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Musicians, Should You EVER Pay-To-Play? 

Payola, in one form or another, is as old as the music business:

Labels pay radio stations to broadcast their music, producers pay DJs to spin their records in the club, and promoters ask live bands to pay-to-play at their event.

And it’s always been a hot topic amongst musicians.

So if you’re an artist, should you ever have to pay-to-play?

Here are two ways to look at it:

Why You Shouldn’t Generally Pay-to-play

Written by Shaun Letang

Ok, so should you pay-to-play? As a general rule, no, I feel you shouldn’t. Let me explain:

The majority of places which will tell you you need to pay to get on stage, most likely don’t have the biggest audience themselves. If they did, they’d be making money from that audience, and wouldn’t require you to give up your money to get some stage time at their gig or event. They’d be paying for more well known acts who will keep their paying audience happy. This is how the majority of popular events work.

It’s because of this that the amount you pay often won’t give you a good value amount of exposure. For example, if you’re paying say $100 or more to perform a gig, you’d in theory need at least 20 people to go on to sign up to your mailing list from there. You’d then need at least 10 people to buy a one off album from you, or three people to become recurring customers. Chances are though, that that isn’t going to happen from performing one gig where the audience isn’t highly targeted. This is especially true if there isn’t much of an audience, and most likely there won’t be.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong believer that at some stages you have to pay for promotion. That said, the method of promotion you pay for should be able to give you some real results. It’s like paying for a magazine advert; unless you’re combining it with a large scale marketing campaign to get wide-scale exposure, it’s not going to do anything for you. People will see your face, but not hear your music. They’ll then flick the page.

Pay-to-play events are notorious for not giving the musicians good value for money. Unless you’re guaranteed a set amount of highly targeted people turning up to this event and you’re free to promote to them as you need, than stay well clear. A lot of the time, you’ll be wasting your money paying to play. Instead, find open mike nights, show case events, and possibly even put on your own show.

Why Sometimes You Should Pay-to-play

Written by Lukas Camenzind

If you are a musician who feels it’s never OK to pay-to-play, I think you’ve got it all wrong.

Why? Because that’s an entitled and closed-minded attitude.

It’s an entitled attitude because you should consider having an audience and playing music for a living a privilege. Do you know how many people dream of being a rock star? Probably most people at some point in their lives.

It’s closed-minded because it ignores basic economics: If your band does not bring out any people, why are you expecting to get paid? For some reasons many musicians do…

The same musicians think that because Twitter and Facebook are free services, all music marketing should be free, too. Yet they are much more willing to spend money on instruments, recording gear or studio time. I know it’s more fun to buy gear, but the logic doesn’t make any sense.

I’ve seen bands play to an empty room for 3 hours and get paid $200. Is that better than paying $100 to play in front of 200 people?

I don’t know. I’d say it depends. But it’s silly to dismiss one opportunity from the get-go just because it costs money.

Yes, there are shady promoters. And yes, you should try to get the best deal you can. But if you think you’re not getting paid what you deserve, don’t just sit there and complain: Rent a space, sell your own tickets and run your own show. If people are actually coming out to see you, you’ll make the most money that way anyway.

What I suggest is that you look at pay-to-play opportunities like anything else: compare the costs and the benefits. Look closely at what you’re getting in return (and don’t forget to think about what else you could do instead, too). Look at the big picture. Then decide if it’s worth it to you. It just might be.

What do you think?

Now it’s your turn. Is it ever ok to pay-to-play?

To share your thoughts, leave a comment. And please share this guide so others can also get involved with their view.

About the Authors

Shaun Letang is the owner of Music Industry How To, where he shares music career advice to musicians, producers, managers and anyone else involved in the music industry. It’s your one-stop shop to learn everything you need to know about the music industry:

Lukas Camenzind is the owner of Posteram, a music marketing and artist management company. If you’ve ever wondered why some artists fail - while others have huge success - you can download his free report on what sets successful artists apart here:

Musicians, Should You EVER Pay-To-Play?

Reader Comments (12)

I never pay to play unless a) I'm with students and treating it as an opportunity for them, b) it's a benefit concert (and a tax write off for me), c) I'm "trying out" new material

November 18 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Sweet

This article is pretty stale....all this has been hashed over many times with much better articles....this seems like an attempt to stimulate ranting.....I think this way too elementary and ignors that most working musicians are savy about these positions....feels like the authors are late to the game...

