The Never Ending Argument – Playing for ‘exposure’


Thanks to an attempted protest at this past weekend’s Break Out West, I’ve seen a handful of people discussing this topic online. People have been sharing the articles (links below) that have been written and throwing in their two cents. Everything I have read has had some interesting comments and great arguments from a variety of different perspectives. I’ve been asked a couple times for my thoughts on the topic and at first I was going to stay away, but I then I noticed there is one perspective that hasn’t been shared that I think needs to be.


In case someone reading this does not know what I’m referring to, this is in regards to the recent ‘picketing’ that occurred in Edmonton protest the fact that artists performing at Breakout West Music Fest are not getting paid. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a firm believer that artist should get paid (or receive something of value) when they perform. Other music industry colleagues can also vouch that I have been around long enough to know what goes into putting on a show, costs involved and even the logistics, which can impact the artist getting paid and sometimes the opportunity to play in front of key industry professionals can be worth more than a pay-check.

I know both sides (as well as a couple others) and as much as people may not like to hear this, I’m a firm believer that there is no fixing this situation. We can argue, protest, and/or discuss this topic to death, but the simple fact of the mater is that it will never go away. Artists will always be asked to perform for free and there will always be artists who agree to play for free, so the cycle will continue with no end. It could be just me, but it feels like both sides expect the other to change their view and change their ways and that’s never going to happen.

Don’t agree with me? Then I challenge you to look at it outside of the music industry.

Ask a lawyer how often they get asked for free legal advice.

A photographer how often they’re asked to take pictures at a wedding for free because it’s family or a close friend.

Ask your buddy who owns a truck how often they get asked to help someone move?

Retail outlets and restaurants are regularly asked for donations in exchange for putting their logo in the bulletin, program, brochure, webpage,…in other words for “exposure”. Even at Breakout West they have sponsors and donors who have donated services in exchange for a space on their poster or handbooks, to help the donor gain some additional ‘exposure’

I think every profession in one way or another is asked to provide their goods or services for free or in exchange for ‘exposure’ in one way or another. Looking back at my job history, when I started working for BMG music a lot of my friends assumed that meant they would be able to get free CDs. I was regularly asked for tickets to shows, even shows that BMG had nothing to do with. When I worked at Shaw, whenever I told people what I did and what company I worked for, the first question I always got was “Can you hook me up with some free cable?”

We’ve probably all done it at one point or another, we’ve asked someone to do something for us for free that they typically get paid to do and for the most part we don’t even know that we are doing it. I sincerely doubt that Breakout West is intentionally not paying artist to screw the artists over or to line their pockets. They believe they are creating an opportunity for artists to play in front of industry professionals they may not always get the opportunity to play in front of. At the same time the American Federation of Musicians union and the other musicians involved likely had the best intentions picketing/protesting at various Breakout West events, but in my opinion they went about it the wrong way.

Musicians getting asked to perform for free or ‘exposure’ isn’t going to go away. Protesting or complaining online is not going to fix what cannot be fixed. Instead, I believe we should be investing our time educating ourselves and other musicians so that we know when is the right time to say yes and when to say no to ‘exposure’ gigs. Many businesses that are regularly approached for donations have specific standards or areas in which they will agree to get involved with. ATB Financial for example indicates on their webpage who they’re willing to donate to and sponsor. Artists should adopt the same policies.

You don’t see Pepsi complaining that Coke didn’t get paid for all the product and swag they gave away at an event. Chances are if Pepsi is complaining it is because they missed out on getting the same opportunity to promote their product. Every business is different, has different values and different ways operating. Every musician is different as well and just because you may not agree to play a certain ‘exposure’ gig it doesn’t mean another artist might see some value in taking the gig. As an artist know what is best for you and your business and accept that sometime that might mean doing a gig for free and remember, if the gig isn’t right for you, you can always say “No”.

