Why we don’t play for free

Let’s start by saying we love to play live to an audience. It’s the reason we formed a band and the primary reason we continue to be in one. There’s nothing like the feeling of standing (or sitting) there watching people enjoy themselves while listening to you perform. Whether it’s bouncing around at the front or gently tapping feet on a bar stool at the back, clapping or whooping at the end of a song or joining in at top voice in the middle – we see it all and we love it.

Being in a band is the most fun. But can take a crazy amount of time and money.

Quite often bands in our position are asked to play for free. We get it. People who organise events and book bands are on a budget. They may be unsure they can definitely promote to a sufficient audience or they may be trying to raise money for a good cause and keep costs to a minimum. Some people decide that it is a privilege for us to reach their audience and believe me – it is. So given the paragraph above you might ask, “Well why wouldn’t you agree to play for free?” and it’s a fair question. So here’s why…

Firstly, we don’t have to! None of the band are professional musicians and we are all too long in the tooth to harbour dreams of gaining exposure through playing small, local gigs. We rehearse hard and put a lot of work into what we do and we think we offer outstanding value for money in terms of entertainment for what we charge.

Talking of value for money – let’s look at that. An average gig day looks something like this:

4.30pm – 5.00pmLoad the van
Front of house speakers, on stage speakers, mixing desk, guitar amplifiers, guitars, drum kit, cymbals, microphones and stands, lights, hundreds of feet of cabling and all sorts of other bits, pieces and gizmos that you wouldn’t imagine. It takes half an hour on a good day.
5.00pm – 5.30pmTravel to the venue
We rarely have to travel far to get where we play, but we don’t all live in the same place so somebody always has to travel some distance. And a van full of gear doesn’t move quickly!
5.30pm – 5.45pmThe load-in
Once at the venue, we do a quick recce to decide what has to go where and we start to load the gear in. For some of our regular venues we are a well-oiled machine. If it’s somewhere new it can take a bit of working out where to route cables and who is going to stand where. Many hands make light work and people are usually happy to help us bring stuff in. Most don’t come back for a second trip when they realise how heavy it all is.
5.45pm – 6.30pmThe set-up
The van gets moved to where it will spend the evening parked up and we begin the laborious process of setting up all the gear and all the cables. This can involve flying lights up on the ceiling or more mundanely opening out instrument stands, setting up drums and microphones and plugging in cables. So many cables.
6.30pm – 7.00pmThe soundcheck
If everything is in the right place we can test each instrument one by one and then play through a song or two to make sure the volume is at the right level and it all sounds nice together. This is the business end of the sound engineer’s evening.
7.00pm – 9.00pmNow we wait
Depending on how things have gone, this can be a tense or a relaxing time. We will ensure that everything we have installed is safe and cables are tucked away or taped down. We may finesse our setlist or discuss how we will transition from song to song, but we might just as easily be fixing a piece of equipment or making a mad dash back to base for some unexpected spare or other. There may be chance for a quick bite to eat.
9.00pm – 11.00pmDown to business
This is where the fun starts. People have arrived and we are ready to entertain. We are no longer luggers of gear and pluggers in of cables, we are rock stars playing huge stadium venues (if we close our eyes tightly). We’re also doing our best to ensure people are having a good time.
11.00pm – 12.00amThe load-out
After a bit of a shake-down and perhaps some refreshment, every last bit of gear has to go back into its case. Every last cable must be unplugged, untangled and coiled back up onto its reel or into its box. We may be on a high but it still needs to get done. The realities of being your own road crew kick in.
12.00am – 12.30amTravel home
The audience and their designated drivers are long gone. No chance of a taxi for the band however. We have several tons of gear to get home and for that we must be sober. Rumours of sex, drugs and rock n roll are greatly exaggerated.
12.30am – 1.00amUnload the van
Depressing isn’t it? For every gig we have to load and unload the van twice. I bet that never occurred to you did it?! Like childbirth*, that final van unload is a pain that we happily forget… at least until the next time.

*I imagine it’s not anything like childbirth, but we will moan about it a similar amount.

Adding all of that up between the four of us (including sound engineer) it amounts to around 30 man hours of actual work. At today’s minimum wage of £7.83 per hour, that would make £234.90. That’s before you account for the unpaid hours and hours of time we’ve spent rehearsing to be ready to perform. Oh, and there are some other expenses…

Let’s talk about the cost of our gear. A decent electric guitar starts at £500. Starts at £500. Sure you can buy cheap, but a decent electric guitar for a regular player starts there and goes up to several thousand pounds. Each microphone is around £100; Stands £30-40; Amplifiers several hundred pounds. Oh and trust me, you don’t want to know about drums and cymbals. Add to that the PA system and mixing desk that it all runs through so that all the vocals can be heard and all the instruments hit the back of the room at the same level… well you are easily talking five figures. Did I mention the hundreds of feet of cables?

Just to hire a decent PA system like ours for a single event can run into hundreds of pounds (in fact you can hire ours here) and we bring it all along included in our price. Nice of us, huh? And all this gear needs maintaining. Stuff wears out and gets broken just like the parts on your car (and the parts on our van). That takes time too. Time we’re not being paid for!

We pay a sound engineer. No ifs, no buts. You expect us to sound good and we are standing on stage listening to different speakers to you. There are logistical reasons why that has to be the case (Google audio feedback). What it means is that while we are playing, we are the least qualified people in the room to be in charge of the sound equipment out front! Now many professional musicians are experienced enough to get around this, but we are not professionals, just keen amateurs and we like to sub-contract this part of the experience out to an experienced professional. He’s there to make us sound better than we can and he’s not having the fun that we are. So he gets his fee. End of.

There’s one other reason we don’t play for free. While we might be in it for the fun, there are lots of folk out there who studied for music degrees, put in their 10,000 hours of practice and fully committed to their art as a career. We have the utmost respect for those guys. It feels wrong of us to come along and offer a service free of charge, tempting venues to lower the quality of the entertainment they book just to save a few quid. So we pitch our fee at what we think we’re worth. Actually we pitch it a little lower than that. If you’re selling tickets to our gig, you should make money too. If it’s for a good cause and we can get on board with that cause then perhaps we’ll be prepared to help you out and reduce our fee a little further still. If we do, please treat us like we’ve donated that money – because in truth, we did!

So there you go. All the reasons we don’t play for free. And yet we often feel guilty for asking for money when people and organisations ask us to do something we love and feel privileged to do.

Thanks for reading.