Should musicians ever work for free?

Village_SmurphonyIt’s been a couple of weeks but I’m back and ready to answer a question on a hotly debated topic.

Should musicians ever work for free?

I got an email from a reader the other day with a great question about this:

Unpaid gigs. Mainly, in my experience, these have come in the form of community orchestras. What’s your take on these? I’m a trumpet player, so sometimes these have the perk of being able to say I performed the principal part on some great work, but not always. Do you take the gigs as opportunities to perform potentially new rep and make connections, or should all professional musicians simply refuse to take free gigs since that actually makes the overall pay vs. no-pay gig situation worse? I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

Do any of these questions sound familiar to you?

If so, don’t feel bad because I spent years with similar questions.

This can be a pretty controversial, but I’m actually a HUGE fan of doing strategic free work.

Notice I said strategic free work.

When done right, working for free can actually be an extremely valuable (and profitable).

I’ll explain that in just a moment, but first I want to tell you my one rule for doing free work:

If you can see a way that free work could lead to paid work (even if indirectly) then it is worth considering.

Each opportunity is unique and there’s no magic bullet of an answer to this question, but I can assure free work can be extremely valuable if done right.

So what do I mean when I say “strategic free work”?

Here are some examples of strategically working for free:

  • Giving a free lesson to a prospective student.
  • Playing an event through an event planner in exchange for a few referrals to some of their colleagues or clients.
  • Volunteering to play a wedding so that you can get pictures and a recording for promotional use to get other wedding gigs.
  • Playing in a group where you will have the opportunity to meet other freelancers, or even better, people that do contracting!
  • Interning with a teaching program so you can get real experience for your resume

Here are some bad examples of free work…

  • Playing for a one-time event that has no promise of actually hiring you later on
  • Anything from Craiglist that promises “exposure”.  Exposure to what?  If you can’t clearly see the benefit then don’t even bother.

Make sense?

I know free work is valuable because it’s the exact strategy I used to go from being a music school graduate working in a parking garage to a busy freelance musician, a teaching artist for several organizations including The Philadelphia Orchestra, and eventually the Marketing Manager for The Philly POPS with a lucrative side-business doing freelance marketing.

Now I want to hear from you.  What have your experiences been with free work?

I’ll answer any questions you post in the comments below.