Here’s some links to the articles I was referring to:



I also wrote another blog along the same topic over a year ago:

Exposure? Lets See If This Ruffles Some Feathers



About thef3k

Danny Fournier is a marketing expert with over 15 years working within the music industry, including 5 years with a major label. With university degrees in both Marketing and Sociology, Danny brings a unique perspective to marketing with a strong understanding of the needs of the end user and how to engage them. Along with his music and business background, Danny has worked as a corporate trainer, facilitating and write courses for corporate audiences. Danny has been commended for his facilitation skills and understanding of adult learning.
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4 Responses to The Never Ending Argument – Playing for ‘exposure’

  1. Jim Good says:

    I know it will never go away completely. But it’s growing, taking over, and events like these compete directly against paying venues on one of the traditionally busiest weekends of the year. Pick your spots, for sure.


  2. Jefferson Kemper says:

    This is a terrible take. Jim good has it right. Will musicians ever stop getting requests to work for free? No, obviously.

    But this isn’t a cousin’s wedding or a church gig. This is a huge series of concerts where lots and lots of people are getting their music-watching done. If this work doesn’t pay, that’s a huge part of the available employment for musicians being valued at $0. Each specific case matters.

    It’s bad enough that artists already get screwed on income by streaming services, now the expectations for fair pay are slipping for live concerts: once a more reliable source of income for musicians hit by drops in album sales.

    The people managing this event presumed that they have the power to bully bands into taking the job, but this is exactly why unions exist. By orgabizing, musicians are putting pressure on the decision-makers and fighting back against the unfair practice.


    • thef3k says:

      You are 100% correct. Musicians will never stop getting asked to play for free, just like other professions, lawyers/doctors/mechanics/accountants/etc/etc often get asked to provide their services for free. I work within the music industry helping independent artists and I’m constantly told (not asked) that I should be providing my services for free…ironically it’s typically the artists complaining about being asked to play for free who are in turn asking me to work for free. The difference here between musicians and lawyers, doctors, mechanic, etc is those other professions know when to say ‘no’.

      It is unfortunate that you are right, often bands are pressured or bullied into taking the non-paying gigs, or at least feel that they’re being pressured in one way or another, but the only way that’s going to stop is if musicians start saying ‘no’ and not giving into the pressure and bullying. When I played in a band, even when we first started doing gigs, as a band we maintained one rule, that we would never play for free and we stuck to that rule, making an exception only once. That one time we took the free gig (lost money paying for gas to get to the gig 2 hours away) was because we knew which industry people were going to be there, were going to see us play and we walked out of that gig negotiating a development deal with a major label. The event that was here in Edmonton was a similar event, not a series of concerts for music fans (although it was open for music fans to attend any of the shows) it was a series of showcases were artists got the opportunity to play in front of music industry professionals they normally won’t get to play in front of. Some artists may not see the value in that and there’s nothing wrong with that because for some artists it wasn’t the ideal place/event for them to showcase in. But for some artists it was a good opportunity that BreakOutWest had created for them. There was no pressure to take any of the showcase spots. All the artists had the opportunity to say ‘no’ if they didn’t want to do it.

      Artists need to learn to know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’ to unpaid gigs. The majority of the organizers I know aren’t doing it to screw the musicians over. They are offering the opportunity with the best intentions to try and help the artist. If that wasn’t the case, and we know it’s not always the case, the best way to fight the people trying to screw artists is by saying ‘no’. The more good artists say ‘no’ to playing their non-paying gig, the worse their line up could end up looking, which in turn impacts the future of their event.

      You also made a comment about artists already getting screwed on income by streaming services…I’m not going to disagree that the amount is low, but you have to remember that is how much an artist is getting paid for 1 person listening to a song once. For the first time ever, artists are getting paid every time someone listens to their song via streaming. When someone buys a track on iTunes, the artists gets their share but that’s it. The customer could listen to that song 1000 times and the artist still only gets paid the amount from the initial sale. Through streaming they get paid for each of those 1000 times. Streaming looks bad now, but the long run game has a lot of potential…artist just need to get people to listen to their music.


  3. Pingback: Two more cents on this debate | Might As Well Blog About It

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