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Bang For No Buck: Making The Most of Your Non-Paying Gigs

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Class is always in session when you’re in the school of hard knocks. And with summer unfortunately winding down, I’d like to discuss with all of you how I’ve spent my summer vacation. As a musician, gigs are always at the forefront of my mind and this past summer, I’ve had the opportunity to flex my ‘gigging’ muscles and learn a few different things along the way. Fresh off of my stint in the Stonewall Inn’s: Stonewall Sensation Season 11 Competition (an American Idol style competition where I placed 4th overall in the spring), I was afforded numerous follow-up opportunities in Fire Island and multiple other locations in and around New York City. The only thing missing from these exciting opportunities was the object of any broke musicians affection: money.

As we all know, free gigs are a rite of passage for an up-and-coming act, but taking advantage of these free gigs can determine the future of your fledgling career. When committing to the inevitable free shows, it’s important for all musicians and performers to ask themselves, aside from money, how can I truly benefit from the experience? Below are the questions I asked myself during each of my gigs this summer.

Are you building momentum?

From one show, I’ve booked five more shows and actively invited casting directors, managers and publicists to these performances for future consideration. This was an objective particularly for myself and the other contestants, John Raymond Barker, Tre D’Ambrocia, and David W. Hicks during our post-Stonewall Sensation show “The Sensations” at the Duplex Cabaret in June.

I should note that none of this has happened by accident, it was also a product of promoting shows to the right people and at times offering complimentary drinks that were intended for me, or complimentary admission when permitted. I do not believe in waiting to get ‘discovered.’ I ‘discovered’ I had talent years ago, now I’m trying to turn it into a profit.

Did you do your homework?

Free shows likely mean you don’t have the funding to hire a manager, personal assistant or the highly coveted live-in maid. It’s crucial to stay on top of things. When I was invited for a two-day stay to Fire Island for Brandon Cutrell’s “Broadway On The Beach” and “Ariel Sinclair’s Weekly Pool Show” at the Cherry Grove Hotel, I made sure to research all the price points and times for traveling on the LIRR and Fire Island Ferry. Although my hotel room was included, taking a gander at the restaurant menus in and around the hotel while bringing my own food and wine, undoubtedly saved me from spending unnecessarily. After an exciting show, you’ll likely want to celebrate and you’ll likely deserve it, but you’ll want to do it without breaking the bank. Research and planning can save you a huge headache when you’re balling on a budget. Also, pre-gaming is a boy’s best friend.

Are you performing for more than just your friends/Facebook friends?

As a guest performer for Ariel Sinclair, I performed my single “Floating On Air” from the EMW Music Group compilation album Shuffle to benefit VH1’s Save The Music foundation. Getting new listeners is part of the big idea with free shows, we all deserve something for our hard work but with musicians it’s important to make sure that we know how it’s going to pay off. If your free show is just for the crowd of the same friends over and over again it may not always be a plus (aside from conditioning). Performing in Cherry Grove exposed me to whole new audience of young, vibrant party-goers. Considering the nature of my music, this was the crowd I have been searching for. This leads me to the next question I asked myself….

Are you getting the right exposure?

Performing for the first time in front of a brand new audience gave me the opportunity to gauge my own capability, the likeability of the song itself and how well it would be received. Evaluating yourself based on the response of a new audience will likely tell you if you have the right audience, where to possibly find your audience and how you can improve. Going forward, I have a better idea of what audiences I appeal to.

Are you making yourself an important part of the experience?

While performing in the Anti-Violence Project of New York City, a charity event in June, I made sure to ask how else I could help. Charity events are about raising money, not making money. I made sure to ask how much money they were trying to raise and what issues related to the charity I should address when speaking in between songs. Little details can make a big difference.

How much is it cutting into your other obligations?

It’s all about sacrifice when you want to improve. If gigging is your priority it will, to an extent, cut into your obligations at some point. However, deciding on a proper balance of other responsibilities is essential. When faced with the option of declining a paid writing gig over a non-paying music gig for instance, I considered all of the above questions and weighed my pros and cons. If you feel as though the gig will reasonably help you progress to a possible paying gig or worthwhile future opportunities (either through networking, promotion, conditioning or the right exposure), the sacrifice will likely become much easier.

Doing free shows is a balance of fun, work, planning and watching your budget. When everything from laundry for costumes to buying sheet music can run up the bills and run down the bank account, the truth is musicians have many things to consider when it comes to finances. If you’re anything like me, your career has undoubtedly already cost you time and money in years of lessons and tuition payments. Having a plan and realizing other benefits has truly helped me progress and I believe it will do the same for you. While keeping these questions in mind, I never let my free shows, which will inevitably continue, cost more than they’re worth. For musicians, money isn’t the only valuable item to consider.

If you’re in New York City on Friday August 16th, my next show is FREE for you and me both! I’ll be performing in Lavinia Draper’s Show at Stonewall Inn celebrating the music of Madonna. No cover, show starts at 10p, 21+, 52 Christopher St., New York, NY.

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Freddie Cosmo - Associate Debtitor

Freddie Cosmo - Associate Debtitor

Freddie Cosmo is a recording artist from Philadelphia, PA. living in New York City by way of Miami. He spent all his money on undergrad music school and feels as though he owes all musicians (and the universe for that matter) the most accurate information on how to be broke without giving up on their dreams. He would like to shamelessly invite you to check out his music at