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My band is pretty popular here in the Pacific Northwest and so we get asked to do benefits at least one a month.
Shows are not our entire livelihood, but the bulk of it, aside from merch and some CD sales and Bandcamp revenue. We are politically-minded and community-oriented people, but our ability to play for free is limited.
How kosher is it to ask for a small guarantee for benefits? We are usually a headliner or a support headliner for touring bands. Some of the things we get asked to play are not very well put together, and so the success of the event rests on our fans showing up and rocking out.
A Seattle Band
Dear A Seattle Band,
I imagine that any band with a bigger draw than 150 people locally gets asked to do dozens of benefits a year. It's thoughtful for you to even say yes to a few.
Something that can cause problems for benefits and the bands that play them is that often the organizers are people who have no booking and promoting experience. They imagine the draw is pre-existing and constant for the bands, that people will be compelled purely by their heartstrings.
They also don't know that bands are sacrificing their own earning ability for the month, that fans coming to this benefit may not come to their next concert, or that the band is going out of pocket to be there for the night. All of which is a good reason to ask for an honorarium.
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If you are a headliner and you know you can bring in 300 people to their fundraiser, ask for $300. This may also help to weed out the offers. It might also help determine who has their shit together enough to be confident about turn out, and insure that they promote the hell out of it.
Even a $100 honorarium is fair for any decently-drawing band. Also, if there is a non-profit involved, they may be able to provide you with a tax credit for the donation of your performance. Your time and effort is worth honoring.
Best of luck,