Independent Rockstar

Insight for Independent Musicians

Amanda Palmer – Should You Play for Free?

A few weeks back Amanda Palmer put out a call for horn and string players to join her on stage on her current tour. Here’s an excerpt from the post:

“you’d need to show up for a quickie rehearsal (the parts are pretty simple) in the afternoon, then come back around for the show! we will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.”

What followed was a firestorm of epic proportions. Here are some excerpts from the comments:

“…her publicity scheme seems to run counter to the interest of musicians in this country, and, I believe, sets a very bad precedent for national touring artists.”

“I’m having a house concert at my place. You should bring your tour to my house and play for free. It’ll be great exposure for you.”

“Look anywhere and you see the same thing. Our society is teaching us to underpay and undervalue musicians.”

“Being a musician is hard enough without being exploited by other musicians.”

“Really, Amanda, you can be appallingly, frustratingly, head-deskingly tone deaf and stupid.”

So here’s what I have to say:

Being a musician is a struggle for most of us.  Finding band members, learning how to write great music, learning how to play an instrument well, paying for recordings, paying band members – the list goes on and on. I understand the frustration. I’m not out on the road kicking ass right now, yet I wish I was. It’s not a cakewalk. So when people come out throwing flames at Amanda Palmer for offering for them to play for her without paying them, I understand where the emotion is coming from.

As with anything in life though, you have the choice as to which offers you accept. If an offer isn’t worth it for you then you simply don’t have to take it. If an offer is worth it for you then by definition you should do it.

If you’re not getting the offers you’d like then you have two constructive choices: You can either create something yourself or you can do what it takes to get better offers from other people.

This is harder than most people realize. We have concepts in our heads of what this means to become better and we may think we can make them a reality, but when it comes time to put the rubber to the road we’re faced with our personal demons, our bad habits and our limiting beliefs. It takes much less effort to disown the part of us that doesn’t want to face the dark side and do the work and instead to turn that energy towards the external. Amanda Palmer is not the problem.

The market will dictate whether or not what Amanda is offering is a success. If it’s not worth it for enough people then it won’t work. If it is then it will.

Being a professional musician doesn’t mean much if you’re not getting good paying gigs that you’re happy with. If you are then the gig playing for Amanda isn’t worth it for you and you probably aren’t too worried about it – You’ve got good things going on. If not, then you have work to do. For those who take her up on it – be happy for them. They’re not your problem either. Wish them the time of their lives.

When you pour your emotion into something outside yourself as though it’s the determinant of your own success or failure, you re-enforce your limiting beliefs and build the walls of your own prison. Take that emotion and channel it into excitement for what you can really do when you commit to doing the hard work to create your own success.

About Scott James

Musician / Blogger / Web Designer / MBTI Nerd living in Hollywood, CA
Scott James

29 Responses to “Amanda Palmer – Should You Play for Free?”

  1. Eileen says:

    I understand. But having been in the music business for a long time, every once in a while, it DOES pay to play for free, IF you’re going to have a good audience. Kinda like the “America’s Got Talent” and the others…Just because someone doesn’t come out on top, we shouldn’t worry about them, because if they’re any good, they’ll be seen by scouts and will still have a music career. Just my thoughts……..Thanks.

    • Yeah, sometimes it makes a lot of sense to play for free. Sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if someone else is making a million dollars from you playing for free or not. It only matters if it’s worth it for YOU. Same deal in the business world. @ebenpagan encourages people to ‘learn to love getting the short end of the stick.’ If you’re not established yet then you need to focus on giving value and not on maximizing profit. If you give enough value to other people you’ll establish yourself and reap the rewards in the long term. If it doesn’t server you to play for free then don’t do it. If it does – do it.

  2. Awesome post Scott. If this was the Red Hot Chili Peppers inviting fans to come down and join in the fun everyone would be thrilled. In my opinion this is fueled largely by musicians who don’t have successful career strategies, are very frustrated, and are upset that Amanda was able to have such success with Kickstarter. As her fans know, she offered a pretty clear breakdown of how the funds would be used and there was only a modest percentage left over after costs. Not that it really matters. As you point out. No one was being forced. It was just a fun opportunity for musicians who felt like jumping on stage with an artist they might admire.

    • Yeah great point. I totally stole that line in my comment on her post about the Chili Peppers – except I changed it to U2 or Metallica – so thanks. 🙂

    • First off, I want to state that I’m the backup keyboard player and vocalist for a national touring act. I’m always looking for ways to grow my credibility in the marketplace, so that instead of being the SUB for the “big guys”, I can be “the guy”. I also play/sing in two other local/regional acts that are growing. I hope that gives you an idea of where I am in the pecking order of professional musicians. I still have a day job.

