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« Winner Takes All - If We Let Them | Main | Don't Get In Car Wrecks With Your Fans »
Wednesday
May112011

BANDS DON’T PAY TO PLAY – YOU ONLY HARM YOURSELF

The trend for bands to use their (or their parents) hard-earned cash, as a short cut to playing the supposedly “choice” gigs in town has sadly remained commonplace in the music world. With the onset of websites offering “opportunities” in return for a fee to submit your music, the pay to play phenomenon has also found a new home in cyberspace.

LAZY PROMOTORS

Let’s be honest off the bat here, promoters that adopt the pay to play policy are scam artists. It used to be that promoters got their name because their job was to promote the gig in order to get bodies through the door. They would receive a percentage of door take for their hard work, and the band would get the rest. The venue itself would make a killing on the bar and everyone was happy.

Sure promoters like to spin their particular pay to play policy to make it more appealing. For instance you have to guarantee to sell 50 tickets and all the money goes to direct to them, and then you get 50 tickets for yourself to sell to your friends. Or they give you tickets for you to sell and they take a vast percentage of the profit while the band does all the work selling them. However it is phrased, the outcome is always the same - promoters stop doing their job, because they have made their money for the evening, long before anyone even comes through the door. The promotion is left down to the band themselves who simply bug their friends to buy the tickets they have to sell. Ultimately they have to give most of them away and pay the promoter the money out of their own pocket.

The downward spiral that this has on a music scene is huge; it kills the infrastructure that keeps the different levels of the scene from growing.

A LIVE CYCLE

A band starting out should play the low level venues – basically bars with a built in crowd of sorts. The band can also bolster the turn out by convincing their friends to show up. If they are good they will be booked back, and the patrons of the bar will hopefully tell their friends to come and check out the band next time. This allows the band to organically grow a fan base that feels connected to the band. It also provides a venue for the band to hone their skills, and helps them get a feel for what their audience responds too.

The next rung up the ladder is the larger venue in town that hosts the bigger local acts and smaller touring artists. If a band has built a buzz on the local bar scene the promoter of the bigger venue will get wind of this, and see them as a good companion to the headlining acts he books. Pretty soon the band will have created enough of a name for itself to headline the bigger venue. This is what sets in motion the cycle of live venues that create an ongoing music scene, which in turn, nurtures new acts.

NOBODY WINS

Pay to play gives bands the supposed option to bypass this process and head straight for what they perceive is the top.  The venues offer them “a great opportunity” to expose themselves to new fans and industry professionals. This of course never happens. All the band ends up doing, is paying a few hundred bucks to play for their close friends. This does no one any good except for the promoter who duped money out of the naive band.

Invariably, if these venues are scamming money out of the bands, they really don’t give a shit about treating them well, giving them adequate sound check time (normally none) or providing any cross promotion with other acts on the bill. The band themselves, who have prematurely found their way onto a bigger stage, look like a rabbit in headlights and suffer a bad sound from the inexperience of working with a PA engineer. Their friends that they convinced to come have to fork out $10 for drinks and $10 for parking, leaving them far less than satisfied, and will probably not return to see another performance.

IGNORE THE TEMPTATION

With 1000’s of bands in the locale of venue zip codes, there is a never-ending supply for these promoters to pry upon.  They trawl the depths of Reverb Nation and Sonic Bids and send messages to bands expressing their want to book them for a prestigious venue.

Bands, please do yourself a favor and delete these messages, or better still reply to them and tell them where to shove their proposal. You are better off promoting your own show in your house, inviting your friends, buying a case of beer and pass a hat round at the end of the show asking for tips. If you are good they will come again, and once you have built up enough of a following to actually justify playing the bigger venues, they will pay for tickets and you will make money from the experience.

Playing gigs in all sorts of places develops you into a great live act, but you can find plenty of outlets without having to pay for it. The more you and your fellow bands say no to pay to play, the better your local music scene will become.

