Why Musicians Should Never Donate Their Talents

By on May 31, 2013


music-moneyPerhaps the biggest way society hoodwinks and exploits musicians is booking them for a fundraiser. If you’re a working musician, you’ve undoubtedly gotten this call: “Hi, it’s Jane from the _______Foundation. We were wondering if your band is able to play at our annual fundraiser next month at the _______ Lounge.” Often musicians, typically filled with self-doubt about their value anyway, will readily agree to play the event out of a sheer sense of feeling wanted. And they should feel wanted. It’s a valuable gift to have, and it has enriched their own lives in so many ways. They really should give back every now and then and contribute to worthwhile causes. Yes, all that gibberish has been beaten into musicians over the years by well-meaning non-musicians who haven’t a damn clue. And seeing that we’re a neurotic, insecure bunch anyway, we really believe this self-affirming baloney.

The concept of the fundraiser is such an easy sell to us musicians on the surface, because the fact is that we love to play. And this where we get nailed. We love what we do, while a lot of people hate what they do. So non-musicians often see musicians as the perfect pawn in the fundraising game. Musicians like doing it, and they can attract a crowd. Convenient. And the more bands on the bill, the more people show up. Often a benefit runs for hours and hours, with 10-15 bands on the bill, all playing a half-hour set each. What a cash cow to have all those names on one poster! And it’s easy. Just call them up and they’ll say yes. Every time!

What, you ask, is the problem then? Musicians merely have to donate a half-hour of their time, contributing to a worthy cause that helps those in need…those worse off than us (as if there’s a poorer element of society besides musicians). After all, it’s not costing the musician anything…right? In my 20s I agreed to play every benefit. My thoughts were in line with the erroneous rationale above. I figured it was no sweat off my back to show up and strum a few tunes. “It’s only a half hour, and everyone else is doing it,” I’d say to myself.

As I grew into my 30s and got a bit more hip to the tricks of fundraisers, I began to change my tune when these charities would call. After listening to telephone spiel (outlined in the first paragraph), I would immediately say, “Sure! Our benefit fee is $____, which is lower than our regular fee of $____.” After an uncomfortable silence, the person on the other end would usually stammer out something like, “uh, well….we were hoping you could do it for free.” At this point, I have to admit I that would get filled with giddy delight at their uncomfortable and confused demeanour. My next reply would be: “Well, our band never plays for free. I know, I know….there are a load of bands out there that will give away their time. But you’re calling me because, unlike some of those other bands, mine has a following – which means you’ll actually raise some money. So let’s talk about how you can make a lot of money and we can get paid as well.” After a little bit of confusion on behalf of the caller, we would more often than not come to an agreement and settle upon a fee. I’d tell her not to bother booking a bunch of bands; just pay us and we’ll play the whole show. On one particular benefit show, for example, the venue held 300 people and the admission was $20. That’s a $6,000 door take. Not small change. Our band was able to fill the place on our own, as opposed to needing 10 bands to do so. So we charged $1,500 and they made $4,500 (and whatever else they were making on silent auctions, private donations, and all that).

Now think about it. Did that charity do ANYTHING to fill that place? Besides advertise our name on ads, no. The band attracted most of the people. And we still gave the charity 75% of the door revenue. Not a bad deal for them, if you ask me. Now if your band doesn’t have a draw, discard all of the above. You’re off the hook anyway because you can’t make any money for them. Just let them know that when they call, and you’ve dodged a bullet.


Now you might read what I just wrote and say to yourself, “What a greedy bastard, taking $1,500 away from heart and stroke victims.” When it comes to my musical abilities, I am greedy. You know why? Because everyone else in this world is greedy as well when it comes to the worth of his or her skills. How many plumbers and electricians do you think would do free installations in a new building being constructed by a charity foundation? How about the bricklayers? Carpenters? Please make those calls and let me know how it goes. This point, in fact, illuminates a sad irony: often the reason these foundations need money is so they can pay everyone else to do things like construct and furnish buildings. Once again, the musician works for free so others can get paid.