      I totally agree with John. Pick any other major band/artist in the world, and people would be clamoring to play onstage with them. I think what Amanda is doing is a brilliant idea. What a great way to get publicity, engage your fans, and get your “backline musicians” guaranteed at every venue at which you play. And most importantly, for anyone who’s a good/great musician and needs “credits” on their resume, they can now say that they’ve played with Amanda Palmer! Plus they get to hang out with her and the band, get photos, take photos from the stage (like many artists do now), make connections, etc.

      I can sight read pretty much anything you put in front of me. If my trumpet chops weren’t so rusty, I’d try to play several gigs with her.
      Maybe I could show up and play horn/string lines on one of my keyboards……..

      • Awesome. Yeah, if you make a habit of showing up and bringing the goods in front of people who recognize and appreciate it then you’ll be the one who gets the calls down the line.

  3. It would be funny, all the yelling, if it weren’t so sad… Most musicians misstate the issue of “playing for free” – criticizing venues for offering “exposure” versus pay.

    The problem is, they are not viewing things like a business. Businesses – especially when they are not well-known, often give away free merchandise and time. I consulted for a Pizza company that gave away a FREE pizza for every customer who liked their Facebook page. Every one! We gave away 5,000 free pizzas in less than 5 months.

    I also make a distinction between cover bands and original acts and I am speaking mostly to the original artist. I am also adamantly opposed to pay-to-play in any form – or in a venue taking the first X people through the door before an act sees any pay.

    However, if a venue has traffic, and you can get exposure there, and you do not have a huge following, I suggest you play there. If the venue has no traffic.. don’t. But, the venue gains very little, in most cases, by having you (a musician) there. Sure.. you are talented.. we get it.. But let’s say they had a dish on the menu that no one was buying… it would be off the menu real quick.

    A musician, in most cases, IS NOT EVEN A MENU ITEM. People show up to a restaurant for specific reasons and if you are NOT the reason, why should the venue pay you.

    FYI: I’m not against you being paid – but again, no following, no traffic…

    What I hear/see from musicians is always this snide, “come to my house and serve food free for the exposure.” If you had the right kind of traffic, I’m sure many restaurants or chefs would do exactly that.

    I speak at industry events and colleges all the time.. it leads to paid speaking and leads to my book selling at colleges. This is a no-brainer.. Now I speak at colleges on careers (for the book) and roll a FREE concert into the speaking gig.. double-up I call it. And it is dramatic what it does for my mailing list.

    In fact, I performed at a house concert – very well-attended (I was an opener) – and a local tequila vendor showed up and offered free tequila tastes and many people left with free bottles – premium tequila. They did it, because people who frequented restaurants and some night-club owners were there.

    I cannot tell you if it paid off but that kind of marketing is old hat. It is what musicians, until they have the following, must do.

    A couple years ago I was listening to an interview with “Five for Fighting”. He was talking about playing and visiting cable television cooking shows and performing… unpaid, all publicity stuff.. This was after their hit CD – several charters… He said, “this is how you get your music in front of people.. you play a LOT and often for no pay.” (paraphrase).

    It is funny how a lot of hardly known acts find that so offensive and most well-known acts understand that, as Neil Young recently stated.. “piracy is the new radio.”.

    I play a lot for free – it adds to my mailing list and turns into house concert gigs. It gets people to shows later.

    But if you don’t think it is a good idea… don’ do it. Play all those paid gigs you have lined up where tons of people show up.

    If you don’t like the idea of playing with Amanda Palmer… DO NOT DO IT!

    • Amen. Great points. It’s up to you to decide what’s worth it. Do it or don’t, but don’t act like someone else is pulling the strings in your life. Focus on giving value and if you do that will it will come back tenfold in the long run.

  4. Robbie says:

    I can certainly see why people would knee-jerk and call her out on her so-called ‘hypocrisy’, But honestly, I think the concept and sentiment come from a place of good intent.

    When you calculate all of the additional behind-the-scenes work that a proposition like this will create for Amanda and her team — scheduling 20+ additional ‘rehearsals’ for each show, getting sheet music to prospective players, following up correspondence, weeding out applicants, and just the additional production responsibilities every day, you really have to recognize that this not simply a ‘scam to get free labor’. This seems to be a reality often something overlooked by many of these pundits.

    I think your point regarding ‘working/professional musicians’ who this would not appeal to vs. fans who may see this a fun opportunity outside their realm of experience/opportunity is a valid one.

    This by no means is an argument that musicians don’t deserve to be compensated for their effort/time/abilities; however, I do think people may just be trying to find fault in the simple act of trying something new, testing boundaries and making the concert-going experience more inclusive and intimate.

    Let the musicians decide if its worth their effort. Let Amanda have the freedom to throw out ideas to see what sticks. Let’s continue to move forward creatively and intellectually with the new tools available to us and not lambast those who embrace this evolution in the business.

