I wish that this were a pleasant, informative post about the power of interconnectedness and positive intentions. Of course, those things are great and have their place. In fact, those are probably more important topics than this, but I do have something to say on this topic right now. I do support–however much it goes against our societal conditioning–a cooperative, harmonious view of interconnectedness. The foundations of such a cooperative (as opposed to competitive) approach are reverence for our environment (surroundings, the place we are) and respect for our fellow creatures: humans included. It is this respect facet that I am hoping to shine some light on here.
Other musicians have blogged about their experiences and reactions to being asked to perform for no pay, a phenomena ever on the rise, so I hope to not cover the same ground here (for instance this blog article by LA woodwind performer Dave Goldberg has an excellent viewpoint, emphasizes respect, and makes suggestions for change–and this rejoiner about that article). In particular, I share that article as a way of showing the general climate in which musicians are navigating their careers. Personally, after 20 years of playing all kinds of venues, I have retired from performing in drinking establishments with a stage (or area for musicians and gear). This is a personal choice, the details of which are covered in a separate post, but they are many (details, that is), and an endemic lack of respect for artists and performers is at the core of this head-scratching topic: when did the idea of asking performers to perform for “free” first arise?
That is also beyond the scope of this post. Really, what I am attempting to state here is a simple 3-fold model. There are no “unpaid gigs” anymore than there are “non-wet beverages.” It’s an impossibility that surpasses the meaning of the word “oxymoron.” You cannot play an unpaid gig any more than you can digest uneaten food. According to Wikipedia, “gig” might have originated as short for “engagement” meaning work for performances of a temporary but agreed upon amount of time: essentially, temporary work. There is no “work” without compensation. This is where terms such as “donation” come into play. So without any further ado, here is my 3-fold model of Performance Engagement Categories (for musicians):
1) a gig. This is where you perform at a certain time and place for a certain amount of compensation
2) a low-paying gig. This is where you perform at a certain event that might be hosted by friends or colleagues, and you have worked out a special rate and/or items in trade. It is an important factor in this scenario that likely the host has donated some portion of their time and energy to aid in improving your life in some way, so there are likely to be valid compensatory invisibles [not sure if that's, like, an economics phrase or not, but it should be. Although it is the very rabbit hole that most musicians working for "free" have fallen into: they have been promised speculative, purely fictional compensatory invisibles such as "exposure" which is like a con wherein the non-paying booker is trading on myths of "being discovered" or other such legends and folktales of a bygone age.]
3) a benefit. This is where you and everyone else involved donates some amount of time, service or actual money in order to raise money or awareness for a specific organization or cause by collaborating on an event. This is NOT: throw a party for which there is no real planning or budget and ask some musicians you like to play for free because you are already disgruntled at having to spend your own money for the food and drink. That is, at best, poor planning, and at worst, disrespectful.