Jul 2011 12

Next year, 2012, will be my 20th year as a professional musician. Believe it or not, to date, I still get asked to play free gigs. For some of you this might be shocking because you don’t believe that artists should ever be paid in the first place. If that’s your view please visit some other website. My suggestion would be If you however just have an innocent query or you’re an artist who’s been asked to play a free gig read on.

Requests for free gigs come in many forms. Maybe the organizer genuinely has no money, has a limited budget or is just plain greedy. As a policy when we get an enquiry about a gig we avoid blind quoting i.e., a potential client calls up and says ‘How much for Eric to come and play just 2 songs?’ We like to hear more about the gig so that we can tailor our quote according to the needs of the client and the value that we attach to the service. Very often potential clients will call to implore you to ‘just play 2 songs’. First off this 2-song vibe is a joke. Really it’s not a matter of how many songs one plays- one still has to get there, sit through most of the function, listen to the MC crack some really tired jokes, sit in the backstage area and eat the food reserved for ‘crew’ which is generally the worst drivel ever, do the 2 songs in question, get asked for an encore and still have to get oneself home. And if the artist is backed by a band as well that just ups the costs.

The points to ponder are the following:

Does the free gig fit into your vision as an individual? Or Do I like you?
Do you believe in the cause that the organization espouses? Take for example we play a gig in Kariobangi for an organization called Education For Life (EFL) pretty much annually. There was a time when the same organization had put together 4 gigs for us to play in a month at schools bordering or in the slums in and around Eastlands. I played these gigs for free. For me, EFL is playing a huge role in keeping kids from underprivileged neighbourhoods away from the vicious cycle of crime, despondency and disease through mentoring in behaviour change, nurturing of talent, etc. That’s an organization whose ethos is appealing to me. So check! A free gig for as long as they need it.

Can the organization/ individual pay for the costs of the gig? Or can we play ‘at cost’?
Like I mentioned earlier and as I’m sure you’ve observed though your own dealings there will always be costs associated with playing at a gig, even if you’re an A Capella group with no costs for instrumentalists. You still have to get there and people still have to eat. Very often when I’m faced with the ‘play for free’ dilemma I tell the client that we can play at cost. I.e. Pay my band, pay our cab fares, pay for the PA, pay for rehearsals, pay my management company (a nominal fee because at the end of the month the watchman still has to be paid). This allows me to play the gig for a cause that I believe in or an individual that I like (or owe a favour) without burning my fingers in immediate and future seen and unforeseen costs.

Is there any publicity/ future relationships/ future business value? Or what’s in it for me?
OK let’s be honest. While altruism is a good motive to give handouts on the street or at the traffic lights it doesn’t pay the bills and you will be auctioned! Another good measure for the free gig is what you stand to gain. If the CEO of a blue chip company calls you up and says, ‘Hey play this gig. It’s a last minute thing and we have no money,’ don’t sit there thinking ‘Yeah right! You grossed 100 Billion last year and after tax surely you can pay me 100K from your net, dude.’ If it’s the third time he’s asking that year then maybe you can raise a red flag, or an orange one at least. Very often it is plausible that you’re being called at the desperate attempt of an individual whose just trying to spice up the annual Retailers Thank You Dinner, which has all the excitement of a Budget Speech, and really there’s no money for entertainment. You have to remember that the financial director who has to sign off on the gig is a graduate of the College of Boredom and sees no need to breathe let alone dance. In this instance it helps to ask yourself whether any long-term business can be garnered from this interaction. Maybe you can sell some CDs. Maybe you can get into a genuine personal friendship with the individual who called and who’ll be more than happy to be consulted when you tackle the impossible animal that is, say, distribution. Maybe they’ll like you so much that next time when there is a budget they’ll call you because you did them a favour last time.

The publicity thing always gets thrown at you. It happens to me at least three times a year and like I said I’m heading into my 20th year in music and I am a household name, whatever that means. But truthfully when I began my career in 1992 with the A Capella group 5 Alive we played our first 2 years gratis. In fact because we mostly played at churches when we first got offered money we turned it down saying that we were doing it for the Lord. This is allowed when you are 19 and living under your parents’ roof and drinking their tea and eating their bread. In the words of Cedric the Entertainer, ‘I’m a grown ass man, now’. While money isn’t everything it is something. But publicity is still a valid reason to do free shows as I learned with 5 Alive. There was a time we were doing 5 or 6 engagements a weekend. We’d play 2 church weddings on a Saturday, probably a wedding reception or a Church Youth Meeting. Sunday would roll around and we’d do 3 services. Within 2 years we were widely known. Of course this was before the proliferation of commercial radio stations in Kenya. Nowadays if you have a song which falls into the tastes of the programme controller (PC) you’ll be played. Very often though the PC will choose songs that sound like the other songs already being played on their and other stations. So if you don’t fit into their palette, which can sometimes be very narrow, you cannot lose by playing the ‘publicity gig’. It’s how you get known.

So good luck with the free gigs. Weigh it and decide. Never just throw it out. As always it is better to play than not to.


  1. Mike says:

    A difficult subject area and one where one has to strike the right balance. I have been an Equity member (the theatre union) since 1974, and a member of the Musicians Union since “85. I hate to say this but sometimes insisting on getting paid means that nothing gets done. Playing live is a lot easier than entering into recordings. I have been advised to pay the minimum wage for recordings just to avoid future legal wranglings. But then again, as Philip Glass says, don’t moan because you don’t have a place at the table, make your own table.

    You have to create an audience that likes your stuff. Is it only Gods grace that can do that?

  2. Zeruya says:

    I totally enjoyed this article, and learnt a lot. I think you should be publishing some of these articles in the gazeti. Very entertaining reading and informative, :-)

  3. David says:

    Tough.publicity is a great reward.av got gigs 4 money from playing at gigs for free.but at some point,one needs to proffessionalise yo art,hence limiting the number of free gigs acording to what you think wil work for you.

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