November 18 | Unregistered CommenterGeewhizpat

A few things I consider on every gig I book:
Will I make or (lose) money? How much will I make?
Is there a built-in audience (will I be playing for new people)?
What will be my efforts to promote this show and how well will they work?
Will other parties be promoting, as well? (other bands, the venue, etc.)
Am I friends with the other bands?
If I am not friends with the other bands, does it make sense for us to share a bill and thus share fans?
Will I leave the gig happy?
Will my band leave the gig happy?

My rule of thumb is that ANYONE would be willing to let me pay them to play (who turns down money!?) I don't work with just ANYONE. I try to work with people/venues who believe in what I'm doing and can help advance it.

November 18 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Mallett

If you have to pay people to listen to your music then your music is not good enough. Go home, practice, step up your game and how your marketing yourself.

November 18 | Unregistered CommenterOwen

I personally don't do pay to play gigs. I have done in the past and they've been some of my worst gigs. Getting 4 bands all playing who don't have anything in common just so there are people in the venue never seems like a good idea to me.

I also think that it's a strange idea to expect bands at club levels to supply the audience. As a musician I provide a service and expect to get paid for it. You don't ask a bar tender in an interview how many people they can bring in weekly before giving them a job.

Also soundguys always seem to get paid. Why not expect them to bring some people as well.

I admit a lot of bands do need to step up their side of the promo. If everyone was promoting the gig I'm sure people would come out and everyone could make money not just the venue/promoter.

November 19 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Cullen

I see both sides of the story and I agree with your points, but, the reality is that you are essentially really only referring to terrestrial radio, which is a so called "discovery" platform, and self-proclaimed the BIGGEST discovery platform for music in the U.S. Well then, here is where you find the issue.

Terrestrial Radio is ran by a lot of OLD minded executives who come from an age where payola was the way to separate your labels music from all the rest in terms of rotation and spins. The better you greased those palms, the better your rotation slots became hence the better chances for discovery you received and the more phone-call requests in turn.

At the end of the day these people are still in place. Look at the top of the Hip Hop Stations, which are located in NYC. Why is it that their personalities are all over 40 years old, and their P.D. is the same? There is an issue of refreshing them from fear of dropping in the ratings for a bit which instead leaves NYC radio as a non-influential player in terms of breaking records or artists. It's sad. But you can see that the mentality at Big Radio (clear channel, radio one, etc)

Anyway, the pay for play model only really relates to radio. Venues like the Key Club in LA or Webster Hall in NYC run by promoters who charge acts a couple of hundred bucks to perform are actually good for musicians to build fan bases and for their own metrics, which are needed since it is the only way to effectively gage and measure your actual reach, which in turn can measure your potential revenue. If they ask a band to pay $200 to perform and the band does not have 10 friends who will pay $20 a piece to support them and watch them play, but also spread the word and get their friends to come out as well, then isn't the band or it's management doing something wrong? or, actually doing nothing at all.

Hollywood stories of being discovered by singing in train stations or street corners are almost fairytales, and in this day and age when we have too much competition within the music markets we simply need to do more than the other people climbing up the rope ladder. We need to work harder, manage our time better, learn and read, execute, execute, execute, and analyze our success and failures in order to reconstruct strategies that will become more effective. Those are just some of the multitude of things that need to be done, but if this is what you wish your career to be then why not, right?

Also, musicians fail to realize that you have to be extremely consistent with performing to gain any real traction in terms of simple metrics. 1 show a month ain't gonna cut it.

November 19 | Unregistered CommenterRoy P. Perez©

Lucas posed the question: "I’ve seen bands play to an empty room for 3 hours and get paid $200. Is that better than paying $100 to play in front of 200 people?"

The answer is; Yes! It's MUCH better to get paid $200. Because then you have $200. 200 people is a drop in the bucket in terms of reputation, promo, etc. (I'm reminded of the joke, possibly by Rita Rudner, that says; "Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you judge him, you'll be a mile away, and you'll have his shoes."

Even worse, when you work for free--or less than free--you send the message that musicians are so desperate for attention, they'll actually pay for it.

I recently turned down the chance to play at a local festival of sorts, because despite the fact that hundreds of people would be there, the meager pay just wasn't worth the trouble. A few days later, I was offered nearly twice the money, and I happily accepted the gig.

As a member of my family noted, any gig that would be worth playing for free (or paying for), is a gig that will be in a position to pay you something.

I have done freebies for charitable causes, every once in a while. Nothing wrong with that, of course.


November 19 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Kaswell

" should consider having an audience and playing music for a living a privilege."

