Thursday, August 31, 2023
Thursday, August 03, 2023
‘Twas ever thus – a tale as old as time - somebody well-meaning puts out feelers on Facebook to see if there are any bands prepared to play for no money, but good exposure, and is swamped in the subsequent pile-on from justifiably annoyed creatives who point out in varying terms of kindliness how you can’t trade exposure for groceries*. The reaction tends to be especially more energetic when the hosts are charging eight quid on the door or, in the case of one country show** I performed at, invoicing traders sixty quid a metre of stall front, plus electricity. It’s all very well claiming they’re providing footfall and merch opportunities, but they’re also advertising your services on the poster in order to entice paying customers.
And there – just in that paragraph above – is the rub. Yes, I performed at The East Anglian Country Show. It was a nice day out, I was with friends, and the joy of an unpaid gig is that you can do what the hell you want. Any teenage dirtbands invited to an unpaid genteel pub garden beer festival gig should, in my opinion, pitch up in full fishnet and death’s-head make up and play a set of Extreme Noise Terror covers, no matter what genre they usually perform. We happened to do some genteel East Angliacana, as I have at Ipswich Music Day, The Cornbury Festival, The Kelvedon Community Festival, Maverick and countless radio sessions and open mic nights, so I’m not about to start scrabbling around for two sharps, two flats and a packet of gravel with which to cast about my glass house, galling as it is to know that the car park attendant at many of these events is earning more than you are. To be honest, the portable toilets are earning more than you, and they don’t even have to dress up in a hi-viz tabard.
On the other hand, there’s that marvellous faux-personal ad regarding a dinner party that someone is planning for the weekend and how it would be a splendid opportunity for a chef to demonstrate their talent as many of the guests would tell their friends about the food and maybe even post it on Instagram. Sadly, the ad concludes, the host cannot afford to actually pay for the years of experience and practice their cook will have employed, the kitchen implements they’ll have to bring, or indeed the food, as the budget is a bit tight. Show me a musician who’s played a wedding and I’ll show you someone who has been asked if they can do it a bit cheaper. I frankly wouldn’t swear the same about a caterer, a florist or dressmaker.
It's a tricky conundrum – and very much one that seems to principally concern those of a musical bent, to whatever degree. “You can play here but you have to sell X number of tickets/fill a coach” is a familiar refrain from the last century, whereas its modern equivalent seems to be “Songwriting Competition – Get Your Song Heard by Nashville Legends!” and then in extraordinarily small print somewhere on the third page you*** click through to “Only ten dollars to enter” by which time you’ve got more cookies swarming over your hard drive than at Sesame Street Sid’s birthday party. It’s the sort of approach that starts with Learn Guitar for Fun and Pleasure and ends with you**** being advised by the government to retrain in IT.
It's a rum old conundrum and no mistake, and I don’t think I’ve got all the answers. As a result of playing some of those unpaid gigs I mentioned earlier I’ve shared a bottle opener with Robert Plant’s road crew, won a shiny silver trophy I keep at my Mum’s house, been introduced to Peter Buck, blagged more free pints than I could shake a gnarly old stick at and, on one notable occasion, met the present Mrs. Kirk. All I will say is, that if someone you don’t know asks you to play a show for nothing, then that’s what they think you’re worth. And you’re better than that.
*Don’t get me wrong – I was there front and centre with my passive-aggressively flaming torch and freshly buffed pitchfork
**in agrarian terms rather than the boot-scootin’ musical genre.
***You, not me.
****Me, not you.