But getting back to the fundraiser event….who else might you think is making money in the above scenario? You guessed right: the establishment. Do you really think that all the bartenders, door people, servers, and sound techs are there because they feel so strongly about the plight of cancer patients? Nope. They’re there because they’re being paid to be there. Of course the bar owner must be discounting the booze or giving a dollar or two from each drink to the charity. Or maybe the staff are donating tips? Think again. Not happening. This would go against every rule of a profit-driven business, and bars are about as profit-driven as they come. Why do you think the price of a drink has doubled in ten years while the pay for bar musicians has stayed the same? Bar owners are geniuses, really. They’ve found a goldmine with musicians….just like the fundraisers have. Our labour is either cheap or free. How the hell can you blame them for taking advantage? We haven’t demanded any different.

I do realize that there are volunteers who give freely of their time. For certain. And I’m not taking that away from them. Some have sick relatives, and some are just lonely and want to feel connected to community or whatever. But do you think these non-profit fundraising organizations are run solely by volunteers? No. People are paid salaries to run these foundations, and rightly so. They’re doing a job – just like the musician.

Ultimately, It takes most musicians at least ten years’ experience to snap out of the “playing for glory” mode and wake up to the fact that society likes to exploit musicians all time, in many ways. Even friends and family do it to you: “Come to my party…..bring your guitar,” or “can your band play my wedding reception? It’s only for a few hours.” Of course I could go on and on about how musicians are too fickle and unorganized to adhere to any union of sorts; this would mean that Joe Picker wouldn’t be able to take off early from his day job on Friday and satisfy his rock star fanstasy playing bad versions of “Wagon Wheel” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” at the Corner Lounge for $40 and all the cougar attention he can handle.

So if you’re a musician who feels obliged to play every fundraiser event happening in your town (some even TRY to get on these events for exposure, which is another gripe of mine altogether), think for a minute about the hard reality that everyone else involved is getting paid at your expense. Just think: if you stay home and don’t play a benefit, you won’t have to pay for gas, parking, new strings, the few beers you drink (there are never drink tickets), a cab home, or other probable incidentals. You won’t have to use someone else’s stinky microphone or broken down, borrowed gear. You won’t have to participate in hokey door prize announcements (oh, they will recruit you as M.C. as well if you’re not careful).

Here’s how you handle it: suggest that your band has such a good draw that they can afford to pay you and STILL make a lot of money. And as I said…if your band doesn’t have a draw, all the better. Tell them that they’re dumb for wanting you, because no one ever comes to see your band anyway. But whatever you do, just stop playing for free – especially at benefits – unless you’re sure that everyone else is working for free as well. Now if you’re a big star and don’t need the money, go for it. Big stars attach themselves to charities all the time. It’s good for the public persona, and somewhere along the line a tax rebate is usually cut for your time and talents. All good. But if you’re a working musician on a local level who respects him/herself and other musicians, refrain from the freebies and stop making money for everyone else but yourself.



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  4. frankb3

    August 12, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I concur with the writer on many points. I just had a familiar experience. Not my band, just sitting in with a friend of a friend…after a few gigs of not making even my expenses…I spoke up. “I can’t play for free anymore”. So the next booking I was invited to, had pay attached-and it was a charity event. I guess my takeaway is – speak up for yourself.

  5. neonnurse

    August 12, 2013 at 3:36 am

    Just a few thoughts on your article, which I read because a musician friend recommended it. It makes sense for a band or individual to come up with guidelines about donating performances for charity.

    On the other hand, I don’t think musicians are the only ones sacrificing here. I head up a small 501c3, and I guarantee I put in an average 1-2 8 hour days a month, for which I get no (cash) reward. There are other time and value donations going on around any charity event that you don’t know about because they are par for the course and thus go unremarked. Now it is true the paid staff at a venue ARE getting paid — but I doubt their boss gave them the option of working or not, so I don’t think it counts.

