Performing for Exposure. A performer's practical guide to considering free gigs because exposure is how one dies from the elements.

Performing for Exposure - Melinda Massie

Performers (and anyone else who offers a service really) are regularly asked to perform for free.

Or worse...the dreaded "exposure."

You know how it goes. Someone excitedly emails or calls you with this fantastic opportunity until…

"Unfortunately we don't have a budget, but you'll get a lot of exposure."

Those who have been around me before knows what I have to say about that:

Exposure is how one dies from the elements.

Few things make me angrier than people trying to take advantage of artists. However, that's a rant for another day.

Many of us, including myself, grapple over if we should take a free gig or not.

After all, sometimes these gigs can be long as it's properly beneficial for all parties involved.


(Note: Volunteering is good, and yes, non-profits ask for freebies all the time. I'm not saying any of that is bad. It's not. However, one must balance paid and unpaid time because rent. And food. And champagne. #asyoudo)

Here are questions to consider to determine if that free gig is right for you:

If they're offering a barter, is what you’d receive as payment something you'd pay for? If so, this can be a good trade. If not, you're not actually saving an expense elsewhere so you’re still working for free with no fair monetary balance.

One exception is if this is something you've always wanted to try but wouldn’t normally spend money on. This can be a nice opportunity. (Unless you end up adooorrring it and can't afford it in real life...then that sucks. Proceed with awareness.)


NOTE: if you’re the one offering the barter…we know it’s not necessarily free to you to give away, but if it’s not saving the performer money then it’s not a truly even monetary trade. Example: Years ago I traded yoga for organizing with my favorite yoga owner. Since I already paid for classes, this was an awesome trade because it saved money in my budget. However, if I’d hated yoga, then this would have been a horrible trade for me because it’s money I would have never spent in the first place for a service I’d never use. Bartering can be fabulous. I love a good barter. But it HAS to be a truly even trade for it to be worth it.

Are you going to be in front of your target market that will hire you with real, cold hard cash. Ask questions about the demographics of the audience that will be there. Are these the types of people who usually hire you? Sure, it can feel uncomfortable getting into specifics like this but think of it this way - this person was bold enough to ask you to perform for free. You can be bold enough to ask who you're going to be in front of when you do it, and if there’s the potential for you to book a paid gig from it..

Yes, there's always a certain "you never know who will be there and where that can take you" factor involved. Which is nice, but can't be counted on. Don't base your decision solely off of a “maybe potentially.”

Are you performing in a space or with a company/person that will look AMAZEBALLS on your resume? Will this gig introduce you to someone you really want to meet/work with/get to know? I've performed for free because I wanted to be in that venue. And you know what? Totally worth it. (Though someone else’s mileage may vary.)

Will this favor garner you a favor from someone you really want to owe you one? Or keep someone happy that you need to keep happy? As an organizer I often gave quick talks to the groups my clients were members of. Clients were happy, and it’s always good to keep clients happen. (Plus, they’d usually feed me because we all know food makes me happy.)

Is the request from someone who rarely asks for favors or only asks for favors when they’re reeeeeally important? If you can say yes to this person, that’s good karma. If you can’t, that’s of course OK too, but I personally like to say yes to people who never ask when possible.

Will this volunteer gig get you closer to a particular goal you want to reach? When I was coming back into acting, I didn’t know if I could still memorize lines or not. Though I’d been performing for years as a dancer and supernumerary, it’d been decades since I’d had to memorize lines. I took a free gig with a teeny community theater to see if I still had those chops in a less-pressure way. (Spoiler alert: I did.)

Will you lose on a paying gig for this? Is it a time of year you're usually booked with a paid gig? Go with the money. Caveat: unless the favors/connections will be greater than the money. Many moons ago as an event planner, I accepted a co-chair position for a gala. It was during my busiest time of year (wedding season) but I thought the cache and connections associated with the organization would more than make up for it. The opportunity and organization that looked so fantastic on the outside turned out to be a dumpster fire of disorganization on the inside. (Isn’t that too often the way in nonprofits?) The event was cancelled the week before the event. I'd turned down SO MANY wedding gigs to be a part of this event that never happened. It was a calculated risk that, had the event happened, would have paid off exponentially later on. Unfortunately it didn't, and I lost out on thousands of dollars of revenue for it. #learnfrommymistake

Is the event and/or other people involved with the event making money? Small fundraisers are one thing. Major events - especially if they’re NOT for a nonprofit - are another thing altogether.

Don't be the only person in the room working for free.

I'm reminded of a blog I read many years ago, when an Oprah tour asked local performers to play for free. 1) That's RIDICULOUS on multiple levels. 2) This open letter is the best. Read it here.

Is this free gig a major inconvenience or asking for considerable extra work beyond the average gig? It’s one thing to work for free if little to nothing extra is being asked of you, or if they actively make things easier for you. However, that’s not always the case.

(In truth, what’s often the case is that the person making the request has NO idea what goes into a performance and what they think is “easy” is actually a pain in the ass….but I digress.)

If the request puts undue hardship on you and/or your schedule, it’s OK to say no. In other industries, people pay extra for these sorts of things. Case in point: a while back on Twitter, I saw a musician talking about being asked to play for free. The gig had the potential for potential, but was also going to take up a lot of time and expected said musician to arrive at a location over an hour away at 8am on a Saturday, driving through LA traffic. Hard pass. No guilt.  

Does the idea of doing this gig make you really excited even without the pay? If it's exciting and something you really want to do then go for it. If you have doubts, then it could be your intuition waiting for your brain to catch up and say no for realsies. So often I've wished I didn't do something because my brain rationalized why I should, instead of just listening to the nagging feeling in my gut that didn't want to.

And the most important question of all - when the gig is over, will you feel better or worse about yourself? That answer is the most telling and definitive of them all.

When you're asked to work for free, weigh the pros and cons. Check in with your gut. Think over these questions to help you decide if it's a good opportunity for you or not.

Remember, if they like you well enough to ask, they need to like you well enough to pay.

And most importantly - never EVER let someone guilt you into performing for free and exploiting your love of performance for their gain.

You've worked long and hard to attain and maintain your skills. That is valuable and needs to be paid for.

What are your top deciding factors for taking a free gig? Anything else we need to add to this list? Share with us in the comments below!