Playing for Free

By: Edna Landau

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Dear Edna:

I am in my last year of an undergraduate program at a conservatory in the U.S. where I have formed a string quartet with fellow students. We have only been playing together for less than a year but we have hopes to stay together after graduation. Meanwhile, our biggest challenge is to find places to perform. There are churches and even one or two art galleries in the area where we believe we could give concerts but we would not receive a fee. This doesn’t particularly bother us but we have been advised that we should never play for free. Do you agree with this approach?—Michael B.

Dear Michael:

While I understand that whoever advised you wanted to ensure that your group would not be taken for granted, it is common for ensembles who are just starting out to occasionally play for free in order to build up a fan base and gain performing experience. Performing for a public that is not familiar with you, as opposed to school where the audience is composed of friends and teachers, is a valuable and essential experience. You have to give a little extra to connect with such an audience and their reaction will be true and unbiased. These types of concerts provide important opportunities to run through repertoire that you wish to polish and maybe even perform at a competition. Whenever you play a free concert, be sure to ask the venue whether they have a mailing list to whom they might send an announcement of your concert.  You will also want to have a sign in book somewhere near the entrance that encourages members of the audience to join your mailing list by submitting their e-mail address. Should you wish to encourage voluntary donations, you can put a basket and sign next to the book. You might also want to put a sentence in your program to the effect that you are grateful to each member of the audience for coming and should they wish to support your group with a voluntary donation, it would be greatly appreciated. You might accompany this with an invitation to come backstage to meet all of you following the concert. The key point is that playing a free concert doesn’t seem like an imposition when it affords you opportunities to get the name of your quartet known and maybe even to generate some publicity. The venue that is hosting you may have some connections to the press and might be able to get some advance coverage of your upcoming appearance. While this type of performance is unlikely to be reviewed, it is possible that you or the venue know some bloggers who write about arts events and would be willing to come and share their reactions on their blog. If the venue is willing to allow you to make a video of your concert, and assuming you can do so without undertaking a major financial commitment, this could be a real plus, especially if you are lacking any exposure on YouTube. Finally, be sure to take the time to invite any people who might prove useful to you in the future and who will spread the word in the arts community about your group and its potential for a promising future. Once you consider all of these possible benefits to be gained from one concert, playing for free doesn’t seem at all like a compromise.

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© Edna Landau 2011

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