Why You Should Do Gigs For Experience 

Occasionally on the Facebook pages of entry level performers you’ll see links like this pop up. Often they are well written and can also be very funny. Like the one I just linked too. I enjoy all of them and after reading them I always felt the pang of being a struggling artist and how frustrating it felt to be offered gigs where the payment was experience, exposure, or everything besides money. Except today. Today after reading about some punk rockers leveling up I didn’t feel that pang. In fact, I couldn’t even remember the last time I was offered one of the three E’s in exchange for a performance. 

When I first started performing, I was broke. I only started performing because, after moving to San Francisco, I couldn’t get a regular job anywhere. Anywhere. After spending a month and my life savings trying I was out of money. I was living in a residency hotel in a shitty part of town. I paid rent nightly for a “furnished” closet and two meals. So I started twisting balloons at Fisherman’s Wharf. I spend the better part of the next three years there. I sucked too. I was awful. I auditioned to be a part of the Pier 39 street performer program and was denied and I was generally having a hard time. A good day of busking meant I could take the bus home and I didn’t have to walk with my trunk of props thirty blocks. All the while I was scouring Craigslist for gigs. I took anything I could get my hands on. Nobody had told me not to work for the three E’s. So I did. I did them all. I’m glad I did. Because I didn’t have anything else and I needed what they were offering: experience, exposure, and everything besides money. Mostly I needed food. 

If You Are Getting Offered The Three E’s As Payment…You Probably Need Them

Seriously. I don’t have time to do gigs that don’t pay anymore. A lot of professions have a system in place where you get your chops doing free shows. Dance and music schools have recitials or you play in battle of the band type scenarios or do residencies. In theater you are working for nothing to do your first shows and comedians wait around all night for the chance to perform for free. Sometimes stand-up comedians even have to bring people to the show in order to perform for free. And they jump at the chance. They need experience. They need exposure. They need everything but money. Chances are, if you’re mad about someone offering you one of the E’s as payment, you do too. 

If You’re Available…Why Not? 

Seriously. What’s the harm? It’s an audience. Whats more, it’s an audience that didn’t A. Pay to see you or B. Someone paid you to perform for. Experiment. Try that new routine. That new joke. If you weren’t working that night anyway…why not? If you worried that you’ll commit to one of these gigs and then lose the chance to work for money then tell them that b/c you are working for free you can’t guarantee you’ll be able to do the event. You’ll give them plenty of notice (At least 24 hours) of course. I’ve was able to keep my calendar full thanks to these kinds of despicable artist hating gigs and they made me a better performer. You know how you get to Carnegie Hall right? 

There Are Things Worth Way More Than Money

Like tax write offs. Every gig I did where I didn’t receive a cash payment I considered a charitable donation. I would write them an invoice and do all the tax stuff I’d need to in order for it to be legit. I often “charged” more for these things than I normally would if cash were on the table. It worked well for me. I also have a portfolio stocked with pictures, videos, and clippings from these events. It’s important to document your work and doing one gig per month in exchange for professional photos and videos is worth a ton. You also never know who you are going to meet. Have business cards. Think of it like networking. 

If you are in a position where people aren’t approaching you with more paying work than you can handle. If you are still getting your first 100 shows under your belt. If you have free time in your schedule. Take the gig. Make it work for you. There are no fewer paying gigs out there because people are offering the three E’s instead of money. The only thing you’ll have less of is experience, exposure, and everything else. 

4 thoughts on “Why You Should Do Gigs For Experience 

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  1. Correction: In the USA, you can’t deduct the value of donated services from your taxes, even with a receipt or invoice.

    Think of it like this: Imagine they did pay you $500, and you then donated that $500 back to the charity. You’d have to declare the $500 as income and then deduct that same $500 as a donation.

    Or think of it like this: https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/i1040sca.pdf (search for “Value of your time or services”)

    Either way you think of it, it’s a wash, right?

    No. It’s even worse than that. You still have to pay Self Employment Tax on that $500 on your Schedule SE before you deduct it as a donation to charity on your Schedule A. The deduction on Schedule A only reduces your Adjusted Gross Income used to calculate your federal tax, but not your not you Net Income From Self Employment used to calculate your Self Employment Tax on schedule SE. Reported correctly, the game you suggest would actually cost you about $75 (≈15% of $500).

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  2. Write offs are like speeding in your car. If you don’t get caught there’s no problem 🙂

    Even if you can’t write off the fee donation you can write off mileage and any other expense you can imagine for the gig like a dry cleaning bill.

    Technically you are not allowed to write off your stage clothes as long as they can be worn for other uses. Another good argument for working in a bunny costume.

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  3. I’m glad you wrote this article. I often hear a mindless binary rant about never take a free gig, you are always worth money. There are many great gigs that are free and often you aren’t worth any money.

    I still think most free gigs are bullshit but they should be considered. I was offered a chance to perform on Reading Rainbow with Levar Burton but it was turned down on my behalf because it was unpaid. 😦

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