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Do free gigs ever work?

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I’ve been doing a regular shouty, try-hard rant column for AU for a few months now, but this one’s hacktually about music so I thought I’d post it up here. Simple question: is there any real benefit to free gigs? Basic economics says probably not.

The debate about the merits of giving music away for free has been done to death, and I don’t really want to wade into it here – at least not the downloading aspect of it.

Recently, Belfast rockers Comply or Die – an awesome band with serious echoes of Motörhead and the greatest band ever to come from Northern Ireland and from which the title of this column derives, Therapy? – played a free gig in their hometown. Slight problem… only 4 people showed up, and the band rightly took their frustration to Twitter.

With the recession sucking as big a back of dicks as ever, it makes sense that bands and venues would use the ‘free’ tactic in the hope that people will splash out on merch and get leathered at the bar. Understandable, but a bad idea. Always.

Giving away songs and albums for free works (occasionally) because it costs the band next to nowt, free music lends itself well to sharing and, for the consumer, the choice between buying a record and stealing it is often too easy to make.

For gigs, none of these factors comes in to play. It sends the wrong signal from the start, suggesting to potential attendees that the gig isn’t worth paying into, and it takes people who would normally be willing to buy a ticket out of the picture completely.

More importantly, free gigs are a bitch to promote. The venue has little incentive to promote as it’s just another Tuesday night to them, and any promotion the band do is wasted as they’re only addressing their fans. If the goal is to expose your music to fresh ears or attract reluctant gig-goers, it fails on both counts.

Free gigs sponsored by drinks companies tend to work because they have massive PR and advertising budgets and they tend to go flat-out for events like this. For your regular local rock band, though, a free gig is lose-lose. You have a core of fans who would pay in but aren’t being asked to, and anyone whose head is turned by the ‘free’ tag is unlikely to spend anything anyway.

That’s why anybody deciding to put on a cheap gig should run a mile from the word ‘free.’ Better to charge some nominal amount – the price of a pint sounds about right – and ensure the people coming through the door are at least prepared to open their wallets. 

Originally published in AU Magazine, November/December 2011.

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Written by Dave

November 25, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Criticism, Free music

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