On a recent trip to Seattle, friends and I visited Tula’s restaurant and jazz club. We went to see the supremely talented Bill Anschell Quartet perform. One of Bill’s song titles really stuck a chord with me (excuse the musical pun). It was called ‘The Dreaded E Word.’ After some light hearted audience interaction, it became clear that the ‘e word’ dreaded by many musicians, was exposure. 

The power of exposure

As musicians, we’ve all been asked to play gigs for ‘exposure’ and this is a topic that generates much passionate debate. From smaller charity gigs, to pubs, restaurants, support slots and even some of the worlds largest events E.g. SXSW in Austin Texas… It’s very common for musicians to be asked to play for free with the promise of something bigger. And no-one can deny, exposure is very important. 

In recent years, online performances (e.g. YouTube or Soundcloud recordings) have proven to be an incredible vehicle for exposure to the world… We’ve all seen the power of the internet when it comes to launching music careers. I wonder where Justin Bieber or Adele would be now, if they hadn’t been able to access to the world through the internet.

I’ve played tons of free gigs. They’ve been fun, I’ve gained loads of experience interacting with live audiences, and my confidence and capability as a singer has rocketed. Indirectly, over a longer period of time, I’ve also secured more work. This is because gigging so frequently has helped me to build a huge network of musicians and promoters.

Sometimes exposure can be incredibly powerful, and it can get you very far. If you’re performing at industry showcases or at SXSW for free, then of course the potential is huge. You could land interest from a label, an agent or other valuable contacts which means it’s worth going for. But that’s not always the case.

So what’s the problem?
  • It could just be a free gig that doesn’t benefit you in any way, but benefits the promoter by bringing lots of people to the venue / event. 
  • There’s the possibility that playing this show will just expose you to other people that want to book you for free. 
  • Musicians aren’t always valued as much as we should be, for talent or experience. So there’s a danger that accepting free gigs validates the belief that musicians should play for free. 
  • Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Well, it doesn’t pay for anything at all. 

The free gigs that I’ve played have generated ‘exposure’ in terms of people seeing me sing, but not much else as a direct outcome. I estimate that only around 5-10% of these gigs have led to a direct paid booking. That doesn’t mean that these gigs have been useless, it just means I need to weigh up pros and cons for each request I get. 

I guess the part that’s always concerned me is the fact that the act of exposing is just that… Exposing you to people, places or opportunities, but exposure itself is the only guarantee. Yes, you’ll get exposure to the 5, 50, 500, 5000 people in the room, but nothing else is guaranteed. 

This is why offers of gigs for ‘exposure’ can be so tricky to navigate. 

The killer questions 

There are no hard and fast rules here, whether you choose to accept a gig for exposure is a very subjective thing. You’ll need to weigh up the pros an cons for each offer that comes your way. To help you on your way, we’ve pulled together 4 killer questions to ask yourself when it comes to playing for exposure:

    1. What musical goals you looking to achieve?

    If you’re building up a fan base as a solo singer songwriter, one of your goals will be to get your music out to as many people’s ears as possible. In this case, then a free gig will help you on that mission. If you’re trying to make a comfortable living as an established, professional musician, then a free gig won’t be so tempting. Unless there’s potential for future bookings, of course. if you haven’t set your musical goals yet, check out our article here

    1. What exposure will you get?

    Will this be a venue full of folk music fans that will love the folk music you write and perform? Or will the venue be full of punk rockers expecting the Sex Pistols? Think about who / what you’re being exposed to by playing this show, and make sure it helps you achieve your goals. If money isn’t being exchanged for your talent, then what is?

    1. What does success look like as a result of an ‘exposure’ gig?

    This is your career, it’s important you think about the next steps. If there’s an important record label or promoter at this event, then what could happen as result of this show? If the folk music fans fall in love with your songs, then how will you capture these new fans for future events? Set clear expectations for the show. 

    1. Be selfish – who will benefit more from this? You? Or them? 

    Make sure this gig will benefit you. And unless it benefits you, don’t say yes. Value your talent and what you’ve worked hard to offer. Don’t say yes for the sake of it and most importantly don’t allow people to take advantage of you. 

    Over to you… What are your thoughts on playing gigs for exposure? We’d love to hear what you think. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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