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For Musicians, The Cost Of Free Exposure Can Be High

Stacy Nick
Singer-songwriter Michael Kirkpatrick strums a mandolin in his Fort Collins home studio.

Fort Collins singer-songwriter Michael Kirkpatrick loves his community and he loves giving back to his community. Like an upcoming benefit for a whitewater park in downtown Fort Collins. Before he went full-time as a musician, Kirkpatrick was a whitewater rafting guide.

But like the river, sometimes the requests for him to play gratis flow – a little too freely.

"I would say at least, a few times a week people are emailing me with an event or benefit or party where they would like me to be there and play music – for free," said Kirkpatrick 

That's where Dawn Duncan is trying to change things. She manages several Colorado bands as part of her Fort Collins-based publicity company, Yellowbright. Recently, Duncan launched the division Bright Days, which helps clients navigate the flood of free performance requests, specifically for charities.

Bright Days makes philanthropy a part of a musician's business plan, Duncan said. Artists get to choose the issues and organizations that they want to connect with, as well as the frequency of free shows they are willing - and able - to do, as well as what opportunities truly are opportunities.

"Exposure is a tricky thing because I think a lot of times these agencies or these companies, they think they're giving something of value but they aren't," she said. "Their heart might be in the right place, it's just they don't quite understand the needs of a musician or a band and what kind of marketing they really need."

Just being in front of a crowd doesn't guarantee a new audience of potential fans, Duncan said. And a band's logo on a banner? Forget about it.

"Bands don't benefit much from having their logo on something, especially in a corporate setting" Duncan said. "It doesn't really do any good… There's no engagement factor there."

Weighing the benefits and costs of a free show can be tricky, Michael Kirkpatrick said.

"These names, these brands that you build up are what producers want at their event to draw a crowd so they can make money," Kirkpatrick said. "But if I give them that equity, that means next month, I can't play the gig that would normally pay the bills and be my bread and butter for that month because my audience has just been exhausted at a free event. So, you're not only playing for free, but you're screwing yourself in the future."

How's this for exposure: Michael Kirkpatrick plays the previously unrecorded song, 'Little Honey'

Kirkpatrick played – for free – at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival as part of its Troubadour Competition. He ended up winning not only a custom guitar valued at $14,000 but some real, quantifiable exposure.

"My latest CD was sold in the merch tent right next to Sam Bush and Steve Winwood's stuff," he said. "I sold out of everything I had. Now that's what I call exposure."

Five years ago, Fort Collins arts nonprofit Beet Street created Streetmosphere, as a way to not only bring local performing artists (and ostensibly, audiences) to Downtown Fort Collins all summer, but also to offer those artists a paying gig.

"Streetmosphere was conceived, in a tiny little way, to address that, to chip away at that sense of, 'oh you do it for the love of it,'" Beet Street board president Bruce Freestone said.

That commitment put Streetmosphere in an awkward spot when they encountered their own funding trouble. In the end, they decided to cancel it.

Credit Courtesy of Yellow Bright
The Bright Days logo was designed by Zion Downing, age 7.

"We were not going to go forward and ask these people to volunteer their time," Freestone said. "I tell you, I am sick to death of people asking us to do things for free because, 'oh, it'll be great exposure.' That's not what artists need… They need a paycheck, a living wage."

For Yellowbright's Duncan, the answer is pretty simple.

"If you want something, you need to do it yourself or pay for it," she said.

Duncan is walking the talk. She's asked the 7-year-old of one of her musicians to draw the logo for Bright Days – earning the budding artist $25 and lunch.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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