    You can easily donate your performance and still benefit. I thought of a couple of ways right off the bat, and I’m not even IN the music biz. Do you sell CDs? Tell the charity you will play for free and even donate a percentage off all your CD sales if they give you a table to sell from. Got a mailing list of fans? Tell the promoter you will send out an announcement to your group for $XX. Have your fans who come sign up for a drawing with you for some charity related swag (sign a poster?) so you can show the promoter how much your group helped pack the house. GET A THANK YOU LETTER FROM THEM WITH THIS INFO and use it to score more gigs. Pass out business cards at the event to anyone who looks like they are having a good time. Get a receipt you can use as proof of a charitable deduction for your taxes.

    There’s giving it away on the street, and then there’s creating a win-win situation as mutual friends with benefits. 🙂 With a little imagination, you can reap the good karma AND the financial gain.

  6. Corvus

    August 12, 2013 at 12:19 am

    Chris, thanks for an excellent article, outlining so many things–in much clearer language–that I have said to colleagues over the years. One small thing, though; in the very last paragraph you say that there are tax benefits to donating your time. The IRS is quite clear that donating your time and talents is NOT tax-deductable. See IRS Publication 526 for details on that. Thought you might want to know.

    • Dak1928

      August 17, 2013 at 7:43 am

      In Canada, the CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) also prohibits the issuance of receipts for gifts of services. A musician donating her time, however, could reasonably be receipted for out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a direct result of her participation in the event. Further, most fundraising events with which I have been associated have offered to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses directly, if a person is donating services. I have also been involved with many groups who have paid performers to participate.

  7. murrayandrew1

    August 10, 2013 at 10:00 am

    So what was the problem with my comment Admiisrator ?

  8. johnny_ennis

    August 9, 2013 at 10:27 am

    I like the business-minded approach to this article. I don’t necessarily agree with the remark about the charity having done nothing to fill their venue, I mean, that’s one example where it may have happened for the writer, but it definitely isn’t the case in every situation. Not every charity has the same budget for events.

    I’ve worked with a few small charities (as well as grassroots NPOs) that have benefited from the kindness of local acts, and despite being big draws to the event, these acts weren’t the main reason for the event being packed. In many of these cases it was the event itself, through the hard work of the volunteers and coordinators, that brought in the crowd.

    I applaud you on the article just the same. I definitely think this is a topic that needs to be explored by musicians and event coordinators alike.

  9. Dak1928

    August 8, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    You clearly have no idea what goes into planning and executing a charity fundraiser. Loads of people give of themselves – from artists to musicians to accountants to lawyers to business people. The planning starts months and sometimes years in advance. Some of us come home after working 10 hours, then sit in front of our phones/computers selling tickets, getting sponsorships, organizing silent auctions, and yes, asking talent for donations. We pay for a lot of stuff ourselves. In April, I gave up three Saturdays in a row driving around the city picking up auction items, borrowing equipment for the event, and running things from the printer to our army of volunteers, who were delivering tickets and flyers. I bought my own gas. I disappeared from my house at 8 in the morning and returned at 8 at night, leaving my kids to themselves. Three Saturdays in a row. We had lawyers donate services for the auction, a chartered accountant did the raffle and accounting for the event, a local media celebrity donated her services as emcee, two artists donated paintings, a local magazine donated a one-year subscription, businesses donated products and services. All to raise money for people with mental health issues. And you know what? Not one of us complained. We did it because it needed to be done. We did it because each one of us, from the person who ran the coat check to the wealthy patron of the organization, each one of us has been personally affected by mental health issues. Not because we were lonely. Not because we needed to feel a sense of belonging. We did it because it helps. No self-pity, just work. Just getting something done. So Mr. LeDrew, I also hope this article gets wide play. If it does, perhaps your phone will stop ringing. Perhaps it should.

  10. murrayandrew1

    August 8, 2013 at 10:16 am

    I agree wholeheartedly, however, I don’t agree with the general tone of your article.
    You sound angry to me.
    No need, people are only asking after all. From the charities view, I’m sure they want to avoid the perception that not much money makes it to the cause, so they feel pressure to be frugal. However you are correct, musicians offer there services for free and this undermines the value for all musicians. And it doesn’t stop at charities,all venues are guilty. A couple of points. What about asking for a tax receipt for the value, the true value, of your services, plus expenses…I’ll assume you do pay taxes!
    There’s an argument that the “exposure” is good. Bulls**t. People will now approach you for other free gigs! I’ve gotten my best referrals from the craziest of gigs , but never charities.
    Its not the charities that need an education, its the musicians. When I’m told by anyone that “so and so” is charging less, I simply say I stopped under-valuing myself long ago. You get what yo pay for!

