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The Real Cost of Playing for Exposure

As every aspiring musician takes their first step onto the stage, dreams of fame, success, and the pure joy of performing live fill their hearts. The path to becoming a gigging musician, however, is filled with complexities, contradictions, and challenges that might not be apparent to the uninitiated. One such challenge is the age-old practice of venues offering exposure instead of pay.

But what does this mean for musicians, especially those just starting out? Let's dive deep into the world of gigging, the real cost of playing for exposure, and the careful balance needed to navigate this exciting but demanding landscape.

Starting Out: Playing for Exposure

When you're starting, building a name for yourself is crucial. You need shows to get social media content, and you need content to get shows. Sometimes, a non-paying gig is more than fine. It's an opportunity to get seen, to practice performing live, and maybe to even enjoy some comped food or drinks, and hopefully, tips.

But there's a catch.

The Real Cost of Being a Musician

What some venue owners seem to ignore is that THE SHOW IS ONLY 5% OF THE ENTIRE PROCESS OF BEING A MUSICIAN! There's the years of lessons, endless practice, expensive gear, writing time, crazy amounts of rehearsal, packing, driving, stage setup, soundcheck, and then, finally, an hour or two of the actual show. NOT TO MENTION, you're playing live music for THEIR patrons!

And what do the venues say? "Yeah, we have a lot of people coming in here on a Saturday night, so the exposure should cover your costs, right?" NO!

Well, maybe... sometimes yes. Sometimes playing for exposure does pay off. But it's a gamble, a calculated risk that must be weighed carefully.

The Pros and Cons of Playing for Exposure


  • Building Your Portfolio: It looks good to other venues in the area if you played nearby.

  • Getting Content: You need videos of yourself playing live for other venues to see what you do.

  • Networking: Meeting other musicians and industry people who can help you down the line.


  • Lowering the Standards: If bands play for free, venues get used to not paying, which can create a toxic environment for musicians.

  • Financial Struggle: Be prepared to be poor at first. You'll likely need a "day job" to support your gigging habit, especially in the beginning.

Different Deals: Door Deals, Cut of the Bar

Then there are the "door deals" where you get a portion of the tickets sold, or a "cut of the bar" meaning the more the bar makes, the more you make. Sounds fair? Not always.

The cut of the bar, in particular, has become a somewhat controversial practice. It makes your success tied to how much people drink at your shows. This might not sound like a problem, but it can skew the music itself.

This means that the music becomes homogenized, the same stuff over and over again. Original bands with incredible material might struggle because inebriated people don't recognize their songs. Musicians find themselves compelled to play covers like "Come On Eileen" or "Free Bird" to keep the crowd, and thus the bar, happy.

Balancing Act: Playing the Game

So what's an aspiring gigging musician to do? It's a balancing act. You have to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each gig, considering your long-term goals and short-term needs.

It's about playing the game. It's about adding those crowd-pleasing covers, appeasing the drinks, so the bar does well, you make more money, and you are asked to play there again. But it's also about not losing yourself, your creativity, your originality.

Conclusion: The Real Journey of a Gigging Musician

Being a gigging musician is not just about performing. It's about learning, growing, compromising, and sometimes, fighting for what you deserve. It's a thrilling, rewarding, but also incredibly demanding journey.

There will be times when playing for exposure makes sense. And there will be times when you need to stand your ground and demand proper compensation for your art.

Know your worth, be aware of the realities of the industry, and never lose sight of why you picked up that instrument in the first place. The road to success is long, winding, and filled with potholes, but with determination, creativity, and a good dose of reality, you can navigate it and make your musical dreams come true.

Captivated by the world of music and eager to explore piano, voice, guitar, or bass guitar lessons? Take the next step on your musical journey by filling out our MORE INFORMATION form, and we'll connect with you soon!

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