The economics of free concerts

I don’t believe in performing without getting paid. There must be some kind of return, whether it be publicity, feedback, collaboration, or future performance opportunity. The best kind of reward, of course, is to be paid handsomely in cash before or just after the concert! And get another gig as a result of it.

For those of you who are used to paying to attend a concert, the idea of a free concert may seem suspicious at first.

Is it free because the quality is not as good?

Is it free because there is a problem getting enough listeners?

Is it free because it takes too much effort to organise the ticket sales and seat reservations?

A concert production is not without cost for the venue owners, organisers, technicians, and performers. A composer friend of mine told me when I embarked on my composition studies that the last person to get paid is the composer, if at all. The pecking order of payments begins with the piano tuner if a piano is needed. It takes time and effort to get an audience, such as through publicity and invitations. The venue has to be cleaned and made ready for the live event. None of these costs are trivial.

At universities and conservatories, often the concerts are free because the focus is on performance. The performers matter more than the listeners. There is no budget or additional personnel assigned to revenue management.

Although having appreciative listeners is important to a performance, performers also need real-time opportunities to perfect their art. The optimal conditions under which we practise and rehearse do not necessarily help us when we go on stage. The concert hall may not be as quiet as our rehearsal room which has no audience to interrupt us. We don’t always get a chance to warm up or test the acoustics or instruments. A performance becomes a case of battling what could go wrong, i.e. what was not present when we were rehearsing.

In other words, musicians need risk-free opportunities to perform, make mistakes, and get trained in live concert situations. By risk-free, I mean, where their reputations do not risk getting tarnished.

Some unpaid concerts could be considered “tryouts” or practice concerts. Before a competition or an important concert, performers need an audience to “try out” their programme. Equally performers may need an audience to “experiment” their repertoire or ideas.

I once brought some colleagues and industry contacts to a full house concert in Houston for an improvisation by various pianists and a violinist. Wine was free flowing afterwards. My guests were overwhelmed and greatly inspired. They wanted to thank the hosts and performers but there was no mention of payment or donation.

I am sure they were all thinking “What a pity! I would have gladly paid to go to that free concert.” I have said that often when I lived in London and chanced upon a free concert which improved my day. At that Houston concert, as I learned later, the organiser wanted to test his ideas about improvisation. He invited me to participate in the performance, and I duly recruited half the audience.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo debut concert in London, May 2003 Photo credit: Nick Kuskin
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo debut concert in London, May 2003Photo credit: Nick Kuskin

Another reason for free concerts could be that tickets sales are not allowed. I was able to book the concert hall at the university in London for free because I taught there. The concerts had to be free.

Shortly afterwards I wrote to those who came to our free concert in London to answer questions about their experience of our concert. They were eager to give us constructive feedback which helped greatly in future performances.

So you could say that people who have enjoyed a free concert (in this case, the London audience were also fed an 8-course oriental gourmet buffet by a local restaurant who sponsored the event) would reciprocate in other ways, such as responding to a survey.

In public festivals like the Utrecht Uitfeest and the Open Monumentendag on 12 and 13 September in Utrecht, all performances were free. We were honoured to be invited to participate. Like others, we didn’t expect to be paid. And if we had asked to be paid, I’m sure the organisers would have found someone else more eager than we to take our place on stage.

What did we get out of playing for free this past weekend in Utrecht? Publicity. Feedback. Opportunity to play at new venues. Involvement in the local community. Sharing our music with people who otherwise wouldn’t come (or won’t pay for a concert).

How then do performers make a living if they play for free?

Good question.

I don’t believe in performing without getting paid. There must be some kind of return, whether it be publicity, feedback, collaboration, or future performance opportunity. The best kind of reward, of course, is to be paid handsomely in cash before or just after the concert! And get another gig as a result of it.

We like those concerts that are free to attend, but we get paid well for it. This Sunday 20th September 2009 at noon, for instance, we will be playing a mixed programme at the Oosterkerk in Amsterdam. The two free (unpaid) concerts we gave in Utrecht last weekend could be considered “tryouts” for Amsterdam. But then, every concert is a tryout for the next one.

Author: BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.

