Do You Work Too Cheap?

There are lots of reasons to do low paying gigs, and believe me, I’ve done my share of them over the years. Maybe you have too.

We might do a performance for little or no money because it gives us the opportunity to get in front of a new and really important audience.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what a gig pays because we just want to do it.

1Or maybe it’s a benefit for a really great cause.

Maybe you can afford to work for low rates on a regular basis.

Nothing against any of that. I have no problem with anybody who’s happy performing and could care less about the pay – – I really don’t.

To each his own.

For Those Who Need More

But if you’re feeling stuck doing work-a-day gigs that aren’t really leading anywhere, and you need to be earning more, it might make sense to take a slightly longer view.

In my experience, taking low-paying opportunities on a regular basis does at least five things to undermine your ability to earn more in the future:

  1. it suggests to the booker and the marketplace-at-large that this is what your art, and you, are worth
  2. it reinforces in your own mind, however subtly, the value (or lack thereof) in what you do
  3. it can easily convince you over time that you can’t find gigs that pay (“there’s no good paying work out there…”)
  4. it colors your ability to ask for what you really need when someone who actually does have a budget comes along
  5. most importantly by a long shot, and far more damagingly than any of the above, doing the low paying gig takes time away from what you should be doing

I guess I should say that last one again a little louder:

“OK, So What Should I Be Doing?”

If you’re serious about making a great living doing this, consider saying “no” to low paying work, and each time you do that, use the time you would have spent at that $25/hour or $40/hour job to build your career instead, cultivating your network of better paying gigs and expanding your opportunities.

(Leaving home at 5pm and arriving back at 10pm is a five hour gig in my book. Your gig pay divided by the total number of hours you’re away from home is your true hourly wage.)

Take those three or five or twenty-four hours as “office time” to do some research on the gigs that actually pay well:

  • who are the artists that get those gigs?
  • what kind of things do they do? do they have a specialty?
  • how do they talk about themselves on their website?
  • who do they quote as satisfied customers? (POWER TIP: make sure those people know who you are)
  • where have they played?
  • who books those venues?

Beef up your contact list, your email database, even make a few calls. Reach out to venues and organizations you have a good relationship with and ask for some quotes and testimonials you can use when you approach new people.

The goal is to create a network of great paying opportunities that you can fill your calendar with. Until you’re there, you might be getting in your own way taking these other gigs.

Chances are you should be earning 5-10x what that cheap performance paid, or more, but you have to put yourself in a position to be able to do that.

What Happens If I Turn Down a Gig

Will theyever call me again--minI know it’s hard to give up any income, believe me, but I have to say that turning down low paying work hasn’t hurt me one bit.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The second you turn that gig down, a bunch of good things happen:

  • your perceived value in the marketplace (important!) goes up
  • your motivation to figure out how to get better gigs increases
  • your potential booker may end up finding the resources (perhaps even with your help when you suggest specific grants from your research that they can apply for) to book you for what you deserve in the future – it’s happened this way many times for me
  • you’ve freed yourself up to find better opportunities

My advice?

If you really need to take that job in order to pay your rent, by all means do it, and just decide that you’ll also spend an equal amount of time pursuing better things the next day.

Get used to quoting way higher than you’re comfortable with. Ask for what you actually need to make as a full-time artist. If the venue can’t pay you that, thank them for their interest and move on.

The ones that really want you will find a way to do it, and you know what?

They will be among your most satisfied and loyal advocates after you’ve worked for them.

That’s right, the ones that pay you the most are very often the ones who are the most delighted with what you did for them, and want you back again and again.

I’ve seen this over and over.

So, we’ll finish with a few questions:

Do you know about all of the grants out there that could potentially be paying for your services?

Are you dialed in to all of the performing arts series in your region that could be booking you?

Have you made alliances with statewide and regional touring organizations? Arts councils? Industry conferences? Showcases? Arts in Education presenters and agencies?  Schools that love to hire performers? Libraries?

Have you considered expanding your geography to expand your income and opportunities?

If you stay home and cultivate a huge network of these kinds of opportunities – building it every day – you’ll never miss those low paying gigs.

What Do You Think?

Let’s make this a two-way conversation – – I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below.


About The Blog

The Largest Online Gathering of K-5 Classrooms for Connected Educator MonthSince leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.

Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.

The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.

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35 Responses to Do You Work Too Cheap?

