Every artist gets asked to perform a bad gig or a gig for no money. It happens at every level. Everybody gets asked: new artists (though maybe they don't think they are asked quite enough) and career artists (though maybe they are asked to "donate" their services because their fee is "too high for our small budget").
If you're an artist, every time you're asked to perform, ask yourself the question: "Can I say no?"
Few artists actually do. It's Pavlovian: they get asked to do a personal appearance and their instinct is to immediately say "Why yes, thank you. When do I show up?"
The problem is that they don't ask any other questions, especially of themselves.
The real answer should always be "Let me get back to you."
Artists love to perform—it's their job, their vocation, their calling, their purpose; it's what they wake up every day longing to do. What makes their life—and their career—so difficult, is that their opportunities seem so fleeting that they feel they must accept every one—or risk losing all of them.
Gaining control of this is the goal of every career artist; it's done by carefully considering the offer and deciding if it can be turned down. It's also difficult. It's counterintuitive that an artist's goal is to be able to say no, especially when they undoubtedly feel like their entire career has been about trying to create situations in which they can say yes. However, creating scarcity adds value, and shouldn't make anyone feel like they are losing money.
Turning something down actually means you have something better going on. It's a good thing.
If you're a new artist, you'll be told: "This is all promotional for you, so it's okay [to work for free]." But is it? Only you can decide. Don't just accept the offer blindly. Ask yourself some questions: "How does this fit into my overall strategy? If I do end up performing for free, how much money do I stand to lose, factoring in the costs of my band, the backline, transportation and anything else I may have to pay for? Am I being taken advantage of? What is the true value of this performance and how does it increase my value and further my career?"
Career artists find themselves in the same position and must answer the same questions. The only difference is that the question asked of the career artist is more along the lines of "You are such a big star that we can't afford you; would you be willing to take a lower fee and help out a good cause?" The irony here is that instead of being told that you can't be paid because you're too little, you are being told you can't be paid because you're too big.
At every level, you must stop and ask yourself some important questions in order to determine whether the offer makes sense for you and your career. Remember: it's okay to say no.
Saying no will be scary. You are turning down work after all. But what kind of work are you turning down? Are you losing money on a show that helps somebody else profit without providing any benefit to you? Or are you losing money performing in front of an audience you actually want to target as potential fans? Can you sell merch to make up the loss? Is there a potential relationship to nurture, or possibly lose? If you're a career artist, does the lower fee set a precedent that impairs your ability to get a bigger one in the future? Does it prevent you from appearing in that market again, and for how long? (For some, accepting a gig may mean being prevented from playing again in that market for a while.)
These are the questions artists must ask when they receive an offer to play. This happens at every level, in every market and at every price point.
The bottom line is that every offer calls into question your value as an artist. That value can be enhanced through creating scarcity via an appropriate strategy. It's your (or your manager's) job to continually try and increase your value, so a smart artist will take a hard look at the situation and decide what makes the most sense. Sometimes it will be to say no, as hard as that may seem.
It's okay to say no—as long as it pays off in the long run.