First of all, you're not making a living playing music unless you're being paid. You're creating for yourself a glorified hobby. The ability to sustain your life off of the income you generate from a job is "making a living."

"Do you know how many people dream of being a rock star? Probably most people at some point in their lives."

Do you know how many of those people have little to no idea the sacrifice and struggle it takes to put yourself in the position to be that "rock star"? Most of them.

Now I'm not saying that you occasionally shouldn't pay-to-play. And you certainly shouldn't be expecting shows at venues that are a higher level than your career is currently on. But with those gigs, you have to go in knowing that you're usually only going to be playing to the listeners who you market to, who you sell tickets to, who would have come to the other venue that maybe doesn't pay you, but that you don't have to pay. It's a matter of having something to talk about when you need to. "Oh yeah, we played at the Roxy last month," etc. The talking points have to be worth it, and well timed.
I do agree, The venues that do pay-to-play, as Shaun writes,
"...most likely don’t have the biggest audience themselves. If they did, they’d be making money from that audience, and wouldn’t require you to give up your money to get some stage time at their gig or event."
But I do agree, Lukas,
" Look at the big picture. Then decide if it’s worth it to you. It just might be."

And I am grateful to be doing what I'm doing for a living. I'm grateful that I live in a country where I, as a woman, can make those decisions for myself and choose to follow through with them.

But when someone says "you're so lucky" to be doing what I'm doing, "I'm so jealous," I always want to reply with this.

I made this choice, and I chose to follow it. And I accept the struggle, major investments (both time and monetary,) and the risk of the unknown outcome. I accept and take that risk every day. And I am grateful I was able to make that choice for myself, no matter how many jobs I have to take, hours I spend on the road, etc. And you can choose to do that too.

I could say that I envy your house, your steady schedule, and knowing where your next paycheck is coming from. But I didn't choose that life. I didn't choose that dream. And I sure as hell hope that if I find myself envying it, that I have the guts to follow myself to it.

November 19 | Unregistered CommenterMary Scholz

Hey Shaun and Lukas--good dichotomy here. Thank you for that. Just my thought: It seems to me that even though both articles promoted differing opinions they also focused on two separate topics: The first addresses bands who mainly seek exposure and the second article addresses bands who are looking to make money above all else.

Not that all bands don't want both of course, but the perspective of a band that is willing to risk getting ripped off for some exposure versus a band that feels it is entitled to payment no matter what can be radically different yet EQUALLY justifiable based on each's intrinsic motivation for their respective goal.

Both articles are obviously on point but they are addressing different bands in each as opposed to the same band trying to decided what's best for them.

I think the best thing for a band reading this is to decide what they personally value more in terms of their overall goal as a band and then proceed to read the benefits of either paying or not based on what they have already decided means the most to them (money or exposure)--since for local and independent bands there's usually an inverse relationship between making money and exposure: one goes up and the other goes down. And that's what this article is touching on which is great for discussion.


November 20 | Unregistered CommenterBlake Scopino

the case where i have seen pay-to-play benefit an indie artist is when they are asked to "buy on" to a tour for an artist who is bigger than they are. one band i worked with decided to pay the bigger band $200/night for a 15 date tour. admittedly, this sounds kinda crazy, and i'm sure it doesn't always work out, but the result for this band was that they went over so well with the much bigger tour audiences that they more than made up for that $200 with merch sales at the shows. plus, after the tour was over, most of those same larger venues asked our band back to headline on their own for "real money." it's a risk, but it sure paid off for these guys.

November 25 | Unregistered Commentermason

I see both sides of this actually. I think local bands, up to a certain point, should not expect to be paid for a show. At least not until they prove they can draw a good amount of people. With that being said, musicians put a lot of hard work into original music. For that reason alone, no band should ever have to pay to play. Play a show for free, yes, but never pay to perform. Any 'manager' who tries to tell me that I have to pay to perform would quickly be fired by me. I could go on and on about this all day, but I'll stop at saying that no band should ever pay to play. Play for free, but not pay to play.

November 29 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I believe that pay to play is a double edged sword really. On the one hand opening for national acts gives bands the opportunity to expand their audience and increase an influence that could possibly spread outside of their normal scene. On the other hand, pay to play gives promoters an opportunity to be lazy and not promote the show in the first place thus defeating the entire purpose. So pay to play to me is like ice cream. It's ok to have every once in a while, but having too much is unhealthy.

November 10 | Unregistered CommenterM Feral

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