  1. Jim

    Hi Dave,

    Good stuff here, thanks for publishing! I am a professional bagpiper looking to market my lecture-performances to public and private schools. I play the Great Highland bagpipes and Scottish smallpipes, occasionally including a mini lecture on the history of the instrument and attire with Q&A when hired to appear at community organizations. A one hour event costs $200, which is almost invariably the industry standard throughout the U.S.. Are there any red tape compliance hurdles for music vendors marketing their services to public schools? Do you have to be approved, get background check and register in a database of state public vendors, or get permission to mail brochures to schools?

    I have been a gigging bagpiper for eight years but am tired of waiting for income “turkeys” to fall from the sky, and GigMasters and GigSalad are eating up more and more of the leads by paying millions for top page SEO, causing me to fight off low-bidding talentless hack competitors. I offer a fine professional grade product and deserve much better, so it’s high time I start making my own event opportunities.

    Finally, how realistic is it for a solo piper (as opposed to a whole pipeband) with loads of popular sing-a-long tunes to rent a space, sell $5-$10 tickets and make $500=$1000/per concert? I don’t know where to start, but the pipes have a very special, almost hypnotic mass appeal.

    Thanks,

    Jim

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Jim – sounds like a great program. My first thought is that you might be underselling it at $200, but I don’t know exactly where you live and what the market is like. We recently had a two hour webinar on gigging in schools, covering all the logistics and marketing associated with getting these gigs. The replay video is available for purchase RIGHT HERE, but there’s also lots of free content on the blog that might be helpful for you.

      It seems to me you would have several other potential markets for this program, including historical societies, museums, libraries, and arts centers, all of which pay better than your average gig and are really fun to do.

      Sorry I can’t really advise you on your last question, as it depends on too many factors that I’m not privy to.

      If you haven’t already, feel free to subscribe to the blog – I send out an article along these lines every Monday, and also offer coaching, webinars, etc. You can subscribe RIGHT HERE.

      • Jim

        Dave,

        Thank you for your reply and helpful ideas. I live in Estero, Southwest Florida. School systems might be poorly funded in this state, from what I’m learning since moving here a couple of years ago. The private gig market in ritzy gated communities is pretty good in snowbird season, slow in summer. If a piping performance is $200 for an hour, what should I charge for a lecture/performance of roughly the same length. I’ll check out your links and articles, didn’t realize the amount of good stuff you have in these pages.

        Thanks,

        Jim

  2. Bobby

    I’m a guitarist who has done a wide range of performance styles … classical, jazz, blues, rock. … This approach you have is interesting. I’m looking forward to the news letter. My main gig is teaching private guitar lessons but I’d love to know more about this. Oh yeah. I also love The Grateful Dead. I saw you were doing some music based on their influences. They have such sincere roots. Love that band.

  3. Danny

    Dave, I have been kicking around the idea of making school presentations my career for a number of years now. I have put together my programs, made my business plans and gone over every aspect of what I want to do – I stumbled onto your blog and it has been a Godsend!! You unknowingly have become the mentor I so need! Thank you for sharing your experience and your knowledge in this field. I cannot wait to get into the game! Thank you, thank you THANK YOU!

    • Dave Ruch

      Hey Danny – so glad you found this! There’s lots to explore here, with lots of valuable contributions from readers too in the comments section of each post. If you haven’t already, feel free to subscribe so you’ll get each post in your inbox as they come out.

  4. Dennis

    Hi Dave,

    thanks for the article and your thoughts on, and experience with, the issue of pay. I agree with you whole-heartedly; someone once told me that if I continue to take low paying gigs, those are the only gigs I’ll get. Embarrassingly, I have to admit that it is a fact. You may be able to surmise from this, that I am an aging musician.

    I am a bass player. I do need to turn down poorly paying gigs, but I feel I cannot do so without first securing better paid gigs. As with some musicians, life is precarious; so, to close off an income stream, however small, seems like cutting the lifeline, only to fall into and be carried away, uncontrollably, by a rapid flowing river. My problem is, where do I begin to find bands that pay the rate I am looking for?

    You’ve made a few suggestions, but I feel those are aimed at individuals who are somewhat self-sufficient, that is, not needing other musicians in order to get work.

    Notwithstanding, a very informative article and the shove I needed to do what needs to be done.

