I’m very comfortable saying “thank you, but I can’t” to low-paying gig offers.
In fact, I was saying that 100% of the time before COVID (unless I had another compelling reason to accept the offer).
And now that things are opening back up, I’m saying it again!
It’s still working for me…
Now, I should say that what follows is probably only applicable if you have already established yourself in your marketplace – – you have a great reputation for giving memorable performances, and plenty of references to back that up.
But if that’s you, please read on for some major encouragement.
Turning Down Gigs: The Fear!
As discussed in the article Do You Work Too Cheap?, turning down low-paying work can come with its own price tag.
Doubt . . . worry . . . anxiety . . . and one more empty space on the calendar.
IDK, maybe I should’ve taken the gig…
What if they never call me again?
If that’s all they have, I guess I’m OK with it…
Shit, I have rent to pay on Monday!
But if you’re an established artist with a great reputation, I have a bold suggestion for you:
Get used to sticking to your guns.
You’ll get your desired price more (though certainly not all) of the time, and you won’t miss the gigs you leave behind.
How I Said “No,” Then Got Paid Well
OK, so here’s a scenario from just before COVID…
I had a library respond to one of my marketing emails, asking if I could give a summertime performance.
Their budget was $200.
For reasons I won’t get into here, I love this library and this community, and I’ve actually donated a few performances there in the past when I could afford to.
But I wasn’t in a position to do that when they emailed, so I had to thank them for their interest and explain that my performance fee with travel expenses is several times their budget.
(It would be $1,050 for a special trip, or $500-700 if I’m in the area with other work.)
I told them that if I end up with bookings in the region around the same time, perhaps we could make something work for less than my usual rates.
I left it at that, and figured I’d get back in touch with them if/when I got more work in the area.
She Took The Ball and Ran!
Next thing I knew, this librarian had sent out a mass email to all librarians in a three-county radius, mentioning that I might be available for a series of performances this summer.
She also mentioned that she HIGHLY recommends me.
(This is where experience and reputation come in – this library has told me many times that I am their “favorite” performer.)
What Happened From There…
A few more libraries reached out to me expressing interest in a booking, but then I got an email from the Outreach Coordinator of the entire library system.
(The library system provides services to all of the libraries in that three-county radius.)
She wanted to write a grant to have me come and perform at several of their libraries over the summer.
She’d never seen me or heard me (that I know of), but she was going on the recommendation of one of their own.
“How much would that cost?,” she asked.
Long story short:
- I quoted her my price per performance for a few different scenarios
- the grant was written and submitted
- the grant was successfully awarded
- six performances were booked over three separate dates (two shows per day) for a total of $3,600.
What If I Had Said “Um, Sure, OK…$200 is Fine?”
Going back to the first contact, I surely could have just accepted that $200 gig at the first library.
And that would have been the end of the story.
But I didn’t.
And by not, people got creative and made the gig (and five others) possible.
For Established Artists: Is This Repeatable?
Now, this is obviously a special circumstance that we can’t expect to replicate every time.
But it’s not unique, either.
Once bookers are talking about you to other bookers, and their audiences are asking them when you’ll be returning, it’s time to set firm rates and stick to them.
Regardless of how full or empty your calendar might look.
Countless times over the last 25 years, I have turned down low-paying offers only to be booked by the same people at a later date at my regular rates.
Take what’s initially offered and you’ll simply never know whether that was possible.
What’s Been Your Experience Turning Down Gigs?
I’d love to hear about your experiences with this. The “Comments” section is just below.
About The Blog
Since 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.
As a full time gigging musician, I’ve learned that the only way to have a calendar full of well paid gigs is to stop taking gigs that don’t pay you what you’re worth. The lowball venues will be replaced with new, higher paying ones that you made room for, or they will simply cave and pay you what you are asking. All you need is just a little patience!😉
That’s been my experience exactly, Ben.
I had joined a “camp association” to gain access to their mailing list of several hundred affiliated summer camps. The hitch was that the camps demanded a 30% discount off my regular rate. I sold about 2/3 of my summer slots to that association and the rest were single dates at independent camps at my full rate.
