My Continuing Experiment with “Free” – This Time At a Gig

by Jason on December 8, 2009 · 3 comments

in Business, Marketing/Promotion, Pay-What-You-Want, Thoughts

Rex the Pool Playing Dog. Photo by Darrah Parker

Rex the Pool Playing Dog. Photo by Darrah Parker

This past Saturday my band Water Babies played a double-bill at a The Comet Tavern with our friend, saxophonist Lee Redfield. Lee’s band plays pop covers in a jazz style, funkier soul-jazz tunes and some more free, modal kinds of explorations. Water Babies plays what we call “Spontaneous Funk”, which is all improvised funk music. You can see what I mean here.

The Comet is known more for hosting thrashing metal bands than jazz and improvisational funk groups, so I was a little wary when Lee approached me about the show. He told me they are trying out some earlier, happy hour shows, and branching out as far as genre is concerned. I always like playing for new audiences, so I figured why not give it a try? Water Babies makes fans wherever we play, and since everything is improvised we can cover a lot of ground.

When I arrived I realized that at 5pm on a Saturday, most of the folks at the venue are regulars and they are not used to having to pay a cover to come in and have a beer with their freinds. I talked to Lee and suggested that instead of potentially turning people away at the door with an enforced cover we should ask for a “$5 donation to the musicians’ fund” when people walked in. I figured this would let those people who had no idea there would even be music still come in and check out our bands, and those that wanted to support the music could do so.

So while Lee’s group played I sat at the door and asked everyone who came in if they would like to donate. Of course there were people who blew right by, or said “I’m just here for a beer”, or “I’ll get you on the way out” (which is as good as a “no”). But there were also many people who actually paid the $5 even though they didn’t have to! And I can tell you for a fact that the majority of the people at the bar were NOT there to see the music. The bar has a large group of regulars who all seemed to know each other.

Just by asking, I was able to get people to give me $5 of their hard-earned cash when they weren’t expecting to part with it. They had a choice and they chose to support the live music happening in the bar, even though it was completely unfamiliar to them and somewhat out of place. At the end of the night, both bands walked away with money in their pockets, free drinks in their bellies, and new fans. How about that??

Have you ever tried this at a gig? I’d be interested to hear how it worked for you. Leave a comment and let me know. Or, try it at your next gig and report back!

POSTSCRIPT: My wife posted some pictures she took at the show on her blog. Check them out at Artcetera.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rik Wright December 8, 2009 at 7:05 pm

I’ve kinda developed a a general rule – charge at the door and give free CDs to anyone who wants them, or no cover but ask for a donation at the door for a CD. Either way, I almost always walk away with more money in my pocket than I ever did without offering an incentive.

Most likely they’ll take the CD home & listen to it and then come back to one of your shows and bring some friends along. It’s just good marketing. In my opinion, too many musicians think of he CD as a product. I treat the live show as the product, and the CDs as a commercial to get people to the live shows.

It cost you what? $2 a piece to press the CD? Add another $1.50 for recording and production costs? Do the math. It works to your advantage every time.

Tim Carey December 8, 2009 at 9:08 pm


My rock band GACKSTATTER actually did that when we played at Dante’s in the u-district. As the bar never has a cover, we just asked for a $3 donation. with all of the regulars (about a hundred and fifty on that saturday night) our meager 3-piece rock band actually ended up making some unexpected cash. Of course there where those people who didn’t want to pay to get into there local bar, but at the end of the day, the place had more people and we had an audience. I very much support the donation, or “sliding scale” it allows everyone to enjoy themselves : ) nice post.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
December 9, 2009 at 12:28 am

Thanks for sharing your stories, guys! I’m really glad folks are trying these new models and that they are working. They sure have been good for me, and I think good for my fans/audience.

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