    • Dave Ruch

      “A rapid flowing river” – well said Dennis, it’s so true. I’m not sure where you’re located, but are you paid by the band you work with, or paid by the venue that hires the band? If the latter, it may just be a matter of branching out towards gigs that pay better, as suggested in the article.

      • Dennis

        Dave,

        I’m in London, England. I work with bands that operate through on agency. The agency is operating as a sole trader and I have to say, the agent has done very well for himself over the years. I suspect, owing to the his business practice of pay a subsistence rate.

        You are right, I need to branch out, but I also need to be decisive and say no to the cheap gigs I’m being offered.

    • Lauryn

      Hi Dennis. As part of a husband-wife songwriting duo who for time played with a bass player, I can offer this advice: if you want to be paid a certain rate, you may want to consider offering to help with some of the not-so-fun band management tasks.

      We routinely paid our bass player more than we paid ourselves, because we truly valued his time and contributions to our music; this practice, of course, was not sustainable for us.. When we decided to leap into the full-time waters of independent music, we approached him to see what aspects he might be willing to help with (for example, helping out with social media or promotion), so we could get more and better paying gigs . He was very honest about his lack of desire to do that kind of thing and so we had to make the decision to go back to being a duo. We needed all hands on deck, so to speak.

      Pitching in may not be your ideal scenario, but there is an extraordinary amount of work that goes into being that “self-sufficient” musician and building a band’s brand and career; perhaps helping from the ground up would go a long way towards securing the rate you deserve. Of course, this only makes sense if you are truly invested in the band and their music, but if you do find someone with whom you click, I’m sure they would welcome any offers to help move things forward!

      Best of luck to you! (And p.s. we’re all aging musicians, some of us farther along than others. Here’s to keeping going regardless!)

  5. Mychele

    I like to read what you write it is educational and very interesting. Thank you.

  6. Ann Summers Dossena

    Dear Dave, as a long-time manager, may I suggest that negotiation plays a big role here. There is no reason an artist can’t do a quick budget of what it will cost for him/her to play a performance with a low fee. You’ll be surprised how the presenters will adjust their offers, or come back to you with an adjusted offer. If you can’t do a quick budget on the spot..let them know they will hear back from you to see if you can do the engagement. You’ll gain their respect since you are doing business rather than being undecided.

    Naturally, there are what we call ‘investment engagements’ and the presenter is requested to make it a ‘confidential – not to be repeated’ fee. Also why not invoice the presenter the full amount of a fee and take the part that isn’t received in a tax receipt, if the presenter is a charitable organization.

    I hope this is helpful. Ann

    Ann Summers Dossena
    International Resource Centre for Performing Arts
    Toronto, Canada
    416 362 1422
    Watch for news on the “Savvy Musician” workshop November 13 in Toronto with Dave Cutler.

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Ann – thanks for jumping in here. I love the idea of asking for a donation receipt for tax purposes when we play for a not-for-profit at less than our standard rate. And yes, negotiation and communication are key.

  7. Peter

    I would like to ask you a question: could this also happen in the States? Do successful business-people have the appreciation for an unknown but good artist and engage him spontaniously or is this kind of taboo? I know the market here very well but I don’t have any glue of the marketstructures in the musicbusiness in the USA. So I would be very happy, if some you would share some thoughts or if you, Dave, would write an article about it 🙂

    In Germany we now have a generation of people between 40 and 65, who are used to buy LPs, CDs and go to concerts. They now often have enough money to do this in a generous way and they have a lot of appreceation for people, who are good at something, popular or not.
    This makes the business for an artist in his 50s like me much easier and I don’t want to think like it will be in 20 years, when these generous people will have disappered by and by and the next generation is in its “best age”….

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Peter – I’m not totally clear on what you mean by “engage him spontaneously” – do you mean hiring the musician, or just support their music through purchase of concert tickets, CDs, etc? There is definitely a feeling among certain genres of performers here that their “core audience” is aging out (traditional folk music, classic rock, etc),

  8. Peter

    Hi Dave,

    very good view on the opportunities of the business and the work I have to do as an artist beside my abilities on my instrument and my performance. Personal networking seems to be one of the most important ways to get other jobs.
    In Germany we have different networking-event series you also might know. One of the most popular is the “Unternehmerfrühstück” – business breakfast may come close to the meaning. A group of businessmen meet for breakfast, everyone has a 5 min promotion time. After that the networking starts. As a musician I am often exotic and I make the offer to give the event an musical frame – one piece at the beginning, one inbetween, one at the official end and a 30 min-set at the end of the whole event. The last event was a low-budget or better promotional gig for me and as result I played two short-dated well-paid jobs in my area, even the managers were not thinking of, unless they heard me play.