I quickly realized that the sure thing of the “camps association” was not a good deal. The following year, I declined the membership ($2,000 cost) and focused my marketing on the independent camps. I sold out again – this time with no discounts.
You have to weigh ALL the costs when offering discounts. They’re rarely worth your time and effort.
I totally get this. When I’ve done shows at a discounted rate (which often times translated into free haha) I never enjoyed them nearly as much. It all goes back to knowing your worth and of course what you feel is worth your time and effort. If a venue doesn’t want to pay what you need…maybe not even what you want but what you need..then it’s really hard to get up there and grin and bear it. You’re thinking in your head the whole time “man I must not be that special if they didn’t want to support me financially”. Kind of makes you think they could’ve paid any Joe to stand up there and play and honestly that’s probably true.
It all changes once you find that venue or audience who sees what you do as unique and wants to truly support that.
Agreed Nathan about the finding the venues and audiences that value what you do as unique and worthy of better fees, but also the part about knowing your worth and sticking with it. That’s where it all starts for me. I’ve had countless experiences where the venue did NOT initially know my worth, was taken aback by my price quote, went on to take a chance and book me at my rates, and ended up being advocates and long-time repeat customers.
Great to hear this, Steve!
I will discount for multiple bookings by either one venue or a group in the same area; and with very few exceptions, that’s it for non-charity situations. I too have had occasions when a library rounded up some other bookings in the same area and created a win situation for both them and me. If you give in, once word gets around that you’ll lower your prices, that venue and others it tells (the circle is small0: will figure they can get by with this every time. The two words “music business” are of equal importance if you’re in this for the long run.
Hi Dave, I had a similar experience with a library, except that I didn’t have to turn down the offer. Upon hearing my rate, the librarian asked if I would offer a discount if she could get others in the area onboard. I did five libraries in one day. It was a long day and very profitable.
i turned down a gig for storytelling but did not get that response from a church its good to know stay with pricing but would like to learn were to go so they can afford it not all associations are creative in wanting to find resources to pay artists cool!
Hi Amy – yes, that’s been my experience as well. Most venues don’t know where to turn for outside funding. That’s exactly why I put a separate page on my website where I list lots of opportunities for them – you are welcome to share it with anybody who is interested in pursuing grant funding for performances. You can find it right here.
Thanks, Dave, excellent advice. It’s a win win situation. I have done this with preschools also.
Great story Dave. Good to know more appreciated you and spoke well as a result which landed you something greater than expected.
Have a great day,
Music Educator & Performer
Thank you for this post AND for everyone’s comments in response. I definitely have settled for a lower amount than I would have liked to be paid because I wanted the gig. I have also had the lovely experience (twice so far this year) of people/organizations offering to pay more than I had expected. having performed at a lot of retirement communities, a few public libraries, a few senior centers and one coffee house during the past five years, I have begun to build a strong, positive word-of-mouth. But I also am very aware of the budget challenges that many of these organizations/institutions face themselves… Perhaps your blog post will inspire me to quote a higher fee range during upcoming booking negotiations!
Great story. I don’t have anything along those lines but I am not afraid to say “no” to low paying gigs for a number of reasons and I wish more musicians did the same. I agree if you are just starting out and until you develop a reputation/presence you should probably not say no to anything but there also comes a time that if you start selling yourself short you and others will continue to do that. Obviously as you mentioned there are special circumstance for some gigs and there may be other reasons you may take a lower paying gig (promotional purposes, charity event you believe in etc…) but more musicians need to not be afraid to say no to a gig
I’ve been almost forced into accepting low-paying jobs, due to the fact that there is way too much competition around these parts. The next band will probably take the job for the low rate. Also, I take the jobs that are low only if the job is on our rehearsal night, and that job is referred to as a paid rehearsal. When I have not taken a low-paying job (mostly at nursing homes), we are never called again. Mine is a big band, so the hiring organization will call a combo group or a volunteer musical group. There are so many volunteer musical groups out there, and they do it for exposure. The employers can use this as leverage to get a better quality group, but I have to learn not to give in, keep fair rates, and hope that things will be more fair for us. I find the whole trying-to-get-gigs matter very taxing and wonder if it’s worth it anymore.
