Note added 12/18/2017:
I noticed quite a bit of traffic coming from Craigslist today. Apparently, someone posted a link to this article. I’d thank them but there is no way to contact them – so, if you make it back here, thank you. I mention this other post below, but in case you miss it, you may want to read Songwriters, the New Music Business, and Myths Musicians Believe as well. And, please let me know if you agree, disagree, or have a question.
In Los Angeles and other cities, bands and songwriters often pay venues to play 30-40 minute sets of music. This practice, preying on the hope and desperation of an artist trying to build a following is called pay-to-play.
I’m going to explain pay-to-play, why it happens (the reasons artists do it), and why it is unhelpful & unnecessary. I’m then going to offer a rational alternative to pay-to-play.
Suffice to say, if you are an artist, there is NEVER a reason to get into this situation.
What is pay-to-play?
Most venues book popular acts – those with a following – on Friday and Saturday night. But the venue must still make money the rest of the week. A “promoter” (in quotes for a reason – we’ll get to that) works with the venue and books artists mid-week, with the agreement that the artist must pre-sell an allotment of tickets to their show.
That money DOES NOT go to the artist, it goes to the venue – well, more specifically, the “promoter”.
Note: Those are not just any quotes, those are BIG finger quotes with a healthy degree of sarcasm… and probably a wink wink, too.
If the artist does not sell their allotment of tickets, they must still pay the “promoter” (HUGE EXAGGERATED FINGER QUOTES) for any remaining tickets.
Let’s assume, for round numbers, it is $10.00 per ticket and the artist must agree to sell 10 tickets. That’s $100 in ticket sales that the artist is responsible for. Usually, it is closer to 15-20 tickets depending on the venue.
So, in short, the artist is paying $100 for the “opportunity” to play the venue.
Why do artists agree to pay-to-play?
There are a few reasons. Some of them are:
- They want to play out. Every true performer/artist does.
- They believe it is how it is done. Repeat a lie often enough and… well… you get the idea.
- They are trying to build a following. Understandable, but pay-to-play works against that.
- They believe the hype that X or Y venue is where you play in Los Angeles (or whatever city you are in), and might hope to be “discovered.”
Note: The Viper Room, The Dakota Lounge, The Mint, Genghis Cohen, The Federal Bar, etc. are NOT going to break you as an act. You don’t need them for that.
I’ll add one more reason here… It came up during a chat with a friend who was playing a pay-to-play gig last night. When I suggested it is probably not the best idea, they responded with:
It’s a business.
Reading between the lines, what they are saying is that, as with most businesses, you must spend money to make money. They view pay-to-play as a type of promotional fee.
I could almost buy this – but I don’t. I’ll explain why below. But first, why is pay-to-play unnecessary?
Why pay-to-play is unhelpful and unnecessary
Here is what really happens when artists do pay-to-play. It may not look exactly the same, but it is always a variation of this theme.
First, they start inviting friends. Sometimes, maybe the first gig or two, they may even meet their necessary ticket sales. Let’s use the numbers above. Let’s say they manage to get 12 people to the gig. $120 dollars in ticket sales. They get $20 and the “promoter” gets $100.
Mostly, it was friends and maybe a few other artists. Those people are being supportive and that’s nice.
But by the 2nd or 3rd show, their friends are done paying $10 to support them. Also, they just don’t want to go out on a weeknight. No one does really. As I’ve told pay-to-play “promoters” who contacted me, “I can’t get myself to show up to my own gig on a Tuesday night. You can’t expect me to get fans there, too?”
More importantly, the prior shows gave the band in the above scenario a false sense of accomplishment. In the end, the artist needs to build a following by gaining new listeners. That is rarely (read: never) accomplished through inviting friends to pay-to-play shows.
Also, the venues rarely have a built-in crowd… certainly not mid-week. The only benefit to playing those venues mid-week is to, perhaps, improve your craft and learn how to perform well, even when nobody is watching. And by the way, that is important. Your performance should always be top-notch – amazing – balls out – all in, etc. even if you are only performing for the bartender and a guy sweeping the floor. Of course, I’d contend that you can perfect your craft to no audience at some other venue that isn’t pay-to-play. Better yet, take that $100 and pay a performance coach if you are hell-bent on spending it.
After a few more shows, with no new listeners, a dwindling crowd, and paying out $100-$200 for the “opportunity” to play, the artist is done! Their soul sucked dry. They bemoan the dead music scene, friends that don’t support them, and simply stop playing out!
