Making a living as an artist isn’t always easy. According to an independent market report, around half of all artists take home less than $5,000 a year from their art or performances. So, does it really make sense for an artist to go out of their way and take volunteer-based gigs?
After all, giving away a free performance seems counterintuitive for the time and resources you put into it. But, those volunteering gigs may be better for artists than you think. And, we aren’t just talking about feeding the altruism meter.
Volunteer Work and Artists
Let’s make this clear. We don’t always think it’s a good idea for artists to work “for exposure.” In fact, we think that the “exposure” word gets used to abuse artists’ talents and time (especially when it’s big companies trying to get some free cash at your expense.) But, we do think that volunteer work is a different story. Really, volunteering is an incredible opportunity for everyone, let alone artists.
A quarter of Americans volunteer with nonprofits annually and 94% of them say that volunteering improves their mood, while 74% of them say that volunteering reduced their overall stress levels. Volunteering can be seriously good for your health.
But, there are obvious benefits that go beyond those feel-good vibes and happy smiles. Artists can use volunteering to help them establish themselves as a, well... an artist. And, believe it or not, those nonprofit gigs can help artists work towards the full-time gigging lifestyle they are seeking.
But it’s not all glamour. So, let’s dive into some pros and cons of volunteer-based jobs for artists.
1. The “Exposure” Factor
Alright, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Every gig is good for exposure. Every time you take the stage, display that latest album for sale, or perform a popular song, you’re getting noticed. And that’s never a bad thing.
This is a controversial topic. Some places claim that you should never work “for free,”while others claim that it’s an amazing way to get free exposure. Really, it’s up to you. But, we do think there’s a difference between working “for free” and working for a nonprofit.
There’s certainly an issue with brands asking artists to work for free when they have the cash-in-the-bank to pay them. But nonprofits are different. You’re not the only one volunteering and free labor makes the nonprofit industry tick.
So, you’ll definitely get some free exposure, but you’ll also be helping a cause. That’s a win-win.
2. Get Noticed By Other Artists or Talent Agencies
Nonprofits almost always have corporate sponsors. Really, every event has sponsors — so even nonprofit gigs can get you noticed by bigger brands that you can later do some networking with.
Traditionally, getting noticed by companies is one of the most difficult components for artists — and it can take years to finally get the recognition you deserve. Nonprofits or free events can be an easy way to hack that timeframe and build a name for yourself.
3. You Might Still Get Paid
Depending on the venue, you may still walk away with some cash in your pocket. It’s up to you to negotiate this part, but many free events (nonprofit and otherwise) will let you sell music, merchandise or put out a tip jar at the event. Since most artists’ profits likely come from merchandise or album purchases anyway, you may not lose out on much income by taking a free gig.
4. The Feel Good Vibes and Public Image
We can’t skip the obvious. Volunteering your time to a nonprofit is just a nice thing to do. It makes you feel good, it helps further a cause, and you can help spread a mission.
1. Does it Cheapen Your Image?
Performing for free can make you feel ... cheap. And it can give off the image that your band isn’t good enough to take straight cash or real gigs. Developing this status can build into guests or other gigs expecting you to always perform for free or at cheap rates.
2. Some Gigs are Less Altruistic Than Others
If you don’t believe in the mission, working for free may not give you those feel-good vibes. And, when you work for free for for-profit events, you may not feel the love either.
Now, we know that there are thousands of artists who work for free across the globe when they start out; we want to be clear:
There is absolutely nothing wrong with working for free — even if it’s not for a nonprofit. There are always music events looking for bands. And you may not have the exposure yet to make them chase you. It’s fine to work these gigs for free and try to sell some merch. There’s a certain “you have to pay your dues” aura in the music and art industry that make this type of relationship thrive.
3. You May Have to Conform a Little
Nonprofits have an image they have to conform to; that means you too. You don’t want to play the song “murder blood machine“ at that nonprofit charity drive concert for children. It just doesn’t look good. Some artists have a massive issue with conforming to branded expectations while others don’t. This will come down to personal preferences. contracts and other agreements.
However, be ready to bend your brand a little to fit the mold of these free gigs.
4. It’s Time Consuming
When you’re playing for free, you’re not playing for cash. You might have been able to use your time making more money doing something else. Again, this is a personal preference. If you’re not interested in helping nonprofits, and you’re more interested in the dough. This may be a big con for you.
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