You must live in Nashville where I live lol. Sadly that happens all too often here and musicians really need to quit shooting themselves in the foot by always trying to undercut each other. That’s why bars here don’t pay anything…because they can get away with it. I hear ya though…a sad reality at times
Hi Lynne – thanks for chiming in here. What are you doing to differentiate your group from the “volunteer musical groups” that you mention?
I have created some theme shows, We do a swinging Christmas show, gospel show, patriotic show, around the world show and other shows revolving around works of a certain big band. We did a wonderful Duke Ellington tribute. I talk to the person hiring us, and I can feel out exactly the tunes we need to play for their event. Most other bands do the same thing over and over again. Every person gets a custom-made show from me, and for repeat business, they never get the same show twice. I love creating shows!
Excellent! Play that up in all your communications, and on your website. They need to understand the difference between your act and the others.
Thank you, Dave. I’m a little green when it comes to marketing (another area to add to my job description), but I’m getting the hang of it. I truly appreciate your expert advice!
Also, I’m thinking about placing a description of our shows on our website, but I run the risk of lots of other bands just copying us. I’ve already had my slogan copied and was forced to change it. Thank God, the new slogan was better. It’s a highly competitive business around here, and it’s scary.
I can relate to Lynn….it has not been a very good turn around for me when I’ve declined low paying gigs. But I do still say no when it’s unacceptable. I really just don’t care anymore, and that makes me a little sad cause I used to care, ALOT!
I hear you, had something similar with a library system, and ended up with a bulk order of CDs. It makes perfect sense.
Greetings to Dave I find this to be supportive. I have taken a different road in regard to music. I play a unique instrument that is difficult to categorize. A double wirestrung small harp. In general I have had challenges but do strive to share the beauty and wonder of the sounds. I am also starting over after a break. So creating my market is a something that shifts. I think i have more branding work to do.
Cool story! 🙂
This can happen more often if we remember to ask if there are other organizations or similar organizations or other training days or conferences happening in the area around the same time. And it doesn’t hurt to ask if there is an umbrella organization that can book multiple performances or can apply for grants (like in your case).
I may take a lower paying gig, if there is a mutually beneficial opportunity such as fundraising via ticket sales:
I adopted this idea from a fellow performer.
The organization(s) guarantee me a specific price and set the ticket price. I set the maximum people I think I can handle depending on the venue, the topic or their expectations. They keep any monies raised over and above my rate. By doing this I usually sell out for workshops as it’s in the organizations best interests to fill the seats/spots.
1.5 hour Workshop for 40 people
My fee: $1200
If they charge $40 per person, they collect $1600 in sales, minus my fee of 1200; they keep $400.
It’s a reciprocal approach that works great for non-profits.
Also, I may take a lower paying gig, if there is an option for another marketing, promoting or performing opportunity. For over 10 years, I had a deal with a early childhood education umbrella organization. I would provide a reduced fee to perform at their annual childcare picnic, if they offered me the low non profit rate for a vendors table at their annual conference and let me put promotion flyers in their conference packages. It worked out pretty well. I couldn’t always be a vendor at their conferences ( if I had another gig or was ill) but they could always include a flyer in the packages. I could also offer a workshop at their conference for a regular or reduced fee in exchange.
I always do well with reciprocal approaches as long as it is a mutual benefit and not a deficit or a negative experience for both myself and the client.
I only ever encountered one negative experience for the client when the client misjudged the attendance for the type of venue (a national park) and was disappointed with the low turnout. I still was paid my contracted fee and actually ended up being interviewed for a national documentary, so it worked out fine for me. I felt bad for the organizer but sometimes these things happen.
Timely blog post. I am currently considering turning down a commissioned work that offer to pay me $800 above my quoted fee. The reason I am thinking about turning it down is because there has been unexplained long delays in drafting the contract. The contract was due in early January and I still don’t have it (although we do have a meeting today). My other concerned is that I don’t have the time I requested to deliver a quality program.
Overall, more to the point of your post, I “stick to my guns” very easily and it always works to my good whether its offering more money, applying for a grant or generally respecting me for know my worth.
Thanks TAHIRA – can’t underestimate the “respect for knowing our worth.” I think that’s huge.