I want to thank Marian in British Columbia, Canada who asks,
“How do you choose which charity (i.e., unpaid) gigs you do? I think it can be a tricky line to walk, because unpaid gigs can be a great way for musicians, who are just starting out, to get experience and make contacts. However, I found that often, the less you are paid, the less respect you get from organizers and the worse you are treated.”
Good question Marian:
While living in downtown Vancouver, summer weekend mornings would find me opening my eyes to the sound of choppers flying overhead, police whistles directing traffic and a rock band sound-checking on nearby Burrard Bridge. This particular commotion signalled that we were in for yet another “fun run” or mass-walk in aid of charity.
The bands that were dotted along the routes worked all day without pay and were included in every event to add a vital festive and energising ingredient to the experience. From home I can’t say I enjoyed the music much because, with a crowd streaming past in constant motion, the band would repeat their 3 best tunes over and over again (think Start Me up, Born to Run and Don’t Stop Me Now.) While lying in bed, wondering how I was going to escape the influx of noise and humanity, it slowly dawned on me that the only ones not getting paid were the musicians.
The charity organisers were getting paid, the people doing the sponsored running/walking were doing it on a day off from work so they were getting paid, the money raised to find a cure for [insert deadly disease here] was going towards funding medical research – in other words, paying doctors, lab-techs and pharmaceutical companies – the police were getting paid, as were the people who installed the crowd barriers, tents and, let’s not forget, the PA systems used for blasting out the sounds of the unpaid musicians.
And I blame Bob Geldof.
Only since Band Aid, Live Aid, Farm Aid, this Aid and that Aid has it become almost mandatory to have live music at every charitable event. Sponsored walks in the 1970s were usually quiet affairs where you listened to natural sounds and had singalongs along the way. But ever since Bob Geldof made it okay to ask musicians to rehearse, dress up and go to work for a slice of cold pizza, a lanyard and a gratis bottle of water everyone else thinks they can do it too.
The brazenness with which people ask musicians if they will provide their unpaid skills towards their events is staggering. You wouldn’t do it with any other profession. Imagine going up to a bus driver, teacher, plumber or chopper pilot. Would you really have the nerve to ask them to do a day’s work and then hand the pay-check over to you for your charity? Many good-hearted citizens do the equivalent of that anyway but my point is that you’d think long and hard before actually asking them to.
But, ever since the 1980’s when Mr Geldof went and convinced some millionaire pop stars to give their work away, now everyone has a licence to take performers for granted. And musicians go along with it because, a) it feels good to have your talent recognised and wanted and b) it will be an unrivalled opportunity to be seen by thousands of people in shorts who are running past you at 8 miles an hour.
Marian gave me her own example of a charity experience. It’s so good I’ll give it to you verbatim:
In one instance, we had agreed to perform an unpaid half-hour set at a gala fundraiser for rescued dogs. We showed up in our poshest clothes, he in tux, me in long gown. As the opening speeches droned on, we waited and waited…and waited. The entire event started to drag half an hour late, then 45 minutes, then an hour, then an hour and a quarter. Our set got pushed further and further back.
Finally, as they set up for a slide show of photos showing the rescued doggies, we approached the organizer and asked when we were going to get on. In a complete fluster and pressed for time, the organizer asked if we’d like to perform for 10 minutes on the stage behind the curtain while the slide show was projected on the front of the curtain.
We put our collective foot down and said NO. While it was tempting to just get the whole fiasco over and get the heck out of there, we had not dressed to the nines for nothing. One of our reasons for doing the gig was to get positive exposure and we weren’t going to get that performing behind a curtain.
In the end, we agreed to perform on the stage—in front of the curtain—at the same time as the slide show. Which was weird enough, as our music had nothing to do with what was happening in the slide show. But whatever.
We set up where they told us to, the slide show started, and we quickly discovered that the slides were being projected on top of us. It was a completely surreal experience. At one point, I glanced over at my partner to see a dog’s butt projected onto his face.
Wow. I love this story, because while unique it is also stereotypical. As chaos descends, and organisation falls apart, musicians find themselves doing things they would never have agreed to had they been proposed beforehand.
Afterwards it makes for a great story but it’s a miserable thing to live through so let’s look at some ways to avoid the misery:
Choose Your Charity
Find a cause that means something to you. Maybe one that you, or someone you know, is already involved with. This way you have, at least, some idea of where the money goes and you’ll be more in control and forgiving if things don’t go to plan. For example, I’ve posted a Pig Gig that McShane & Shaw are doing on July 31 – it’s for a pig sanctuary where abandoned pigs get to spend their lives running around in a wood. I’m doing it because, a) I like the idea of seeing some happy pigs and b) I’m friends with one of the volunteers and also the other musicians. I’m expecting the day to be a good laugh even though it probably won’t lead to other work – but if that happens then great.
Be Clear Up Front and Know Your Objectives
Treat it like a paid gig. In fact, you could try and ask for a fee. It’s not widely known but when major bands play benefit-concerts they are usually being paid. Doesn’t hurt to ask.
Assuming they aren’t paying you, find out what they want from you and get them to be specific about what they will do for you: such as the timing & duration, is there a green room and food provided? Will there be allocated parking?
Give them an idea of the value of your service (what you would normally charge for a similar gig.)
Set up a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. You will do everything you can for them but they also need to take care of your needs too. It’s the least they can do.
Know Your Limits
It’s no surprise that many events don’t go to plan. They often rely on inexperienced labour so communication can be patchy, delays endless and technical failures many. Unless you are the main draw then musical entertainment is one of the first things to get side-lined – as in Marian’s example: the organisers had lost control of the timing and the once-indispensable musical performance was now, frankly, getting in the way. Reading Marian’s story, it’s easy to think you might have cut your losses sooner but it’s hard to cut and run when you’ve spent weeks planning for a gig. There’s always a kernel of hope that it will turn out okay even when the evidence shows otherwise. Once you see that the audience is tired from overlong speeches, and that your appearance will do nothing to enhance their evening, other than make it longer, it might be best to make a polite excuse and leave, or at least cut your set very short.
Be Professional and Give Your All
When I think back it’s unusual for a charity gig to lead to paid work. If anything, it generally works the other way around. But it won’t work at all if you treat unpaid work dismissively. Marian’s duo was right to get dressed to the nines and give their all. And it’s a credit to all of us that, despite getting the equivalent of a dog’s butt projected onto our faces from time to time, we laugh it off and we carry on.