question really focuses on a different and more hidden question: for what reason(s) would I want to do a gig free?

And the answers to that question have focused on four major areas:

  • experience – don’t have any and I want some
  • opportunity – could lead to more things or other compensation that is not cash and equally valuable
  • desire – sounds fun and I want to have fun, plus I get to hang out with my friends and get a cool experience while doing that which is way too cool to not do
  • act of service – to contribute to the world because, let’s face it, it feels good to do things that are in service of others

While I gave a short little blurb above, here’s a deeper look at each of these 4 ideas.

Experience: The reality is, until you have experience you probably don’t feel confident enough to get a gig. At the same time, if you don’t feel confident enough to get a gig, how can you get the experience that has you feel confident enough to charge money to do it? It’s a very chicken-egg conundrum and if you’re facing this now, then you are not alone!

Every artist goes through this. It is a sort of coming of age experience that is, I dare say, a requirement of becoming a professional.

There are people out there that have said to me, “if you don’t feel confident enough to charge money you shouldn’t be performing!” Personally, I think that statement is absurd and fails to account for the very logical progression of a performer wherein an artist starts from nothing with zero experience, just like a baby being born. Nothing replaces experience. No amount of reading or storytelling will ever help you have the felt experience in your body of knowing you actually can go out there and do a gig. The value of experience itself is undeniable.

More than that, it is subjective. Sure, at some point you need to man up, even if you’re a woman, and decide, “I’m a professional and I deserve compensation for what I’m doing!” And, even after you man up, there are still other reasons why you might take a gig for zero cash.

Opportunity: While lots of promoters will try to sell you on the opportunity created by doing one gig and how it might lead to this and that other thing that might happen in the future, the real value of performance opportunities often is not about what the promoter is saying at all. When we consider opportunity we are looking at a variety of factors like:

  • will we get in front of clients who we might otherwise not connect with?
  • will we be at a venue that we are dying to check out?
  • is the event itself so fun that we want to be included just to say we did it?
  • is there a marketing opportunity that is worth more than the cash? (i.e., our name and URL getting cross linked on a site where we might otherwise never have access)
  • will there be exposure — perhaps live media — that presents and opportunity for us to get footage we might otherwise not be able to get?

All of these things are difficult to measure. None of them actually feed you right now, and yet, all of them might help feed you later in one way or another.

Desire: There are times when the gig itself seems so utterly awesome you just don’t care about the money associated with it. I remember the first time this happened for me, which was a gig for a Panasonic Car Stereo commercial I did back in 2002. I took the gig because I thought the opportunity was just too awesome and to have “Panasonic” on my resume as a client was a great thing. More than that, I had negotiated a deal to get their footage to use as part of my promo materials which, at the time, was far better than anything I could have gotten because back then video wasn’t really digital yet. As good as both of those reasons were, I simply wanted to be part of the project — it seemed like a super cool thing to do and, in the end, it was pretty fun.

Knowing what I know now and with the years of experience I have under my belt, the criteria I used then wouldn’t be enough for me to say yes today. I’ve been part of tons of cool projects, I’ve worked on several videos since then and in the end, I was on video for under 10 seconds so the exposure itself really wasn’t very much of a big deal.

I would never have known that unless I’d taken the chance and experienced the gig. I’m glad I did it even if I wouldn’t do it today.

I share because desire is extremely personal and likely to change through time. What works today might not even work tomorrow, which is why when you’re doing things from a place of desire, make sure that desire runs deep enough to get you through to the last performance you are arranging because the last thing you really want to do is show up at a gig hating what you’re doing. You got into this because you love it, right? Keep loving it by ensuring if you’re doing it for free, you truly desire to be doing it for free.

Act of Service: There is nothing in the world like doing service for your fellow human kind. All we ever truly have to give is ourselves — our time, energy and attention. You might say, “what about money?” To which I’d say, “Money is merely stored value — something created from your previous output of time, energy and attention.” In the end, the gift of you is all you really have to offer. Offer wisely.

When you choose to give of yourself that can feel really good. Unless you are giving of yourself and don’t really want to. That can feel like a real drain. I refer you back to point three: be sure you truly desire to give of yourself and act in service of others.

That said, I believe the world would be a better place if we all actively gave 10% of our wealth — through a combination of our cash, time, energy and attention — back to the rest of the world. I will therefore do gigs as acts of service to fulfill what I consider to be my community service contribution to the world.

And that, like everything else here, is a very personal choice.

After weighing out all these different thoughts and considering the experience as a whole, the actual criteria I use for figuring out if I’m willing to do a gig for free is this:

  • First, I consider the gig in my mind’s eye. I imagine everything it will take from the moment of gig inquiry until the moment I am back in my space with my makeup off, gig successfully completed.
  • I then analyze how that all felt in my minds eye.
  • If it feels like a drain or a drag in any way, then I know I’m not really honoring myself.
  • If, on the other hand, I think about it an my energy shoots up, I will consider doing the gig for free.

In a more esoteric kind of way, I’d say the answer really is: “Use the force, Luke.” Though, maybe you’re name’s not Luke and maybe, somehow, you don’t get that reference to Star Wars.

In which case, the translation is, “Trust your gut and tap into your intuition.” Because your intuition will be with you every day of your life and that skill is invaluable, far beyond the simple question presented here.

And really, don’t worry about what you choose. Either you do the gig or you don’t. Either it goes well or it doesn’t. No matter what happens though, you have learned something and that experience will only help you more as you continue to explore the professional performance opportunities that are out there.

Written by Temple of Poi Founder, GlitterGirl, who offers group and individual coaching to artists of all levels both locally and remotely. If you’re looking to expand your reach, grow your business and invest in coaching to support your process, contact GlitterGirl directly at GlitterGirlTempleOfPoicom to set up a consultation.