Amateur vs unpaid professional gigs

how to tell the difference!

This is another one for those young musicians out there, sorry everyone else! I’m just kidding no one reads this, I can say whatever I like, I won’t but it’s nice to know I have the option to if I wanted.

So This week I thought I would discuss the difference between an Amateur gig and an unpaid professional gig, because they are sometimes identical and sometimes a bit of a trap and a waste of time! (for more music)
There are four main contributing factors I take into account they are; Venue, other musicians taking part, Event, and Media Coverage.


Is it a concert setting or is it a bar or pub? If it’s a concert setting it is more likely that you will be appreciated for your work, time and effort. It doesn’t need to be in a concert hall, church or musical venue as long as you are given a quiet and respectful environment in order to perform.

Over the Christmas break I performed at ‘The Immigration removal centre’ in Heathrow, it was to an audience of 60 men who were all stuck in a high security prison until being set back to the country they had come from or (the very lucky ones) being allowed into the UK legally. It was in a Gymnasium and had the acoustics of being underwater, I was performing with other young professionals and half way through the evening the event coordinator turned to me and said ‘Sam, can you do “Oh, Holy Night” now’. I got my harp and sat in the middle of this circle of rowdy men and managed to quiet the entire room, one of the men whispered to my friend ‘Is she a professional?!’. This performance was in an unorthodox venue but had a concert setting, which is what my style of music requires. It was also very uplifting to people who needed it most.

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Being a bad ass… As per.

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The polar opposite of this is an ‘open mic’ at a pub, unless you are going for the fun of it and you were going to be in the pub anyway so you might as well get up and do a number it is not worth going out of your way to work for free. A lot of open mic nights have the feeling of background music and if you’re providing background music you might as well be getting paid for it.

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Standard level of awesome

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Other Musicians Involved 

When I performed at the ‘Immigration Removal Centre’ (that’s actually what they are called, isn’t it horrible!) it was along side peers and other musicians who were training and performed regularly. If the musicians are at your level then you should be their. If you are doing concerts with other trained musicians then it is indicative of the caliber of the performance. If you are the only trained musician at an event with amateur musicians then it might not be worth it.

I say this because, if other professionals are giving up their time to do this gig it means that it has some value or reputation behind it that your peers would be willing to do it for free.

If you are there with your oboe or your four years of training in classical guitar and you’re in a line up with singer/songwriters then it’s safe to say you will be ranked the same and feel rubbish when you’re piece that has taken two weeks to learn from memory is given the same amount of credit as someone poorly playing four chords and doing their best sprechstimme over the top.


Charity or Commercial? That’s the main questions. If it’s a Charity fundraiser and they aren’t paying any of the other musicians then it’s fine. If it’s just a commercial performance and they aren’t paying musicians, and they don’t have a good enough reason, don’t do it. you will not be valued for your time! ’nuff said.

Media Coverage

Is it a big thing with lots of ‘exposure’? ‘Exposure’ is the worst term horrible people use to extort musicians but if you’re tossing up whether something is professional or amateur, if it has a good media presence and if you’re going to gain an audience from that! Often when I do unpaid gigs the exposure and advertising is at a standard that it lands be paid work because of it.

Deciding to do it, the check list:

once you’ve gone over these four factors you then have to work out the gig’s value over it’s worth. Does the gig have personal significance? is it a charity or cause you support? will it help build your audience and reputation, will you fit the program or will you be the only musician of your style there? Is it the right setting for your music?

Then you work out the events worth, can you financially afford to do it? For example, I only do free events if I have no other bookings over lapping it, If I am completely free then I will do an event for free because otherwise I would just be sat at home. However, I live in a city where I can walk to a lot of venues and if I’m doing an event I can just walk to the event for a sound check, perform my set and be home in 20-25 minutes. However, if it an event were I have to drive, wait around for other musicians and then hang around all evening for the gig to end I often feel like I’ve waisted a lot of time. When you do professional concerts your not paid for the performance, you’re paid for all the work to get to the performance and then the performance itself. What you’re being paid for is the hours it’s taken you to become a good musician, the food you’ve eaten, the house you live in, the car that takes you to your events and lessons, the lessons with more accomplished musicians, and all the hours practicing the specific pieces played on the evening.

The Musicians Union Campaign on this.

So, You’ve worked out that the venue is somewhere nice that you could fit in, you know or have researched the other performers and they are of your standard or peers, you care about the charity or event personally and it has good enough ‘exposure’ to secure you paid work following a good performance. And after all this you’ve worked out that it is worth your time and effort to do it. Go and Do it! It’s an unpaid professional engagement.


Working for Free is often just a straight up ‘NO’ from most working musicians, but I think there are some exceptions that work out being fun and beneficial.

Fees however, that is a different story. Next Week, ‘Fees: Why I’m not “Giving you A Discount”.

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