5 Things To Say No To As A Musician

Openness and curiosity are important positive traits for serious musicians to have. However, saying yes to every opportunity that comes your way is a bad idea. Whether you make music full-time for your job or during every spare moment you can, you have a limited amount of resources and time as a musician. Committing your time and attention to the wrong things in music means missing out on the things that will actually make a difference in your career. Here are five examples of things you should probably say no to in music:

Getting paid with exposure

The “We can’t afford to pay you to play, but there will be lots of people at the show” line is one musicians of all experience levels get from time to time. The idea is that the show you’re being asked to play is sure to be filled with so many people that you’ll miss out on a huge opportunity to make new fans if you say no. But here’s the thing: playing for exposure is almost always a bad idea. If there really are lots of people expected to show up, why can’t the venue organizers or promoters afford to pay the performing artists? Someone is going to make money, and it won’t be you. This issue is less about money and more about fairness. Music is constantly being devalued by situations like this one, so your refusal to play for free will help retain your dignity by demanding compensation and expressing the importance of what you do.

Collaborations you’re not passionate about

Your time is your most valuable asset as a musician. Wasting it by working on projects that don’t challenge your creativity or get you closer to your goals means squandering your most important resource. Whether it’s performing on an album or joining a new band, collaborations take up tons of energy and time away from the projects you actually care about. So while it might feel uncomfortable to say no in the short term, you’ll end up saving yourself a world of frustration and wasted time in the long run. Your talent is too important to waste on things your heart just isn’t into, so focus on doing what you love and politely say no to everything else.

Touring without benefits

It’s a constant temptation for some bands to want to hit the road for however long it takes to find success. Unfortunately, this idea is as romantic as it is unrealistic for most bands. If you’re not an established artist, the shows you’ll land outside of your hometown will probably be bad–– performing at a strip mall bar at 1AM on a Sunday night to an empty room or playing a couple of songs before a comedy open mic, for example. Don’t get me wrong. These sorts of tours build experience and character for musicians. But there comes a point where you’re far better off staying home and making the best music you can instead of spending night after night playing to empty rooms. Touring not only keeps you away from the studio, but also from relationships, paying jobs, and stability. If you’re not earning new fans, money, or experience, it’s time to be more discerning when it comes to touring.

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Getting into debt

A countless number of talented artists have gotten into debt over their music. Many of these artists have had to put their musical ambitions on hold or quit making music altogether because their financial problems are so bad. To avoid the same problems, you’ll need to avoid financial debt. Sure, it sounds nice in the short-term to fund your next album with a high-interest credit card, hop in your van and tour for the next year, but is it realistic? Can you pay your bills with streaming revenue, merchandise sales, and the money you make at shows every night? Even if you’re experiencing some success with your music, the answer is probably going to be no. We’re living in a special time where it’s never been more affordable to make and share music. You don’t need to get into debt to be a serious musician, but it’s still easy to do. Be careful, be discerning, and say no when you have to.

Letting views, streams, and follows determine your worth as a musician

Whether you’re a famous pop star or an ambitious artist just starting out, making music today means having access to a constant stream of information associated with how well your songs perform online. Streams, views, downloads, playlist adds––these are just a few of the metrics offered by streaming platforms and music distributors. It’s tempting to obsess over these numbers, but you shouldn’t. Your most popular song isn’t necessarily your best song. And if your music hasn’t found an audience yet, it doesn’t mean your songs aren’t good. As an artist, you alone get to decide your worth. Letting algorithms define your value is over simplistic, superficial, and inaccurate. While these metrics can be helpful for things like deciding where to tour or focus radio campaign efforts, the numbers can’t tell you anything about your potential or creative merit. So say no the next time you’re tempted to let the numbers shape your worth as an artist.

If you’re inexperienced in music, you might want to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. But learning to turn down the things that don’t get you closer to your creative and professional goals is an important skill for an artist.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

Rebecca5 Things To Say No To As A Musician

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  • Mike - September 2, 2021 reply

    The NFL does not pay halftime show performers, rather they get paid with exposure!

    Chris Dunnett - September 8, 2021 reply

    That’s a bit different. There is guaranteed exposure to MILLIONS of people. More often than not when I have played “exposure” gigs (which I never do any more) I was promised I would be playing to X amount of people and the event would do this and that promotion and not a single one did that ever happen including a National book store chain which is now out of business… which I chalk up to Karma 😉

    Daniel Seguin - September 8, 2021 reply

    That’s true but the music acts as an augmentation to the game (the “core product” been sold) which means that it will help boost sales and revenues. This means that the music is gearing revenues for the NFL so technically, they are violating existing business laws. What I think is happening is that the record companies get paid a fee but officially declares there is no payment to the artists.

    N Andrew - September 9, 2021 reply

    Consider these brilliant common sense steps(well written by the way) just as a part of the Holy Grail on “How to MAKE IT ON YOUR TERMS”. Label SouL Signed or Solo No Owner, read twice, practice daily, and PLaY what and How You Love Life.