Let’s talk about that “promoter”….
He’s not really a promoter. He’s a scheduler. He’s charged with getting bodies in the door to the venue so they buy food and drinks. He is NOT promoting the artists.
A true promoter, creates marketing materials, has a mailing list, connections, news outlets, industry contacts, a street-team, etc. A promoter has a vested interest in the success of the show. A promoter should make money because they are successful at promotion. Catch that last line… re-read it.
Successful promoters are successful at promoting.
In short, a promoter promotes. See how that works? The noun is wrapped up in the verb.
Someone who books a songwriter, makes money off the songwriter being booked, but has no true vested interest in the success of the show or the artist is NOT a promoter.
A scheduler maybe? A clerk? But it is insulting to real promoters to call those people promoters.
They are bottom-feeders and desperate artists give them the scraps they need.
But what is an artist to do? Let’s talk about that for a bit.
An alternative approach to pay-to-play
First, let’s deal with the “It’s a business” business. This is trotted out by the
promoter clerk when they are weaseling the artist out of their cash. It is then repeated by the artist – mostly to themselves.
Again, it was the answer I got from my friend last night.
It is a business, treat it like one
First, I agree. It is a business. Yes… if you wish to be a professional performer, you are in business for yourself. Good job. I love entrepreneurship. Now… treat it like a business.
In business, you have to distinguish good ideas and actions from bad ideas and actions. Pay-to-play is a bad business decision. However, pay-to-promote is probably necessary and wise – when done properly.
Pay-to-promote, not pay-to-play
I’m all for paying to promote your business. In fact, I’ve written and spoken about this extensively. It explains why I don’t agree with the common complaint by artists that venues who don’t pay them are taking advantage of them. They might be, but they might not be.
Read: Songwriters, the New Music Business, and Myths Musicians Believe. I discuss this idea at length.
Rather than pay a clerk $100 to add your name to a list (the schedule), hire someone to promote you. Pay for posters. Pay for an EP of 4 songs that you give away like a drug dealer. Trade music online free for email addresses. Promote your business and be in control of that promotion.
Pay-to-play gives away your money and your leverage. And if you are responsible for getting bodies in the door anyway, you are better off using the money you are paying the clerk and spend it on true promotion.
Playing shows to the same few people is not promotion. Pay-to-play is NOT promotion. Promotion is promotion.
There may be a time, with the right following, that you rent a facility and you put together a show. You are in charge of the door. You are in charge of promotion. In that scenario, you are becoming a promoter. You’ll discover how much work a true promoter does.
However, that is probably unnecessary until you develop a following.
And that is the real thing that artists want… listeners. My god! Please listen to our music!
So… if you want to develop a following, here are some ideas that avoid pay-to-play and keep you in control.
- Team up with 2 or 3 artists and put together a night of music. Approach less well-known venues, restaurants, coffee houses, libraries, community centers, etc. Create a professional pitch that you are bringing a show… and then deliver a show.
- Play small listening venues without any concern for inviting friends. Kill it! Be fucking amazing! Wow!! the 4 people in attendance and get them some music, other merch, and get their email addresses. Have a 2nd show planned so you can ask THEM to come out and bring a friend or two each! Maybe, you’ll have 8-10 people at the next show. None of them are your friends. They’ll be fans… that’s better.
- Have a scheduled YouTube show. Talk about your songwriting. Tell your story. Be funny! Be engaging. And share songs.
- When doing a show, pay to promote it. Make posters. Create CD’s and provide them to the venue to give away for FREE the week or so prior to the show. Kunaki.com is a good place to get professional CD’s in low quantity digital runs.
- Pay a street team – a couple cute guys/girls handing out YOUR CDs at the venue 1 week prior and the day prior and the day of your show. $10/hr cash might get it done. And who knows, eventually a fan might do it. Slave labor driven by passion is a good thing!
Please note: I’m all for treating your business like a business. Put money behind it. Don’t worry about making money to start. Worry about new ears. New listeners. True fans! Stop asking friends and other musicians to be fans.
Those other musicians, they’re trying to figure this out, too. Team up with them. Think Willie Nelson and his family – but less pot – or as much pot – that’s up to you.
There are people who disagree with me. They’re nice. We like them. But they’re wrong. Smile at them, be kind, but don’t listen to them.
For the sake of your music, your pocketbook, your future fans, your art, and your soul, DO NOT PAY-TO-PLAY!