    • Right on. That brings up a good question. Do you ‘deserve’ to be paid? How much? I don’t really like that word, ‘deserve’. I think you get paid based on what you can command. Here’s Jim Rohn keeping it real:

      • Robbie says:

        Absolutely. I think an interesting social experiment would be for her to at this point make a statement along the lines of “Taking into consideration all of the feedback regarding the proper compensation for musicians I have decided that the right thing to do would be change the gameplan. We will no longer be asking for volunteers to participate in the tour, but rather hiring sessions players at union scale rates for the entirety of the tour. Thanks for all of the feedback, and for those who offered their valuable time and talent. See you on the road!”

        People who had seen value in the experience and planned on participating would likely be hugely disappointed and let down, while the critics would have to swallow their words and accept that she had done the ‘right’ thing in their eyes by hiring musicians that ‘make a living’ touring and doing session work.

        Win-win? Or lose-lose? Is this about creating jobs or creating an experience?

  5. I think that her offer was light-hearted and genuine. It probably makes a lot of sense FOR HER to do it that way. I mean she wasn’t asking people hit the road with her, just to join her while she’s in town.

    Sounds like a free night out, doing what you love, in front of a crowd who’s goings to appreciate you.

    Bring some promo items and live it up!

    I mean, how funny would it be if some higher profile, totally established horn player took her up on the offer? Would people still feel so strongly about it then?

    I’ve played for A LOT less than beer and food… to mostly just ashtrays and the ugly couple making out in the corner.

  6. Tommy Anello says:

    Given my very long experience and exposure in the music business I would agree that if a particular action would somehow benefit your career in any way, then you should do it. Music is built on ideas, concepts and dreams. There is no “right way” to do it. It’s a bit like gambling. Some win big. Some win small. One thing to remember: Good fortune favors the prepared.

    • Right on. It’s an exciting time to be a musician with a constructive attitude. There’s no right way to do it, but if you bring the goods and deliver the value then you’re on the right track.

  7. Butch Ross says:

    I think I agree with a lot of the posts here that think the “firestorm” was a knee-jerk reaction by frustrated musicians, that’s understandable. While I’m no fan of Palmer’s music, I respect her business model and am frankly jealous of her work ethic. She is probably doing the numbers that would let her hire scale players for these shows. But I suspect she wanted people who were passionate about HER music, and one real good way to separate the wheat from the chaff is take away the pay.

    That said, a savvy musician would see this for what it is; an opportunity. Amanda Palmer most likely plays 1500 seats where you play 150, maybe. If she’s willing to plug your band on stage (or even let you open) how many names is that worth to your mailing list? got stickers, download cards, CDs? Now how “free” is this gig in the long term, if it’s marketed right? If you’re willing to do the work, and work smart, this is a real opportunity. I’ll leave you with two examples….

    1. In like 1999 I was working sound for a gig where Das EFX was opening for the Violent Femmes. Both bands were already well established (and perhaps arguably past their prime) but I watched Das Efx give out like 200 cassette singles (this was the 90s) and countless stickers and postcards…just threw ’em into the crowd. The point is they were an well-established band that was acting like this was their first large scale opening tour, they probably did the same thing at a half dozen high schools that afternoon too.

    2. I had a roommate once who was an antifolk musician, he was working part time to set up chairs for a Kris Kristofferson show at this 1100 seat venue (mostly in exchange for a free ticket) when word came down that, due to a miscommunication, no one had booked an opening act. Since he lived two blocks away, he got the gig, mostly ‘cuz he could get his guitar the fastest. My old roomie was a HUGE fan of Kristofferson’s singing and songwriting, but not so much of his made-for-tv career; Which he mocked from the stage, learning far too late that Kristofferson fans love his movies almost as much as his songs. Despite that (and being a terrible match musically) he still sold 39 CDs.

    • Thanks Butch. That’s a great story. I love Kris Kristofferson. Goes to show you never know what cool things will happen when you follow your passion and hustle. Russell Simmons has a couple of related stories in his book ‘Do You.’ Wish I had a copy handy to post an excerpt. Awesome book.

  8. Lem G. says:

    When your a teen aged or twenty-something burning to get stage time and learning the ropes of performance, booking, venue operations and acquiring necessary business acumen and a chance to get some decent exposure performing “for free” ( gas, accommodations, travel expenses like meals, strings & gear ) is a worthy trade off.
    By the time you’ve got more than a decade or so of genuine, professional experience, it’s time to ask the musical question: “Is this event, venue or charity date worth the money I fork over to be allowed to perform and LOSE money performing “For Free” ?
    I reached a point when I hit 40 that unless I was reimbursed for my time, talents and experience to at least “break even” I started to refuse performing benefit concerts where I would lose a hundred or two in personal expenses even for a worthy cause.
    While some bands generate enough capital to make doing fund raising gigs a “better shot at wider exposure” for a solo acoustic act its a whole different equation and one that I personally would recommend that musicians set up a plus and minus in money, time, effort and what the “perks” are for at least getting your expenses covered.

