A lot of folks will tell you that you should value your art and that in a psychological sense, when you give something away for free, people value it less. That’s a nice arm-chair philosophy, but the reality is that music, and even live music, is everywhere all the time and most people don’t have to pay very much (if anything) to get it. People like to think of “market value” as some evil political term that shouldn’t be thrown around with something sacred like art, but even art has to face economic realities. By opening yourself up to playing for free you reach a huge group of people that would have never heard your music.
It’s important to think of playing free as an investment, not as a waste of time and fruitless labor. Free shows can produce money from merchandise and can add addresses to your email list. Most importantly, it starts word of mouth promotion and gives people a “risk free” trial of your band. The whole “support the arts” movement is fine and dandy, but people only support the arts after they find something they believe in/are excited about – you can’t guilt people into coming to your show.
Let’s imagine you’re a quirky electronic artist in NYC and Modeselektor is coming to town but they have no openers touring with them. Your band has a decent following, but so do 20 other bands like you. Naturally, the competition for opening act slots is going to be fierce, but if you are willing to play the gig for free, the promoter can relax a bit and worry about meeting the headliners guarantee. We’ve seen this technique effectively used at some of the biggest venues in NYC. After you’ve built up some more clout and proven yourself at a large venue, you can easily begin asking for a little money, but wait until you’ve shown the promoter something before getting on your high horse.
Free is never actually “free” – it’s a sample of what you can do and an investment in attracting future fans and drawing in revenue.