Is it OK to musicians to play for free at nonprofit events such as school fundraisers and AIDS walks?
Sure it is, as long as the charity/nonprofit organization in question doesn’t pay a cent for anything else. That’s right: if the city where the event is held, the caterers, the security, the administrative staff, photographers and other vendors associated with the event don’t make any money, I’ll happily go without as well.
Musicians are often expected to play at weddings, clubs and offices for “exposure”, “karma”, “food” and more substitutes for money. But aren’t nonprofits different?
Nope. Whether it’s a corporate party, a wedding or a fundraiser is immaterial; the principle is the same. If they have money for a venue and food, they have money for music.
At NAMM, I attended a workshop on advice for artists seeking endorsement deals. The panel included Mike Johnson, known for his extensive online library of drum lessons, his work with Simon Says and Filter and for the purposes of his appearance at this workshop, his endorsements. “NAMM is not the place to get an endorsement deal,” he told the audience. “You had all year.”
You had all year.
No budget for musicians? Sorry, you had all year. How much does the band that you want cost? Get a quote, sock aside the cash and pay the fee or settle for less.
As a musician, there’s nothing wrong with saying that to event organizers who don’t want to pay. Do our landlords, car title holders and cell phone companies care that we can’t come up the money because we were helping out a nonprofit and turning down paying gigs? Don’t we have to budget extra for tax season, which usually comes at the end of the leanest time for musicians, the first three months of the year? (Speaking of taxes, if I wanted to be a smartass, I’d point out that in the case of schools, you already contribute to them; churches and other nonprofits are usually tax exempt. But this is the Positive Music Place so I’ll try to keep it civil.)
Look, I have nothing against nonprofit organizations; they just don’t get a special pass. I’ve just done too many gigs for fundraisers and the like that DO pay to be willing to work for free in the name of karma. There are other ways to donate to organizations in which you truly believe. Volunteer to perform at a nursing home. Busk on the sidewalk and give the money to the local food bank. Offer to do a presentation at a school. Maybe even give a little discount to someone who wants you to play at a fundraiser. But when someone seeks you out requesting you contribute to their cause–no matter how altruistic–yet claims no budget, just give them a friendly reminder:
“You had all year.”