In the recent articles I wrote, Why Gigs Without Pay Will Always Exist, 8 Reasons Every Artist “Should” Work for Free and 9 Lessons Artist-preneurs can learn from Oprah & Revolva, I speak about gigging and the inevitable reality of especially newer artists and/or non professional artists working for no or low wages. While I’m in full support of people making the right choice for them, some questions lately have come up about the idea of being “taken advantage of” including this question:
I was told the event is to be benefiting a local charity for women and children and that I would not be paid. Is this normal? Is the trade of promotion usually what “pays” in this situation? I dont want to be taken advantage of.
While there are legitimate reasons to take a gig for free, as an entrepreneur, focusing on the money will help you significantly. As you’re considering the gig, it may be useful to ask yourself these 15 questions to help you determine if others are are attempting to take advantage of you if you’re considering doing a gig pro bono.
- Will it be fun? If you know you’re not going to have fun and you’ll resent having performed afterward, don’t bother. Be sure to imagine how you’ll feel after the gig as completely as possible so you can have a real sense of the impact of the gig on you from beginning to end, not just during the performance when the fun is happening. Consider all the setup, prep and cleanup you need to do and weigh that into the equation when considering fun.
- Do I want to do the gig? Sometimes gigs are in cool places, for cool companies or are with good friends and you really just want to do the gig which can often motivate actually booking it. If you feel called to do the gig, there may be something in it for you that’s worthy of donating your time. Similarly, if you don’t want to do the gig, consider carefully why, if you’re not getting paid, you’re expending your energy focused on this opportunity instead of generating others.
- How significant will the experience gained be? This is a tough one to measure and really is more about your perceived growth through the process than anything else since you can’t really know in advance. If you knew how much you’d grow, you probably would already have the lessons the gig has to offer and if that’s the case, free is likely not your best choice.
- Will I go somewhere I’ve never been before? Sometimes a location is enough to be enticing and draw you to a gig. Weigh that out against everything else: how important is the location to you? A gig where you break even but get to travel somewhere you’d like to go may very well feel like a fabulous investment of your time, particularly if you can tie it to another opportunity (business or pleasure).
- Will it be a new type of audience I’ve never experienced before? There are times when access to a new type of client makes it worthwhile to do a gig for lower pay, though, unless you’re good at sales and are going to follow up in a rigorous manner, this particular point is likely to be misleading for many people. When promoters/event producers claim you’ll have access to new folks, ask them if there’s an opportunity to meet them face-to-face which is a key part of the value. It’s difficult to do a sales pitch without a face-to-face. Along with this, make sure you’ve spent some time working on your elevator pitch so you know what to say when the opportunity does present itself.
- Will I perform in a venue I’m interested in experiencing? As question 4 asks on a larger scale, this question focuses on access to a particular venue. For example, I donated time in Union Square for my first performance there because it gave me access to the stage, the crew running it and generally had me sponsored into a space that would have otherwise been more difficult to gain access. Without that, I’m not sure I ever would have held the Fire Dancing Expo so this point is relevant if it serves your end goals.
- Will it involve collaboration I’ve never done before? Collaboration can come in many forms: with artists, organizations, activist groups, your city, multiple organizations and even more possibilities. For example, I’ve collaborated with specific Meetup groups and through these, have gained access to other people who have become long standing colleagues.
- What are the quantifiable things I will gain in terms of exposure? Exposure is a great concept and often doesn’t work out in the artist’s favor. The best way to ensure you get something from the idea of exposure is to make agreements articulating what you’d like for your efforts. Make the goals clear, measurable and meaningful so you actually get some value from the exposure.
- What additional opportunities can I create from this? In addition to the possibility of being introduced to a venue or new potential clients, consider if you might get some costume pieces, quality footage and/or photos. Some of my best gains have come from unexpected places and working these possibilities can add value where cash isn’t available.
- Has the client demonstrated trustworthiness? Regardless of the cause, I find it hard to support people who haven’t demonstrated trustworthiness. If the person asking you to donate your time doesn’t do what they say they will do, is constantly changing things and/or isn’t treating you in a way that feels honorable, dump them like poison — because that’s what the situation is likely to become if you stick around — poisonous.
- Do I find myself in this same situation all the time and complain about it? This may actually be a huge clue about your choices and is a good measure of how you honor yourself — or don’t. If you find yourself making deals with the wrong people and feeling like you got the short straw time and time again, this is definitely a sign to reconsider your situation and likely make different choices.
- Do I feel like I deserve more? Am willing to ask for it? It’s not uncommon for people to feel like they deserve more but also feel shy about asking for what they think they ought to get. If you can’t command more money because you’re not wiling to ask for it, how can you expect client’s to treat you with the respect you want since you can’t even do that for yourself? Remember, you generally have very little to lose giving up a free gig and if you can’t practice asking when it doesn’t count, you’ll have a harder time asking when it does.
- Am I willing to say ‘no’ because I believe I can find something better? Although we don’t always keep this in mind, it’s a great thing to consider when weighing the pros and cons of doing a free gig: Sometimes we have to say no to something good in service of saying yes to something awesome. If you’re too busy doing a free gig, when will you find time to do a higher paying gig?
- Am I afraid that by saying no I’ll miss out on a good opportunity? This question is difficult to assess without emotion, though it’s a worthy query. Listen so your gut sense on this and see how well it serves you. I’ve taken lower paying gigs that ended up being great opportunities for something better and were completely worth it as a result. Am I afraid that by saying yes I’ll miss out on a different, better opportunity? Just like the last two questions, if you have multiple opportunities on the line, it’s important to consider if accepting one will make it impossible to accept another, perhaps better opportunity. It may be that you have two low or no paying gigs being offered the same day. When that happens — and it does — first see if you can work out your schedule to accommodate both opportunities. If you can’t, again, listen to your intuition and consider all the factors so you can feel as confident as possible about your expenditure of time.
- Are the promoters making money because of me and not sharing any of that money with me? Are they paying other artists and not paying me? While it may not be immediate grounds for saying ‘no’ to a gig, if you answer ‘yes’ to either of these questions, take a moment to pause and consider why you’d want to do the gig if they are making money off you and not sharing the wealth. There may be a legitimate reason, like a fundraiser, where 100% of the profit goes to a cause to which you feel called to contribute. The key thing to consider here is that though the event is making money, the promoters are not — they are giving the proceeds away. That’s different than only 10% of the funds going to the cause and the rest goes in their pocket. Remember: Ask smart questions so you can make smarter choices.
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