“It’s about finances,” explained bluesman Corey Harris as he introduced “Money Eye,” the first song of his solo set, from the stage of Duke University’s Page Auditorium two weeks ago. The crowd chuckled along politely with Harris’ timely joke: America’s economy has sunk to its worst state since the Great Depression. North Carolina’s statewide unemployment rate reached 8.7 percent in December, its highest since 1983. It’s the seventh highest unemployment rate in the country. Money, Harris knew, was on everyone’s mind.

Or perhaps Harris was talking to the wrong crowd, since, well, there was a crowd at all: Harris’ Thursday night set at Duke was well-attended, two-thirds of the room’s 1,232 seats occupied by a mix of middle-aged couples and Duke University co-eds and faculty members. For those that weren’t students, tickets cost either $18 or $34. Was no one in Page worried about cashflow?

Perhaps Harris’ joke would have hit even harder in Raleigh two hours later: Around 10 p.m., 100 or so listenerstwenty-something singles, N.C. State undergrads and Raleigh music scene standbysfiled through the drafty double doors of Tir Na Nog, the Irish restaurant and pub that’s become one of Raleigh’s hot spots for bands over the last two years. Some people came to see a split bill of young Triangle metal deities Colossus and Tooth. But others came because, on Thursdays in Raleigh, that’s simply what they do.

“Free show with great local bands, cheap beer, and samples of local brew,” says Chris Tamplin, a bartender and booking agent at Tir Na Nog. He developed the weekly Local Beer, Local Band series two years ago with longtime WKNC Music Director Kelly Reid, who graduated in December. Each week, the bill puts two or three local bands on stage and one local brew on sample and special. “We pretty much have a great audience no matter who is playing because we offer one of the best and cheapest nights of entertainment in the Triangle.”

Indeed, over the last three years, the number of free concerts in the Triangle has not only increased in quantity but also in quality. Though the trend may be bolstered by the worldwide economic crisis, it seems to have more to do with the productivity of bands in the Triangle. From regular series at bars like Tir Na Nog to intermittent CD release parties at clubs like Local 506, venues, bands and fans have respectively found that these free shows increase their crowd sizes and beer sales, opportunities to gain an audience, and chances to hear music.

“People are so willing to shill out $5 for an imported draft of some shitty charcoaled hops, but they’ll walk past a club if there’s a cover,” says Jason Kutchma, frontman of punk-fueled Durham rockers Red Collar, which has played the Tir Na Nog series four times. “So club owners and bands figure if you give [the music] for free, then maybe you get a few new people on board. And, honestly, it works.”

Chandler Holt, one-fourth of Yep Roc’s Chatham County Line, can vouch for that: “It seems like most of the early Chatham County Line shows were either free or part of a bigger event,” he remembers. “The basic idea is to turn as many people on as you can, so that when you can finally headline your own show, you can get as many people out as possible.”

Although the strategy was never discussed or planned, it worked for Chatham County Line. Over the better part of the decade, Chatham County Line has grown from playing free gigs at Sadlack’s and Tir Na Nog to selling out Lincoln Theatre and Cat’s Cradle. The band recently played Gov. Beverly Perdue’s Inaugural Ball, priced at $125 a ticket, and lately spends much of each year touring the United States and Europe.

Long before the economy hit record lows, bars across the Triangle offered an array of options for thrifty and/or adventurous souls seeking a dose of live music on the cheap. Sadlack’s Heroes in Raleigh and The Cave in Chapel Hill have long depended on donations to pay their bands, while Carrboro’s The Reservoir joined in the bucket-passing act after opening in the former Go! Studios space in 2004. More recently, though, bigger clubs like Cat’s Cradle and Local 506 have joined in the free show spree.

“I think that part is newclubs with higher marginal costs realizing that it might be better to make up some of that expense from the bar than from the door,” says Glenn Boothe, owner of the Local 506. Boothe discontinued his Free For All series last year due to its sporadic timing and inconsistent quality. He continues to open his doors with no cover several times a month for CD release parties and shows presented by organizations, like the biannual showcases of Diversions, The Daily Tarheel‘s entertainment blog. Boothe estimates that free shows at Local 506 typically attract about 25 percent larger crowds than if he charged a cover for the same bands.

