When Performing For Exposure Becomes Exploitation: Part 1

If you are an artist, without a doubt you will at some point (if not on a regular basis) have been offered to play at a gig or event and your payment will be in “exposure”.
I have seen people comment that ‘pay to play’, a controversial practice where artists effectively have to pay to perform, is far less prevalent in recent times than it used to be. However, in my experience, pay to play is just as prevalent as it has always been, it just morphs into new forms that look more attractive on the outside but are pretty ugly when you get close enough. One of its alternative forms can often be the offer of exposure instead of payment. Do you need to pay to travel to the venue, probably parking, food to keep you going from soundcheck until the gig finishes. Believe it or not, this can cost a lot of money. In which case, you’re effectively paying to play. This article will talk you through what playing for exposure can mean for artists, and why this is often an exploitative practice.

What do people mean by exposure?

Sometimes organisers offer you exposure in the way of contacts (“contacts in the business will be at the event”), exposure to a new audience (“there will be a big audience that you can perform for”), they may say it will be good for your social media, or sometimes that there will be press opportunities (“*insert newspaper title* will be there”). Ultimately, exposure is just a way of saying that an organiser believes they can offer you something that would be the equivalent of your deserved fee in its place.

Imbalance of power

One of the biggest problems with the offer of exposure is the abuse of an imbalance of power. If a person or organisation is offering you a gig in which you would be paid in exposure, it’s a given that they hold more power than you, otherwise they would pay for your service. It’s not necessarily a problem that there is an imbalance of power, but it is a problem when that imbalance is exacerbated by the offer made to the artist.

Language is sometimes used by organisers that makes it clear that they believe that they are doing the artist a favour by offering them to play for no fee. I’ve received emails that say “it will be a great opportunity for you”- the problem here is the implied notion that the organiser is doing you an explicit favour in which the artist should be grateful for, and this is where the imbalance of power becomes a problem. On top of that, I have even been told that “we’re not here to pay for your promotion”, when I have asked if travel would be covered (a bare minimal request). This imbalance of power is often normalised by the narrative that young and new artists have to “work their way up the ladder” or “earn their stripes”. Working your way up the ladder should never mean being exploited by people who are in a position to give you opportunities. While it may be a great opportunity for the artist, don’t forget that organisers are requesting an artist’s talent and work for free.

If an organiser cannot value your work and believes you should feel privileged to be offered the gig, it is more than likely that they will disrespect you in other ways. Whether this is disregarding your time by not giving you information about the gig until the last minute, not supplying you with basic changing facilities, not giving you access to water and often treating you like an inconveniently placed piece of furniture at the gig itself.

The insecurity of exposure

Exposure is never guaranteed, nor does it truly honour the work artists put into their performances. Contacts may not show, the audience may not may not be the right demographic for the act or the set up may hinder the acts performance. The bottom line is that there is absolutely no guarantee that the artist will be exposed to anything of value.

Almost all of the times I have agreed to play for free for the promise of exposure, there has been no exposure, and on the odd occasion that there was some exposure, it was hard to convince myself that the little exposure the event gave me outweighed (or at least matched) what I had invested into my end of the deal. It can be a hard pill to swallow when someone oversells their event. It can leave you feeling used and disrespected. One thing that has proven true time and time again: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Things to consider

I understand that some people may be reading this who have offered artists gigs for exposure with the best of intentions. I understand that this is sometimes all that can be offered in some situations. I understand that you may feel like you have to oversell your event to get artists on board to play for free. All that I can suggest is that if you perhaps consider a different way of approaching artists that meets them on a more balanced platform: tell them that you are not in a position to pay them but you would love to have them play at your event/gig. By all means explain to the artists that there may be opportunities to network, or there will be a new audience to play for, but please do so with the understanding that these things are not guaranteed and that an artist would be providing you with a valuable service. Try to accomodate artists as much as possible and think ahead about what they might need (can you provide them with a place to change/warm up? Put aside water for the artists while they wait and for when they perform). The general rule should be: treat them as if you actually are paying them. It is a breath of fresh air when organisers who have asked me to play for exposure lead with the line that they would be delighted if I would play as part of their event, making me feel like a valued artist, rather than someone who should be grateful for the offer in the first place. Remember that artists have to put a lot of preparation into a gig: they will choose a setlist that is suitable for the event, rehearse those songs (probably from scratch) which often means paying for rehearsal studio time and will foot the bill for travel, food etc. Honesty is the best policy: don’t oversell yourself or your event, it is disrespectful to mislead artists as to what you can offer them without a solid payment. While I have directed this section at those who may be organising events, if you are an artist, I hope that is how you come to expect to be treated- you are a valued artist that should be respected as such.

This is a subject in which there is a lot to take in and digest. If you have found this useful, part 2 of this article will summarise the main points made here which will give you something to refer to when you’re feeling under pressure to play for exposure. Remember, the choice to accept or reject the offer should always be yours.

Article written by Honor Logan (twitter.com/honorlogan3) – Look out for part 2 coming soon!

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