I will never pay for the “privilege” of playing for the public.

More than once, I have been asked to play my Great Highland Bagpipes at a fund raising event, only to show up at the gate and be asked to pay the cover charge to get in. Fortunately, in each case, I was able to get hold of someone in charge and bypass the gate fee. In each case though, at least a few of the other musicians seemed to think I was being arrogant and insisting on some special accommodation. One fellow musician even came up to me and told me I was “stealing” from the person whose medical bills we were fund-raising for by not paying the cover. At the time, I didn't know what to say.  I still didn't pay the $5.00, but only because I didn't even have $5.00 at the time. I'm a teacher, so you're lucky I can afford the gas to get to your venue.

It's always bugged me that I wasn't able to clearly explain to that bully why none of the musicians at the event should have felt obligated to pay for the chance to play . Then I heard my pipe major explain why we were turning down a chance to play in a local parade. We had been contacted by the organizers of this charity parade, but when the paperwork came in the mail though, it turned out there was a $50 registration fee that hadn't been mentioned on the phone. Our manager asked to have the fee waived, but the organizers seemed confused that anyone marched in any parade without paying some kind of fee, and especially befuddled when our manager explained that we normally charged $300 to march in a parade. Dutifully, our manager came to practice and asked if the band would be willing to pay the fee to march in the parade, whereupon my pipe major said the magic words that changed my view of charity fundraisers forever. 

“We can play anywhere for free.”

As a person trying to raise funds for a charitable cause, you are, and lets not understate it here, begging for money. Now, for whatever reason, you have decided to have the musicians in the area help you in this endeavor. This can serve as a mutually beneficial arrangement; the band gets a chance to strut its stuff for a potentially new audience, and the fundraiser gets the bands to appeal to their groupies for fiscal support. That's all wonderful, but let's not put too fine a point on it, the band can stay home that night and actually be better off financially then if they show up to your event.

As musicians, we've all been beginners, and we've all played gigs for free at least in part for the opportunity to practice playing in front of an audience. Even the beginner has devoted effort outside the time of the event to prepare for public performance though. By asking us to pay when we arrive at your gate, you are completely devaluing the very thing you asked us to contribute in the first place. If you wanted our money, not our music, you should have simply asked us for money. Fundraisers would like us to think they are doing us a favor by letting us play for their audience. Don't give into this fallacy. You can go busking on a street corner if you're that desperate for an audience. As musicians, I do feel that we are somewhat obligated to promote charitable causes, if only because the arts are considered charitable causes in most places. Don't be fooled by the hype though. If you are performing for a fund-raising event, you are doing the organizers a favor no matter how big the potential audience, and you can play anywhere for free.

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Comment by David Henderson on February 18, 2012 at 10:35

I think the figure of $10,000 was what I remember from the Reader's Digest in the dentist's many moon ago.  But the principle was the same!  Thanks for the message!

Comment by Jenni on February 18, 2012 at 0:21

That's a beautiful story about Caruso!   I hadn't heard it before, and now I shall be sharing it everywhere citing you as my source.  (And $10,000 was not small change back at the turn of the last century!)

Comment by David Henderson on February 17, 2012 at 17:17

I have played many, many times for charity fund-raisers.  My photo on the left was taken at a free festival.  That's all great.  I have found it prudent to ask what the charity is for and I will only play if I am in sympathy.  My friends are much the same.  My pal Trevor knows lots of people and loves putting together ad hoc bands to go and play.  These are almost inevitable small scale occasions and when we get there, we find that the catering is an American supper where the attendees fetch the buffet with them.  There is always a raffle and most ticket sellers seem to ignore the band.  We always insist on buying the tickets and I have no problem in accepting a prize if I win!  Jenni is right though;  as a semi pro musician, I am effectively contributing the price of my usual engagement fee and the organisers ought to be using that as the primer for raising money by selling tickets.  

There is a lovely story about Enrico Caruso who was asked to appear at a fundraising dinner for an orphanage.   He accepted and the tickets were sold.  Three days before the dinner, the organisers received a letter saying that Mr Caruso had pleasure in enclosing an Invoice for his usual appearance fee of $3ooo.  Consternation reigned but it was too late to cancel.  On the night, Caruso sang for the folks after dinner.  Then he made a short speech.  "Caruso the artiste must be paid.  Please accept this check for $10,000 from Caruso the man!"

Not a bad precedent to follow!

Comment by Jenni on February 16, 2012 at 23:14

I've even thrown a few bucks into the donation bins myself at some venues.  But as an invited performer, you shouldn't feel obligated to put in additional money. 

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