It occurs to me that there is a polarization under the surface between the goals of a typical session player and a typical aspiring soloist, and the many ways in which the “work for free/pay” argument illuminates how these two groups of people may step on one another’s toes. I don’t know if anyone has addressed it, though.
Basically, I can see how an aspiring soloist might find it in their best interest to take the odd gig for nothing, for “exposure,” although these gigs are much, much rarer than anyone thinks. One should always have to justify, even to oneself, working for nothing. Only extremely rare opportunities for pro bono work ever present themselves that are really worth doing.
And these opportunities are only useful for aspiring soloists, people who will find it useful to “get their name out there” for no reason other than to get their name out there.
A session or road player, the sort of person who never expects to be stopped on the street and recognized, and who doesn’t even want that, would find that sort of gig a complete waste of time.
So a soloist might want to take a gig for nothing for their own advantage … and the session player might interpret that as stepping on their toes and taking an opportunity away from them.
There are just ways in which the career goals of a soloist and those of a session player are mutually antagonistic. I think this is what’s behind the arguments when one musician states that they got some positive career movement after playing for free, and another protests that this is simply not possible, and that working for free is allowing oneself to be taken advantage of.
I just think that this needs to be acknowledged, that “musicians” are not some sort of homogeneous mass of people, all with the same general needs and career aspirations. I think gigs are also not a homogeneous mass of jobs all alike, either. There are certain jobs that are more suited to session players and others that might help push a soloist forward on their own quite different career track.
I think keeping that in mind may help avoid at least too much toe-squishing, although probably not all. At least it helps to explain why these two sides never seem to see eye-to-eye on the question of whether one should ever play for free. I would definitely seek not to take pro bono work that could be filled by a session player. An oddball gig that’s more well-suited to a soloist style, though … I don’t know. I’d still want “no” to be my default position, and I would not take the job unless there were about seventeen truly persuasive reasons to do so. I still think that one should never, ever feel the need to justify a “no” when it comes to working for free, and that any reasons for accepting free work should be justified in detail. (I also think that “because there is someone trying to put a guilt trip on me or make me feel beholden” is emphatically not a valid reason.)