8 thoughts on “The economics of free concerts”

  1. Crystalclear piece of work, Anne, and I smile with your conclusion: you like free, as long as you’re paid.

    May I look at it this way:
    * there are not enough paying listeners: the demand for attending classical music concerts is low and diminishing; organising free concerts is no remedy for this
    * listeners and concert organisers make complicated buying decisions: the demand side has complicated standards and practices to evaluate the quality of the supply, and the right price to pay; e.g. based on former popularity (winner takes all), specialness, good looks, status appeal, etc. etc.; organising free concerts, again, is no remedy
    * there is oversupply of classical musicians, willing to play concerts; killing the competition might be a remedy to this, but has lots of economical and non-economical disadvantages
    * the demand side (both listeners and concert organisers) can pick and chose easily from the supply side

    What is given (paid) to you are the opportunity to play, an audience and their applause, maybe some coffee and a “broodje”. This is not enough to make a living, ofcourse. It may not be enough to let you play (free) concerts, if you don’t have another source of income.

    Conclusion: you are a supplier in a buyers’ market. I’m afraid you nor I can change this fact. Next time we could talk about a remedy for the negative feelings that may arise. Or even try to find a niche where you have some more supplier’s power. See you!

    1. Thanks for your insight and food for thought.

      Indeed, the economics does boil down to supply and demand, but also information asymmetry. For example, those who hire musicians for a wedding would not expect a freebie unless they are themselves musicians! For those immersed in the music world, there is indeed an oversupply of musicians. For those outside of it, clearly not.

      Supply and demand has also to be qualified by time and place, for a live concert is real-time and at a specific location.

      In the Netherlands, there are plenty of highly skilled amateur musicians who would be more than happy to play for free. By “amateur” I mean those who don’t depend on music for a living but the term has nothing to do with the quality of playing.

      I suppose amateurs don’t experience the reputation risk of professionals, or least, not to such a high degree. This is the subject of another blog: does getting paid for a concert mean an obligation to deliver otherwise face the drastic consequences of being banned forever?

      1. Thx.

        Right: information asymmetry. Which is one of the mechanics behind “winner takes all” that I mentioned.
        The high number of “amateurs” (all those who are willing to play for nothing) is just a symptom of the oversupply. I’m afraid you are two of them, if I read your post well.

  2. If necessary to mention for others than Anne: I was not trying to be rude, I try to face facts.

    My perspective is that from someone who studied marketing and economics, started working in the music industry (on the concert organiser’s side) in 1982, married a singer, studied some music, never performed professionally, composed a few songs, and admires deeply the dedication of true musicians, sportsmen and others in the spotlight.

    1. For someone who has worked in other fields (i.e. me), I am constantly comparing the reward/risk and income/expenditure of the profession of music performance vs others….. and so far it has not made too much sense.

      Thus my blog — could it be the intrinsic motivation to quest for the attainment of perfection or beauty? Or just the sheer joy of music making and the natural high one gets after an exhuberating concert?

  3. Hi Anne,
    you are starting a very interesting discussion here! Recently, economists have had to find a rational in the provision of free goods and services as a result of the success of the free/open software idea. When it comes to art, there seem to be peculiar issues playing a role and you mention many of them already in your post.
    I would like to add two points.
    The first is about price being a threshold to participation. Since concerts or any other art performances can be seen as ‘experience goods’, their value is only appreciated by experience and can only imperfectly estimated beforehand. Eliminating the costs of experience means eliminating barriers to entry for at least some of the potential users. This is a similar mechanisms as with free samples techniques used by marketers of new products.
    The second is that the higher the competition among suppliers of arts the more reasons for them to choose to bear initial costs with the purpose of building a name.
    Both points I made would imply that free concerts are only given by artists whose ‘brand’ is not established enough yet. Does this match your experience as both an organizer and a ‘user’ of free concerts?
    Looking forward to more discussion!

  4. Thanks for your input, Carolina.

    Some famous artists, even extremely famous ones, have given unpaid concerts, free to the public, for a good cause. Their name plus the “free” aspect are intended to attract listeners — with some specific message, other than just the music.

    The Concertegebouw Amsterdam offers free lunchtime concerts on Wednesdays as does the Vredenburg Utrecht on Fridays. They are usually packed with people, with long queues in the former location. I wonder if the performers get paid or if they are just tryouts for paid concerts?

  5. Free entry with voluntary donate effectively transfers the financial risk to concert producers. If performers’ remuneration is a function of the voluntary donation rather than a contracted fixed income, then performers also bear the risk. I should write more about this, especially after attending the recent cultural economics conference in Copenhagen…

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