  11. Lynda Rosborough

    August 7, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Hi Chris…Good to read this…I’m with ya all the way on this!…Thanks!…LR

  12. oneil

    August 7, 2013 at 10:16 am

    WOW, I am thinking that all your replies are from Artist. You are very wrong about your comments, there are many excellent charities that need every penny they can get their hands on. You are wrong to think that, plumbers, electricians, sheetrockers, bricklayers etc,do not do work for free. Tons of Medical professional donate their talent when ever possible. I am sure you are getting hit up left and right, but most professionals have a few charities that they work with and only work with and donate their time. Not everyone is “greedy” as you say, but it is that attitude that is making life difficult for worthy charties. Maybe on all you works you should put a disclaimer stating you do not do any charity work. Wonder how far that will get you. The only thing that is keep the USA what little is left is good people HELPING others and expecting nothing in return.

  13. Janet

    August 7, 2013 at 9:48 am

    You are right! Artists of all kinds are asked to donate their talents. They need to stand up to the well-paid CEOs and ask for a fee. I think the word “play”, in the case of musicians, has something to do with the assumption they will do it for nothing. Hope your article gets lots of publicity.

  14. Dawn

    August 7, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Good article, but you are wrong on one point. It is not musicians alone that get hit up all the time for ‘free contributions’ – it is all artists. Painters not only get asked for a painting to be donated to these same fundraisers, they have to pay for the frame. Some painters have finally said, ‘yes I will donate a painting but expect 50% of what you raise from it”. The organizers are learning – just like you pointed out – that giving some money attracts a better quality of donation.

    • Chris LeDrew

      August 7, 2013 at 9:26 am

      I focused primarily on musicians because I am one. Many artists of all mediums get hit up for freebies all the time. Thanks for the comment, but the “wrong” estimation is off-base regarding the article’s content.

  15. Bruce Chapman

    August 6, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    “If I want exposure, I’ll lie in a snow bank.”

  16. Ron LeDrew

    July 9, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    You hit the nail on the head here Chris.

  17. Deirdre

    June 20, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Well you said everything I ever thought about but never said. I’m in a band my self and we get this all the time. As much as I would love to help every charity out there and allow them to raise as much money as possible we have a life and have to live too. I often get pushed over into saying yes to volunteer but thanks for your advice. I most certainly will be using it. As you said. Everyone else gets paid for there work, why shouldn’t we.

    Great article from a great musician!

    • Chris LeDrew

      June 20, 2013 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks for reading Deidre, and for the kind words. I’m glad you agree with the article!

  18. Rich

    June 12, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Agree on all points. There are better ways to raise money for a cause than giving your talents away for free. My band raised $2000 for a boy with cancer simply by promoting his cause at our shoes and guilting them to fill the tip jar. We guilt the establishment to let us do it using the same fundraiser mentality the bar owners use. We get paid, the boy gets money…win win.

    • Chris LeDrew

      June 12, 2013 at 4:58 pm

      Yes…excellent idea. As you say, there are so many ways to do it without exploiting working musicians. Thanks for taking the time to read my piece!

  19. Chris LeDrew

    June 1, 2013 at 12:10 am

    Thanks for reading, Sharon! Ya I had sober second thought on that tasteless sentence. It took another writer to notice it. 🙂

    • Steve York

      August 8, 2013 at 4:31 pm

      I booked bands for many years in the US and had constant requests from charities. I would tell them that the band’s fee is xxxxx dollars and that we would write a contract for that amount,but I would have the leader ask each musician how much they were able or willing to contribute back to the charity.Then the charity would have to provide a receipt for each contribution so that the musicians could take a tax deduction , like normal donors.

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