Learning the Gig Matrix: Pay vs. Exposure Tradeoffs for Musicians Booking Shows

Photo by Jesse Littlebird.

You have put in countless hours of practice, carved together a coherent set list, and have played your best friend’s graduation party. Next obvious step…fame and fortune. As the shows come filing in, we must do just that, file them. Each musical opportunity is unique and should be thoughtfully categorized as to maintain the harmony between business and pleasure.

I have found that most shows can be placed in one of four categories that vary on a scale of exposure vs. pay. With a thorough understanding of the Gig Matrix, we can prioritize gigs based on our individual desires.

The Gig Matrix - Pyragraph

The Gig Matrix

1. “I hate music.” (Low exposure, low pay.)

This is a common remark after making the mistake of playing this gig for the tenth time. The first nine times DO have their benefits though. Getting out and playing in front of a crowd, whether listening or not, provides an opportunity to practice your chops, try out new songs, work on your joke(s). Be positive.

2. “Yeah that kinda sucked…but at least we got paid.” (Low exposure, high pay.)

Don’t forget that it’s okay to say NO to certain gigs.

These are typically background music gigs where someone shouts “Free Bird” in the middle of a song. Learn to identify these types of shows and to quote the booker a price that offsets the soul-damaging toil. These shows typically don’t do much for your fan base, but are great for your monetary bottom line, and they sometimes lead to other “Yeah…that kinda sucked, but at least we got paid” gigs.

3. “If only everybody in this crowd gave us a dollar then we’d have gas money to make it to our next gig.” (High exposure, low pay.)

Playing in front of a full crowd is a dream come true for a chap with a song to sing. These types of shows, like the opening slot for a popular touring band, rank high on exposure but low on pay. Where it ranks among the other three types of gigs for YOU depends on what you’re in it for. Would you play to a wall for $100, or a crowd of 50 listening ears for free? Remember that although these gigs don’t normally come with a guarantee from the venue, there is a huge value in your new fans (music sales, future concert ticket sales, etc.).

4. “Holy Crowd! And look at all this cheddar!” (High exposure, high pay.)

These feel good, as they should. Landing these types of shows are the product of improved tunes, a pinch of luck, and your steadfast trudge through the other three categories. Look at each opportunity as a stepping stone for the next.

Getting started, it’s good to be a yes (wo)man. Take what you can get, make the best of it, be professional, and learn from your experiences. In time you’ll put a checkmark in each of the quadrants of the Gig Matrix and be able to identify gigs based on the potential they hold for you, both in exposure and pay. Don’t forget to spend time to think about what it is that you want, and don’t forget that it’s okay to say NO to certain gigs.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Herig.

A Few More Tips

  • Know what you are getting paid before the gig. Communicate with the booker and establish the payment agreement upfront, preferably by email so you have it in writing. A few examples of payment plans: Higher guarantee (flat price); lower guarantee plus a cut of the door and/or bar sales; no guarantee but all door sales.
  • Get organized. Make an Excel sheet for your shows with columns for Date, Venue, Pay and Extra Revenue (merch, tips, etc.). Use this to track your progress and to find trends in the types of gigs you are booking.
  • Establish your rates based on show types. Your hourly rate may vary depending on the type of show. Be professional and have your rates ready, leaving a little wiggle room.
    • Types of shows: Weddings, private parties, coffeehouses, restaurants, bars, music venues.
    • Hourly rates: Many musicians do the flat rate: $100 bucks/hour. You may want to try out a tiered system: 1 hour $100, 2 hours $185, 3 hours $250.
  • Know the going rates. Ask your musician friends what they got paid. Some venues have a preset rate that they pay all performers, but in most cases it will vary from musician to musician. Some venues pay different rates depending on how many musicians are in your band. Knowing what others are getting paid will help you figure out where you think you should fit on the pay spectrum.

Music Go Round Albuquerque - Pyragraph

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