    • Yeah I think it’s important to find the right balance. Loosing money isn’t a very sustainable business approach. In the end you need to be able to command more money for your time. The key is to build the demand for it.

  9. I think artists are simply frustrated in this bad economy & the climate within the music industry.

    It seems like it is infinitely more difficult to make a buck in this business today than it ever has been before.

    Musicians work so hard to write, practice, market, plan, etc… Then, they have to go to venues & bust their hump setting up, performing, & breaking down, for pennies on the dollar, IF they get anything.

    Obviously, those who are successfully touring, are probably not making the amounts that bands made many years ago on the road, which is why they can’t afford to pay other artists all the time.

    The bottom line is, it’s a tough road right now, & understanding on all sides is key…

    • No doubt. It’s not easy to make a living as a musician. It’s going to get better though. With such a shake-up in the industry over the past 12 years or so it’s changed the game. It will take time for new models to emerge and mature. Amanda’s broken some barriers herself on that front. On the bright side, with all the new avenues that have opened up it’s a great time to use creativity and have some fun. Here’s a great post that John Oszajca just put up on the topic:

  10. Kawlinz says:

    It’s always been her business model. She was a frickin busker for her start. I remember being at one of her shows when she brought her dance crew, unpaid. She sent around a hat to the audience for people to throw money into to feed the crew. it’s not surprising that she has yet another unpaid offer for people who want the experience of being on stage with her. Beer and hugs sounds pretty fun, and if you don’t think it’s appropriate, don’t do it. Hell, even write a blog post trying to convince would-be-players to not do it. Just don’t hate on the people who think the experience is worth it even without money.

    • Yeah it’s up to each of us to decide what we think of it, but I wouldn’t waste an ounce of energy trying to convince anyone else not to. There are higher leverage things we can do for our own success that don’t involve trying to change the market value of someone else’s offer. If you want to make things better for musicians as a whole then I think it’s best done by sharing what’s helped make your career as an artist better, spreading good will and leading by example.

  11. Good food for thought- thanks Scott.

  12. Mike says:

    Great post Scott. I’ve definitely been vocal about not playing for free and the knee-jerk reaction to something like this is that Amanda should be paying – so I get the negative response.

    However, as most of the comments point out – this is a huge opportunity for the musician that has a long term view and is able to leverage their appearance with Amanda. How good would that look on your website? Your resume? Who knows – perhaps you really hit it off with Amanda and you do get hired to do recording or touring with her in the future?

    It could even be a huge shot-in-the arm for the musician’s list; wouldn’t that get their fans to wake up and pay attention that they are sharing the stage with a higher profile act? Could it be worth mentioning in a press release?

    Any of the potential benefits I mentioned above would greatly outweigh getting paid union scale for a one-time appearance.

    The real question is are you as a musician positioned to take advantage of an opportunity like this? Do you have a website, mailing list, kick-ass recordings and merch for sale? If not – get yourself there and start turning unpaid opportunities into ways to position yourself, grow your fan base and (yes) – actually earn some money!

    • Right on Mike. I think I would look at it as an opportunity to present myself as a pro . If you just go out and show up prepared, do what’s asked of you and kick ass doing what you do well – not just at this gig, but everywhere all the time – then good things will happen.

      You can bet that after every gig there’ll be discussion amongst the band about the string and horn player that night. There’ll probably be a handfull on the tour who stand out. The ones who show up early, know their parts cold, do what they’re asked, play their parts well and have a good rapport with the band.

      Say one of those people establishes an instant connection with the drummer. The drummer is friends with a whole bunch of musicians who play for big name acts. One of them asks him if he knows a good horn player. Who gets the call?

      Something like that may or may not happen, but that’s looking at the small picture. If you understand your role, bring the goods and are a generally cool person who’s professional and looks for opportunities to ‘be’ professional day in and day out, instead of just calling yourself professional, then you can bet on good things happening in the big picture.

  13. Actually, there’s a balance here. I’m a full time
    guitar performer/teacher & I still do
    about 10 Free events per year, for
    non profit organizations mostly,
    and it helps the organization PLUS
    keeps my name out there with the general
    public, it like paying for advertising
    with my time instead of with my pocket book.
    The upside is the people who sponsor those
    events will recommend me first when one of
    their friends or relatives has a private
    party, wedding, etc…& THOSE events will
    pay me $$ to perform…so like I said,
    the secret to playing free is to find a

  14. Good advice. Thanks Susan!