Doing gigs for free is something that I've noticed can be a tender subject for a lot musicians (especially young musicians). Personally, I have no beefs with doing things for free and I think people need to be a little more open to things before making judgments because it's "free". Obviously you don't want to waste your time on a crappy gig that doesn't have anything to offer you, but I can think of a lot of examples in my own short freelancing career where a volunteered gig has led me to paying work.
Here are a few factors I take in to consideration when asked to volunteer my services:
- Who is contracting?
- People understand that doing free gigs isn't always ideal and I think most people will look at it as a favor. Having people owe you a "favor" is a good thing if it could lead to paid work in the future.
- Who will I meet there?
- Whether it's the conductor, other musicians, or someone totally different, it never hurts to get out and meet people. Even if it's free, show up prepared and play well. You'd hate to sit next to someone that could help you out and make a bad impression because you're playing poorly.
- Do I have anything else going on?
- I have a confession to make that most other freelancers can relate to. If I only played when I was getting paid to do so, I wouldn't be playing very much. Sound familiar? If it doesn't cost me more than a few bucks to travel and I'm not missing anything important, I'll always consider doing things.
I know some people (a lot more than you would think) that only want to show up and play when they're getting paid. That's fine and dandy, but I think people are a little delusional about starting out careers in music. I'll say it again, if I only played when I was getting paid, I would not playing much at all. That would be totally lame.
Obviously every situation is unique, but I really think people should open up a little more to the idea of volunteering their talents. For example, if you're a wanting to start a group that does wedding ceremonies, you'll find that it is incredibly tough to cut through the mobs of ensembles doing the same thing. Would it be worth the time to volunteer your group to play at a local wedding showcase?
Absolutely. If it means an opportunity to prove yourself and legitimize your abilities to someone who could potentially pay you, then it is absolutely worth doing. Keep an open mind with this and always be on the lookout for the next opportunity.
I'll leave you with a quote from my friend, mentor, and former teacher Jeff Lang that I think is an important thing to keep in mind:
"It's not about being in the right place at the right, but being some place all the time."