I’m a charity! Please perform for free…

Your charity has lots of costs.

Live music is one of them.

Someone recently asked me this question:

I have a non-profit and would like to have live music during my charity event. Is it okay to ask a professional to perform for free? If not, what would you recommend we do to work the fee into our budget? Are there ways we can increase our budget to make this work?

It is a question many people hint at because they actually already know the answer, and are hiding behind sounding ‘nice’ or basically they are frightened to ask directly.

No, it’s not OK to ask a musician to perform for free…


You ask EVERYONE involved in your event to participate for free.

Even your staff: there can be no offset of work time (“Work this event on Saturday and you can take Monday off.”).

Performers should be considered an expense like any other activity.

Budget Line Items

Budget Line ItemsEvent budget line items include catering, the venue, printing, gifts & decorations, staff time, etc.

Unless you fairly and equally ask ALL your vendors to contribute to your event for free, it is totally unfair to expect some vendors to contribute to the success of your event for free but not others.

Now, if you choose the RIGHT performers, they will often discount their services or, better yet, charge you their full normal fee but actually make a donation.

And that’s plain awesome.

But it is up to the performers themselves – I don’t recommend coercing them!

Here’s the thing:

Reputation Management

You don’t want to be the one with the reputation of devaluing culture.

Word will spread REALLY QUICKLY in the live music circles, and you will find it increasingly difficult to book any performers except amateurs and high school students.

An amateur might look the part, but...
An amateur might look the part, but…

Because that is, in effect, what you are asking for.

Performers who spend more on their instruments or equipment than they earn from such tools, or those who have not yet fully learned their craft.

And although there are many fine amateur and student musicians in the world their inexperience will most often get exposed, and you don’t want your event attendees to leave remembering more of the flute player’s poor choice of songs, or the pianist’s flirting from the stage, or the inevitable amplification system feedback, than your cause.

That’s not a reputation you want to build, either.

If you want a professional, like a professional event planner or CEO, you should expect to pay for it.

Think of a professional musician as a Formula 1 driver and those who perform for free as go cart hobbyists – they might look the same but their skills don’t quite have the same quality, experience, know-how or reliability.

Remember the plumber who charged $100 to replace one nut in five minutes and the problem was fixed? When the outraged customer asked for a detailed bill, it stated “Nut: $0.75, Time: $4.25, Knowing where to look and how to fix it: $95.00”

Just bear this in mind, too:

$75 ain’t gonna cut it.

In the USA that’s gas money, which in effect means you’re still attracting amateurs and students.

And a whole lot of administrative, organizational, and egocentric headaches, to boot.

To get the real deal it’ll take about $350 per performer (at the time of writing) for a one-day rehearsal and performance. That will include personal practice time as well as planning and admin, so there are many more hours of a professional’s time involved that simply the 1.5 hour dinner.

A Moment In Time

Professionals are well worth their salt in that they sell moments of time. That includes the initial contact, negotiation and agreement as much as the day itself. Every second has value, so they will not be wasting either their time or yours:

  • Professionals know what to ask for, logistically.
  • They know you probably don’t know what to provide, so they will help you think about things you didn’t realize were needed.
  • Professionals will stay well out of your way, as long as what you promised them is there.
Musicians sell a moment in time, not a reproducable product
Musicians sell a moment in time, not a reproducable product

It is a joy working with professionals, and you will quickly gain the opposite reputation – your organization is professional in its own right, efficient, supportive and willing to learn, culturally sensitive, and definitely worth supporting and spreading the word about.

THAT’S the approach you want – long term investment in your reputation.

Ways to make it work

First, add a line item in your budget called “Performers” or, if you don’t really value live music anyway, call it “Entertainment.”

Then, think how many performers you need. A solo performer, a quartet, a big band. However many performers you want, multiply that by the fee you think is appropriate (aim for $350 per person. $400 will get you a pretty decent performer, and $200 will get you a semi-professional who does a whole bunch of other things in addition to performing, perhaps they even have a day-job).

How will you pay for this?

In the same way you’d pay for any other item in your event:

  • ask someone specifically for a donation,
  • add a few really cool prizes to your silent auction,
  • write the check yourself!
  • get the premium beer package rather than the platinum spirits package,

The bottom line is, just consider performers an expense like any other part of your event, and you will be safe.

Music is SUCH an important part of living as a human being (remember: true music is the language of emotions… if we could put it into words, we would, but then we wouldn’t have any need for music itself!)

THANK YOU for making your corner of the world a little better place to live for all by keeping live music alive.

That makes you

truly awesome in my book 🙂


Stephen P Brown is a Conductor of orchestra, choirs, concert bands and musicals, as well as a composer. He is the General Director of the Dunedin Music Society, Head Spark Plug of the Concert University, and a Professional Artist Grantee of Creative Pinellas. You can find his concert schedule here (including Heed The Bell, the World Premiere of a new composition), a sample of his compositions here, and listen to his podcast Classic Jabber here.


By the way: it works the same with visual artists as well as performing artists. All the stock pictures used in this post are protected under copyright by Creative Commons license CC0 via the Pixabay License.

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