    P•MaC Good Looking.

    Just More •WerdsNeverWritten•

    Aramis - September 10, 2021 reply

    I toured the world with my guitar & CD’s as a solo for years. A lot of what you are saying here in my experience is a USA cultural thing. Countries like the UK, Australia & the European continent value musicians very highly & are quick to offer money, meals & accommodations, never so bold to ask for you to play for free or worse ask you to pay. I was shocked on my first trip to the US to discover this culture. It’s a big world out there full of music loving countries.

    Debra Lynne - September 11, 2021 reply

    Someone who was running a psychic fair told me that the musicians weren’t being paid. I asked him if the psychics were being paid, and he said yes. Then he said “but it would be great exposure for the musicians, because there were a lot of people coming to the fair.” I told him that musicians were known to have died from exposure. He took that as a joke, and thought it was so funny that he paid me out of his own pocket, or so he said…and I was the only musician to have been paid.

    Rebecca - September 8, 2021 reply

    The ones that are asked to play the Super Bowl are very wealthy and well known….they can take the hit 😉

    George - September 8, 2021 reply

    Yeah but super bowl exposure isn’t to an empty bar in a rundown strip mall, it’s to Millions of people ( with spending power). Big difference

    Joseph - September 9, 2021 reply

    You missed the point! the point of him saying what he said was for you to make the most of your music and your time in your career. it was not for you to criticize what he saying. but to give you realistic advice not to waste your time but make the most of it 😀❤️🙏🏾

    Deryck - September 9, 2021 reply

    The artist is the only one that doesn’t make money at an NFL half time show, the musicians, dancers etc. still get paid.

    cntha - September 11, 2021 reply

    True, and also the artist pays for the expense of putting on the show. Last I heard, the NFL was also asking for a percent of future profits. (NFL must be just barely scraping by!) Only those who are already successful and just want this on the resume have any business doing those halftimes.

  • San Tigi - September 2, 2021 reply

    So true. Thanks for sharing.

  • senaya - September 2, 2021 reply

    definetely true.all of it thank you for the love

  • grant peeples - September 8, 2021 reply

    I think when you start out…you better be willing to play at the opening of an envelope
    this doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat, but sometimes we have to invest in ourselves.
    g

  • Rob Roper - September 8, 2021 reply

    I told the grocery store manager that if she let me have food for free, it would be “good exposure” for her store. It didn’t work.

    benhur - September 8, 2021 reply

    😂

    david henman - September 9, 2021 reply

    …if you can’t manage to show a little respect for the simple fact that, for many musicians, exposure is far more beneficial than pocket change, you have no business calling yourself a musician. bottom line: one size does not fit all.

    david henman - September 10, 2021 reply

    …no musician should ever be “expected”, or in any way “obligated” to play for free. that should be a given. especially if you are in a cover band. what would be the point of “exposure”? musicians who play covers scoff at at “exposure”, and so they should. it makes no sense to them to play covers for exposure. why would it? however, for a musician or band that is trying to build a career and a following for their original music, exposure is often far more beneficial than money. bottom line: one size does not fit all.

  • DruidSong - September 8, 2021 reply

    My standard reply to being asked to ply for exposure is that you an get arrested for exposing yourself. And, the “good experience” reply is “I’ve been at this for over 50 years. How much experience do you think i need?”

  • Kathy Crosby - September 8, 2021 reply

    Thank you for telling it like it is! The other day someone asked me how many “followers” I had and about fell over when I replied that I had no idea. Try to remember how completely AWESOME it is every time ONE person enjoys something that YOU created. Think in terms of the one. Should you someday have a million one’s cheering in front of you, then you have truly made it.

    Joseph - September 9, 2021 reply

    😀❤️🙏🏾

  • Ben Card - September 8, 2021 reply

    Sound advice, literally and figuratively. Thank you!!

  • George - September 8, 2021 reply

    Great article, I’ve opened for touring bands before, they always look worn out and tired. The audience always gives both our bands the same reception and love.

  • Rick Clogston - September 8, 2021 reply

    Having done all those things, I agree whole-heartedly.

  • Manwich B - September 8, 2021 reply

    Dear sh*tty bar owner.

    You should allow my band’s fans to drink free when we perform because they will all tell their friends what an awesome venue you are. The exposure will be great. Of course, you’ll have to give them free booze forever, so…

  • Lambert - September 8, 2021 reply

    I don’t play for exposure, we have live rehearsals.

