This rarely happens, but I got carried away responding to a social media post recently.
In a nutshell, a local organization was posting a call for musicians to perform during a 4-hour time slot. So far so good. Then they said, “Unfortunately, we don't have the funds to pay any of the musical acts. But you get to keep 100% of your tips and we will promote you on [our social media.]” Also known as exposure.
Now, I am pretty even-minded most of the time, but this got me riled up.
I finally found the words I wanted to share (and maybe not directed at the people you would initially expect).
Here’s what I posted, slightly edited and expanded….
There's a lot to unpack here. I think it's a conversation worth having in an ongoing way.
My personal opinion is that expecting musicians to perform for free, for tips, or “exposure” is a culturally-accepted attitude that needs to change.
Assuming musicians would agree to this kind of arrangement has the unspoken message, “I don’t think what you offer is worth paying for, but I want you to do it anyway. And you should thank me for giving you this opportunity.”
Think of the full emotional impact of saying that to someone’s face. It’s devastating, right?
You wouldn’t want someone to say that to you. That may not be the message the event planner intended, but it’s frequently the message received.
Do this instead, event planners: If your organization really doesn't have a large budget, but you want music at your event, treat a musician just like any other business vendor or sponsor. Acknowledge the value and underlying benefits musicians would bring to the event and negotiate with them in good faith about the budget you do have.
Unfortunately, after years of musicians being asked to perform for free, tips, or exposure, sometimes fed misinformation that this is the only way to “get discovered,” many musicians have internalized the message that their talents are worthless. Or worse, it instills a misbelief that they are worthless and sends them into a shame spiral.
Navigating a career in music can be quite emotional, yet there is little to no training to learn how to handle situations like this.
Musicians who are looking at this "gig" from feelings of financial scarcity and perhaps real need (i.e. "I need whatever cash I can get to make rent."), are basically in fight, flight or freeze mode physiologically. They are in survival mode– and we don't make great decisions from that state.
I also think musicians don't always take stock of all the time, money, and effort they've invested into developing their talent and craft. For most of us, it's years and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in private lessons, gear, practice time, competitions, schooling, ongoing education, plus years of experience actually performing and refining our craft. Think of it as self-funded capital you’ve put into your business.
Your talents add real economic impact for the organizations that want you to perform. Music acts like a magnet and brings people in and keeps people at events and venues.
While there are specific circumstances where you might choose to donate your time and talent, it’s not right for others to assume you would do so.
An analogy might be: A chef (professional or otherwise) has invested time, money, and dedication to learn their skills. They feed people. They love to feed people. It takes time to put meals together. All the ingredients to make that meal cost that chef their personal money.
When an organization asks that chef to bring their food and feed the people that come through that event, it’s commonly recognized that the chef is providing a service with inherent value (economically and personally). Depending on the relationship with that organization, that chef may well decide to donate their services and food to the event. They might be considered an in-kind sponsor and get those benefits accordingly.
Musicians deserve to be treated with the same respect as other business owners.
I’m sure there are many contributing factors over many years that have led to this generalized attitude towards devaluing musicians and why musicians buy into it.
No matter how this widespread mindset came about, we can work together to change it.
If you're a professional musician, please don't perform for free, just tips, or exposure. It makes it harder for the musicians who are trying to charge livable artist fees and get sustainable income.
Additionally, you (unconsciously) reinforce the idea that this way of devaluing musicians is okay... and it's not.
You teach people how to treat you.
Personally, I think many of us are tired of arguing for the value of our work, which because of the personal nature of our work, can feel like arguing for our own value. And that can really do a number on your self-esteem and mental health... especially after years and years.
Now, I don't think we should shame others who want music at their events without paying them.
However, I think we need to bolster ourselves as a professional music community, adhere to higher standards ourselves, and re-educate people and organizations who make unreasonable and unsustainable asks from musicians (who are self-employed small business owners). Or just say “no” politely if you're not up for a deeper conversation.
If you wish you could have those courageous conversations, but feel uncomfortable doing so, or need help finding the words or confidence to do it, I would love to help.
As you can tell, I feel very strongly about this topic!
As a music and arts professional with training in psychology, and as a performer myself, I want to help change hearts and minds to start valuing music (and music professionals) more.
We deserve better. We can change the narrative.
Yes, broader society needs re-education, but musicians have to own their value, too... and arguably, first.
Cheri Jamison is an Arts & Nonprofit Management Professional with over 10 years of experience in strategic planning, streamlining operations and community outreach. As a Renaissance woman with a diverse skill-set, Cheri is known for her ability to spearhead new initiatives and bring visionary projects to life.