Musicians, Should You EVER Pay-To-Play? 
November 18, 2013
Shaun Letang in Advice from the Experts, Selling Your Music, promoters

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:

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (
See website for complete article licensing information.