  9. Adrian Goldman

    I am a classical pianist and would like to get more work to play at dinner parties, wedding receptions etc. Ant suggestions?

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Adrian – there’s a subscriber and regular reader of this blog named Robert Van Horne who may be doing similar work. If you search him on Google, you will find his website – he might have some ideas for you.

      My focus has always been on “performance” gigs for seated, captive audiences (arts centers, schools, community events, museums, etc) as opposed to “incidental music” gigs – if you are interested in performance work as well, I offered some suggested to Robert in this post. Perhaps some of those would be useful for you as well.

      I wish you a lot of luck with it.

  10. Laura Donovan

    Don’t forget to try museums, especially children’s museums, if that is your area of expertise. Art openings, or holidays, often have special activities, and your musical presentation or theme may be a perfect fit!

  11. Midwest Violinist

    Good food for thought, as I wrestle with trying to land wedding gigs in our metro area, where there are a significant number of string quartets charging far too little. In 2000, I could pay 3 side musicians $150 apiece and pay myself $200 or more for myself. Fast forward to 2015 and there are string quartets in my area charging $500 total, so after 5% booking fee, they are all getting $100, or even less if the Leader gets a bit more for all the work.
    It seems that the online booking systems (such as Gigmaster’s) encourage the success of the lowest bidder, and nearly anyone can sign up to be on Gigmaster’s (or other online booking sites) whether or not their product is at all professional.
    I truly wish that we could be making MORE than we were in 2000, but it seems very difficult when there are all these newbies doing it for less.
    It is very challenging to spend a lot of time trying to convince someone that our group at $750 is any better than the groups charging only $500. The customers can’t tell the difference, either that, or they feel the cheap group is “good enough.”

    • Dave Ruch

      Midwest Violinist – it’s great to have you share your experience here, thanks. I know that this “race to the bottom” pricing scenario is something that lots of my musician friends have faced over the years, and before I became so specialized in what I do, it’s something I was dealing with too. When people think they’re comparing apples to apples, then price can become the only real differentiating factor. Have you thought about adding some kind of unique element to what you do so that it’s NOT apples to apples when a potential buyer considers you? I’m not sure exactly what that would mean in your case, as I don’t do wedding gigs myself, but if there were some kind of unique repertoire, or customer service angle, or something to set you apart, would that help? In terms of gigs outside of the wedding market, you might find some good value in the article Educate Your Audience and Write Your Ticket, where we talked about this very issue and how you can leave it all behind by adding an educational element to your performing.

  12. richard wise

    Thanks,Dave–i can see from your articles that i have been dealing with some wrong people.i can usually read an audience,and make the most of it,from that end,and that used to make a difference,and help a great deal overall.there are too many people playing for free now.you must have found some better turf.either that or you are making this stuff up,(which i doubt).you will find me studying your M.O. with extreme prejudice.

  13. Anne DeFazio

    I really like your blog! Great info and advice. As far as working too cheap I can’t remember the last time I got paid for a gig! I’ve gotten some great t-shirts and beverages though 🙂

    • Dave Ruch

      Hey Anne – T-shirts and beverages are good things! Glad you’re enjoying the posts. 😉

      (I think you’re probably still working full time in a school, so your gigs are more-or-less just for fun, right?)

      Send me your schedule sometime…

  14. Daniel Wangelin

    Thanks for this Dave, these are some great tips!

  15. BB's Art Truck

    Great advice Dave. I think much of that can also be applied to other artists (painters, illustrators, graphic designers, etc) who struggle with putting a price on their talent and skills. I look forward to reading more next week!

  16. Ronald Kowalewski

    Thank You!

    I look forward to all you have to say, and all the knowledge of the business that you have. My band Black Rock Zydeco is transitioning into better gigs and the edutainment industry is very appealing for our Louisiana style music. I’ve spent the last 15 yrs studying the culture, music and what makes it special and addictive to me. I hope that with my background in education i can get better opportunities for our band..

    • Dave Ruch

      Thanks Ron. Glad to hear you’re taking the plunge into educational performances. That sounds like a natural for you guys. I’ve got lots of posts coming along those lines.

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