Thursday, December 15, 2016

When a Professional Musician Is Asked to Play for Free

{This was originally written as a Facebook post on October 26, 2016. As of this writing, it has received over two dozen relieved responses from other creatives, and almost one hundred "Likes". All of us who make / create are still working to improve how we and our work are perceived, in part by taking responsibility for how we present ourselves - thank you sincerely to all of you who support us in so many ways.}
Dear friends - this is a long post about creative work and money. It's atypical for me to post like this, but it's that time of year when "giving" is a focus, when many of us are asked to do what we do for a reduced fee or free. I write this not as a rant but with a very strong educational intent.
"Giving" is a noble and worthy act of expression. Of course we give our time and talents to people and institutions to whom we have a deep connection, in the name of someone we deeply cherish, because we really believe in a cause or interest and want to support it. 
And the more life experience we gather, the more meaningful certain people and causes become. Thank goodness money can exist as a tool that helps further what we believe in.
AND. If I agreed to play for free every time I was asked, these donations would far outweigh the times I receive mutually-agreed-upon compensation for my chosen profession, the way I earn a living. 
This is really hard, folks. When these situations come up, it's not out of malice or lack of respect. Anyone who asks you to provide your services for free has either been directed to do so by a higher-up or is simply acting upon what our culture has told them - the arts are non-essential, a "nice" thing to have, a piece of beauty that without question benefits society because it transcends monetary worth. And non-artists aren't the only culprits - artists do this to each other, and to themselves. Arguments-with-artist-self can sound like this: "This is something I love so much I don't or shouldn't care If I'm paid for it (wait, yes I do), and others expect me to not expect money for it (I'm not sure why and how can I keep going like this?), and I keep being asked to give this (a)way so it must be the norm (?!?)". 
And so the myth of the "starving artist" is perpetuated - that you can't earn a living as an artist (defined as anyone working in the arts), that what you do really doesn't have value in the "real" world.
Yet what would the world be without the arts? A sad, sorry, and emotionally/intellectually/spiritually desolate place. Period. 
It takes massive effort on the part of both artists and non-artists to turn this ship around. As an artist, you are afraid you will lose gigs, lose the right (???) to perform/show/play, or mightily piss someone off and send yourself into financial ruin. As a non-artist, the artistry you're specifically requesting to make your event beautiful and deeply meaningful typically does not have a line item in your budget.
Here are two things we can do to start the shift.
1) Ask. Non-artists - before you approach an artist you don't know personally to do their thing for free, ask yourself: Would I consistently do my own job - the way I earn a living - for free? Artists - before you accept any gig about which you may have doubts, ask yourself: How much do I value what I do, and how willing am I to stand behind that?
2) Educate. Below is a letter I recently sent in response to a well-meaning request for free music. (This letter is different than the one I sent in response to playing for a reduced fee, outside during twilight hours, in mid-November. But that's another story). Artists, please feel free to use a version of this when you feel caught in similar situations. And please use it, or any of the numerous better non-sniper examples on the internet, with professionalism and respect - any tone of malice or resentment helps no one, gets you nowhere, and earns you a reputation you don't want, fast.
"(Nice greeting). I so appreciate your asking me to contribute to the wonderful (event name). 
From your helpful description of what you’re planning, I know just the kind of delightful music I’d contribute to this special event!
Unfortunately, I am unable to donate my time and services - that first week of December is my busiest paid performance week of the year, and music is my chosen profession by which I earn a living.
While I love your offer of a tax exempt receipt in exchange for the donation of my services, according to the IRS, one cannot deduct the value of time and services. My accountant / tax preparer echoes this rule (I learned it the hard way).
My regular fee is (amount) and I would be happy to apply that to the 1.25 hours for which you’re requesting harp music. I would arrive about one half hour prior to set up and perhaps a little more if amplification (I bring my own system) is required.
Thank you again for reaching out and please let me know if you have any questions! I love what you’re planning, the reasons you’re doing it, and the love you’ve already all put into this special event."
And dear friends, if you've got this far, thanks for reading. The above applies to more than just the arts. It's a complicated issue with many layers and is not really about money, but about external and internal worth, value, and the importance of / necessity for what we deeply love.

Trista Hill is a professional harpist and fine artist, creativity coach, educator in the arts, and Board-Certified Music Therapist. What her formal degrees in music and art gave her pale in comparsion to the gifts she's experienced in working with creatives just like you. Visit her website — — for links to her monthly letter, blog, listening library & compositions, performances, and offerings to further you along your own glorious creative journey.  

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