  • David Nyro - September 9, 2021 reply

    I say “amen” to everything here. If only ALL musicians said “no” to being asked to play for free, or even to pay to play! After all, that’s the only way unions accomplished what they did. But there will always be hungy hungry hippos who will take the bait. I do believe if we all stood firm, a change would come. But back to reality, following this guidance will absolutely keep you wiser, saner, more grounded, happier, and more on track, IMHO. Thanks Patrick.

    david henman - September 9, 2021 reply

    …no musician should ever be “expected”, or in any way “obligated”, to play for free. that should be a given. especially if you are in a cover band. what would be the point of “exposure”? musicians who play covers scoff at at “exposure”, and so they should. it makes no sense to them to play covers for exposure. why would it? however, for a musician or band that is trying to build a career and a following for their original music, exposure is often far more beneficial than money. if you don’t want to play for “exposure”, then don’t! however, if you can’t manage to show a little respect for the simple fact that, for many musicians, exposure is far more beneficial than pocket change, you have no business calling yourself a musician. bottom line: one size does not fit all.

  • JD BRADSHAW - September 9, 2021 reply

    Well said!

    Josie Bello - September 9, 2021 reply

    I agree with everything written in the article. Excellent advice (which I learned the hard way!)

  • Rudebone - September 9, 2021 reply

    I’ll implement these tips moving forward, thanks.

  • Simon Andrew Holley - September 9, 2021 reply

    Again, a top appraisal of ‘what to say No to’. Quality advice IMO.
    Thanks Patrick 🙂

  • Beth - September 9, 2021 reply

    Don’t forget about the “You might make some money in tips” pitch.

  • david henman - September 9, 2021 reply

    …no musician should ever be “expected”, or in any way “obligated”, to play for free. that should be a given. especially if you are in a cover band. what would be the point of “exposure”? musicians who play covers scoff at at “exposure”, and so they should. it makes no sense to them to play covers for exposure. why would it? however, for a musician or band that is trying to build a career and a following for their original music, exposure is often far more beneficial than money. if you don’t want to play for “exposure”, then don’t! however, if you can’t manage to show a little respect for the simple fact that, for many musicians, exposure is far more beneficial than pocket change, you have no business calling yourself a musician. bottom line: one size does not fit all.

  • AC SOLO - September 9, 2021 reply

    The 5th point has hit me like a ton of bricks, how you could sacrifice your whole life in learning your craft, writing songs, recording, engineering, mixing, promoting…after a day job and sleepless nights only to have someone gloss over your music or say it’s alright! have I been wasting my life??

  • Blaize Dreko - September 9, 2021 reply

    Thanks for the information, it is going to be helpful in the future

  • Terry Grinde - September 9, 2021 reply

    Yes, not to mention the old line “we’ll give the band free beer and food” – that’s a “no thanks”. Musicians, for whatever reason, are often viewed by the public as over-priced at any amount of money. In today’s world they all want to be entertained but they don’t want to pay for it. I often hear “well, you’re making so much cash for 4 hours of playing and goofing around”. Truth be told, most don’t understand the amount of work and the costs involved just to put on the show. Production eats up 2/3’s of income, wages the rest, and the band doesn’t make JACK compared to the sound/light company. People also don’t take into account the time you’ve spent rehearsing, getting to the show, setting up, tearing down, going home – a “4-hour show” is usually a ten hour day. When you only make a hundred bucks each, well, $10.00 an hour is not exactly hitting it out of the park. NEVER play for free, unless it’s a benefit for a cause you truly believe in, and understand it’s actually going to cost you $$ to play at that benefit. Thank you Patrick, for a very good article.

  • Joyti - September 9, 2021 reply

    You said a history of truth, I can only give you thumbs up.

  • GD Gardner - September 9, 2021 reply

    I toured the world with my guitar & CD’s as a solo for years. A lot of what you are saying here in my experience is a USA cultural thing. Countries like the UK, Australia & the European continent value musicians very highly & are quick to offer money, meals & accommodations, never so bold to ask for you to play for free or worse ask you to pay. I was shocked on my first trip to the US to discover this culture. It’s a big world out there full of music loving countries.

  • Ambros - September 9, 2021 reply

    Well said

  • Lenka Lichtenberg - September 10, 2021 reply

    As a seasoned artist looking back at the long musical journey of my life, I must say I made every one of those mistakes – and wish I had your wise counsel along the way. All your points are so true. Thank you, Patrick.

  • T. Head - September 10, 2021 reply

    COOL

  • Eric St. John - September 10, 2021 reply

    Great advice! Now do a blog on breaking into the local clique. “How to deal with clueless venues who book their favorite mediocre band.”
    There’s a venue I did regularly for about a year just prior to the global panic attack. The tip jar as my witness, it was great! Now, under new management, the same names keep popping up but the quality of entertainment has gone down. And it’s not the material, since it’s similar across the board…

  • Dana W Bloom - September 11, 2021 reply

    I agree, majority of ‘free’ shows, I say no to. Although there are times the whole band agrees to play free for a ‘special event’, i.e, fund raiser/benefit for; animal rescue/adoption event, injured or ill fellow musician, storm victims, etc. I think you get what I mean, and, only when total band agrees it is worth doing.

  • NaijaChoice - September 20, 2021 reply

    Sincerely, you’ve said it all.

    Especially the part of not getting paid

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