Myth: "Exposure" is Legitimate Payment for Singing. BUSTED!

It’s time to mythbust [insert dramatic music here] “Singing for Exposure!”

(N.B. this is not singing for free according to the Singing Donation Budget or when you take a lower-paying or free gig because it makes you happy and proud even when it doesn’t fill your pocketbook; this is concert presenters who ask you to sing for a lot of hours for dirt cheap.)

More and more frequently people offer ‘exposure’ as a benefit for professional musicians to sing a gig that’s poorly paid (or not paid at all), as if exposure were directly equal to and as effective as money.

“Exposure” is wrongly offered to singers as a concrete, quantifiable benefit, similar to a 401(k) match or an employer’s share of a health insurance payment. Your neighbor works in an office and gets a 1% match for 401(k) funds, you get exposure from a gig. Your friend has a low-deductible health insurance plan through her employer, you get exposure from singing.


Myth #1: Exposure is a benefit directly derived from the gig.

BUSTED: Exposure is a nebulous, unquantifiable element. It is a RESULT of work completed; exposure is what happens when the work is completed, it exceeds expectations and happens to be heard by just the right people. So it’s the right work, done in the best way possible, at just the right time and just the right place for the right people to hear it and act upon their excitement so as to hire you immediately.

In other words, the stars must align and multiple human beings (all with free will) must seize the opportunity in the same way at the same time.

How often does that happen?

Myth #2: Exposure is a form of payment.

BUSTED: Have you ever heard of a corporation including “exposure” as part of the pay & benefits for an employee? Or even for a contractor? People work, which gets them experience and perhaps results in exposure, but they work for money.

“Pay me less and get me exposure!” said no employee ever.

For a lot of people the archetype of the ‘starving artist’ holds fast in their minds. As if money doesn’t matter to us somehow, like we don’t have rent, car insurance, food, and clothing to pay for, it just magically appears. Overflowing grocery bags of complete meals with fresh vegetables magically manifest in our kitchens when we return home from rehearsal at 10 p.m., the dry cleaning bill is mysteriously paid when we pick up our gowns and tuxes, and we just get free cars from the dealer. Random people on the street give us lunch because they can see the invisible sign above our heads that proclaims,

“I’m an artist! I do it for love, not for money!”

It’s so moving to them they can hardly find a sandwich fast enough.

Myth #3: Exposure is a benefit equal to money.

BUSTED: As in any business, there is an exchange of a good or a service for money. You exchange your work (practice time, coachings, travel, rehearsal time, singing in the performance) for a pre-determined fee, known as the Artist’s Fee, a/k/a an Honorarium. With any reputable organization, you will have all this in a contract well before the concert or at the very least a confirmation letter. It’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

So let’s add “exposure” to the mix. Put on some gloves, this gets messy.

Exposure happens during the concert and after, with audience members who hear you and maybe they will find your website and see more of your concerts, other musicians who might ask for your business card and call you later to collaborate, maybe a reviewer may like you and write something nice, maybe another conductor who is friends with the concert presenter hires you. These things may be there, or maybe not.

The determining factor here is that exposure of your singing to others is completely out of your control. You cannot make another musician call you, you cannot make other musicians collaborate with you, you cannot magically please a reviewer into giving you a 5-star review, and you cannot make another conductor hire you based on what you sang last month.

It is all up to them.

You can only do what is fully within your control—you CAN offer your singing through concerts, sing many auditions and competitions, you can post on social media and send out a newsletter, you can blog. Increasing your output (via concerts sung, posts written, your newsletters, announcements in alumni papers) increases your readership and your networking, and this could lead to some particularly advantageous situations, however those situations are RESULTS and all of that is completely out of your control.

Myth #4: Sometimes one concert leads to the breakthrough a singer needs! Who cares if it doesn’t pay?!

BUSTED: There is no such thing as an overnight success. Singing is a long, slow burn of a career—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Singers are not ‘discovered’ from a single concert, they get work through auditions and recommendations; it’s a culmination of hard work, determination, and an astounding amount of people skills. Singers have a career of momentum that needs to be kept up. Think of it as a wave that grows and changes as it nears the shore--whatever that singer's goal is, that's the shore.

One concert may very well be the tipping point—the wave starts to break and they can stand up on that surf board and ride the wave--indeed that happens to performers—they worked hard, connected with others well, someone called them up out of the blue and voila they were jumping in for someone who was sick, saved the day, got rave reviews, and all of this flurry of activity helped their awesome reputation spread like wildfire. These singers seized particular opportunities but/and they were ready to jump when the opportunity presented itself. They hit the shore.

To Sum It Up:

Offering ‘exposure’ as a benefit an excuse as to why a singer should sing a poorly-paid or unpaid gig is just plain dumb. Key is that presenters who do not offer ‘exposure’ as a benefit don’t need to. They know the value of their own organization and their audience. And they know that is the fulfillment of the agreement--everything else is icing on the cake.

It is immoral to suggest that one particular concert will lead to a career breakthrough. Just as no teacher can ever promise that her or his student will 'make it big,' no concert presenter can ever reasonably suggest that their concert will make a career.

I don't ever promise my mechanic that giving me a break on a tire rotation will make their months' cash flow goal because I might tell the right people who might become customers. I’ve never asked the mechanic to work on my car for cheap, either. I don’t promise him that he’ll get more work when he does work on my car. He does the work, I pay him, end of transaction.

Does your local sandwich shop ever say, “Sure, you can pay in exposure! Which concert did you sing?”

Usually they just want you to pay for your sandwich with cash.


Read more:

An experiment on payment in doughnuts

A handy flow-chart on saying yes or no

The economic impact and several ideas of how to retain the value of your art (through the lense of physical art, not sound art)


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