“Cover charges are not only hurdles for bands to get fans but also for music venues, which are basically bars, to sell alcohol,” says Boothe. “If it’s free, the bar normally makes more money from increased attendance, which in turn helps offset some of the production overhead.”

The venues shouldn’t receive all the credit, though. “I haven’t really noticed the clubs doing it as much as us pushing them to do it,” says Gray Young guitarist Chas McKeown, suggesting that bands may be the driving force behind the movement toward free shows. Boothe agrees, saying that bands request more free shows now than ever before. For bands, these free shows open the doors to people who otherwise might pass right by, especially if the show is part of a series with its own following.

“It’s a lot to ask the average music listener to pay to come out to hear a band that they don’t know a lot about,” Holt says. “When [new Chatham County Line side project] The Jackets were first looking for gigs, the Local Beer, Local Band show immediately came to mind. This is a great gig for a new band in that there is a built-in scene that a band can build from.”

While some of these offerings are sporadic, weekly presentations like Local Beer, Local Band or Duke’s Campus Concert Series have cultivated their own audiences through dependably solid booking each week. Since Local Beer, Local Band started two years ago, the average crowd size has quintupled.

“I come out to [Local Beer, Local Band] a lot and think it’s a great thing for the Raleigh music scene,” says Holt. “Personally, I have been turned on to a lot of cool bands that I otherwise might not have heard.”

Though the Campus Concert Series has existed at Duke since 2007, it only began staging Friday afternoon shows on Duke’s West Campus last fall. According to chairperson Corina Apostol, the shows now attract between 50 and 200 people each week.

Red Collar bassist Beth Kutchma counts herself as a regular. “I’ve also seen a few other shows there recently and the turnout seems to be getting better and better,” she says the night after seeing Maple Stave and Gray Young play Duke’s CCS.

With funding from the university, CCS can guarantee artists a paycheck in addition to an audience, which means Apostol has no trouble finding acts to play the series. At Tir Na Nog, Tamplin pays bands a portion of the bar’s profits for the night. As with most concerts, the more people that come, the more the band generally makes.

Bigger crowds for bands, higher sales for bars, and cheaper nights for fans: So why aren’t all shows free?

“My biggest fear is that eventually everyone is going to start expecting free shows, which wouldn’t be a big deal if people bought Red Collar T-shirts and CDs and sweatpants with that money,” says Jason Kutchma. “The obvious thought is that if people don’t pay at the door, then they have more money to buy merch and booze and everyone wins. But we don’t sell any more merch at free shows.”

“What’s wrong with throwing $5 towards people that are working their collective asses off?” says drummer Jonathan Truesdale. As with Chatham County Line, the hope, agree the members of Red Collar, is that bands ultimately use the free shows to reach a point where they can charge a cover and still expect a crowd. Red Collar has steadily done that in the Triangle.

“As much as I like a packed free show, I equally love a packed show that ends with me handing a local band some four-digit sum of money,” says Boothe.

Duke Performances Director Aaron Greenwald, who booked the Corey Harris performance at Page Auditorium, says that, even in this economy, people are still willing to pay for tickets to concerts, even if it means forsaking other purchases.

“This is a time when I’m less likely to go out and buy a new pair of tennis shoes because I love tennis shoes,” he says, “but I’m still as likely to buy a CD or a book.” Greenwald points out that Duke Performances’ numbers have actually increased as the school year has progressed. He attributes low attendance numbers last fall to an excess of events and occasional programming choices that didn’t fit in Durham. Late last year, the program even offered free tickets to several shows. Greenwald says the program has long done that, but, this year, the move received more public notice.

“I hope that what we’re providing is entertaining, but I also hope it provides a degree of sustenance, too,” says Greenwald, noting that ticket prices for Duke Performances are still inexpensive relative to big-box concerts while offering an exceptional cultural experience. “If it’s your only opportunity to see Béla Fleck as part of this African project that he’s doing, maybe that operates differently than a ticket for Dancing with the Stars at the RBC Center.”

That is, lots of people simply still want their music.

“Maybe it’s an escape from the pressures of the economic downturn,” concludes Gray Young bassist Dan Grinder. “Or, more likely, people just really love the music around here and will do what they can to hear bands they love and to support those bands.”