— 

Robin Davey is a Musician, Film Director and Producer born in the UK and now residing in Los Angeles. He was inducted into the British Blues Hall Of Fame at the age of 23 with his band The Hoax. His current band The Bastard Fairies achieved over 1 Million downloads when they were the first band to release an album for free via the internet in 2006. As a director he won the best Music Video award at the American Indian Motion Picture Awards. His feature documentary The Canary Effect - an exploration into the hidden Genocide of Native Americans, won The Stanley Kubrick Award For Bold and Innovative Film Making at Michael Moores Traverse city Film Festival in 2006. He is also head of Film and Music Development at GROWvision - A full service media, management and production company.

Reader Comments (14)

I am a muso in Adelaide, there is a huge trend now for smaller venues, pubs etc to have "open mic night" which takes away any need for a well rehearsed, original bands altogether...they get free entertainment, bringing in numerous well meant, amateuer performers who all bring a friend or two....its so disheartening....

This is one of the most important articles I have read for musicians and music lovers alike. I hope the word continues to spread that this whole set up is bullshit!

May 13 | Unregistered CommenterMindcore

Why play live at all?
We are recording and releasing an album first, then considering the live playing.
Times are a changing....

May 13 | Unregistered CommenterFunk Whip

Hi Caroline, I don''t know the specifics of your local pubs, but most of the Open Mic Nights I know of are often organized and facilitated by individuals who enjoy them. And why not? As Robin says, 'promote your own shows'. Maybe go further and promote your friends' bands... musicians and artists are not always great at self-promotion, and maybe could use your help and enthusiasm

May 13 | Unregistered CommenterNiallX

This is so true! I have a new band and we are just starting to play out. There are a few clubs around town (LA) that offer free shows for bands. In this struggling economy, us struggling musicians have to get really creative with our live shows. Playing live is the only way to physically connect with your audience. I did the same thing as Funk Whip. We recorded our ep first and then started playing live. Though recording first is what most artists have to do these days, there is NOTHING like an amazing live show. Perfect it and the venues/bookers will come to you!

Thanks for the inspiration Robin!

@Funk Whip Playing live is an essential part of nurturing your band for success. What many bands don't realize is that it is simply not essential to play the name venues around town. If you are generating a buzz, even just playing crappy bars, people will find you. But if you ignore the process of learning to play live, you will certainly pay for it in the long run.

May 14 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey

Well said Robin.
This subject has been a favourite rant of mine for several years now, normally levelled at the Manchester (UK) promoters who continue to make a fat living 'promoting' in just this fashion

. I, as a promoter, operate in entirely the opposite fashion. I consider the people at the sharp end of the room, ie the performers, to be the most important element in the equation and as such should be in receipt of the lions share of the proceeds generated by the event.
Yes, most people think I am insane but as an independent promoter using other peoples venues I work on the premise that once the the overheads of the gig are covered then 100% of the net goes to the bands. which usually means 0% goes to me. Frankly I don't give a shit as I started doing this for the love of live performance and approached it from the perspective of a musician. You Robin can vouch for the way I work, having played for me last year with your band The Hoax. Also your close friend Jon Amor visits us later this month for the second time.

It would appear that I am very good at it because the upshot of my hard work for the acts is that bands love to play for me, they trust me implicitly, they rarely if ever ask for guarantees and are always pleased with the rewards they get when they work for me. Whenever I promote in aid of a charity I am always swamped with bands wanting to be part of it and yet there are still idiot young players queueing up to play for these pay to play type 'promoters' in Manchester.

In my hometown, Macclesfield we have a huge reservoir of talent and i am often approached by young players for advice. My first response is always to tell them to avoid playing in Manchester for these pay to play merchants. Unfortunately they rarely take that advice at first, but inevitably come round to it eventually. If they and others heeded that advice from the start this cancer would be eliminated.

WAKE UP KIDS, listen to Robin, he knows what he speaks of you don't need this these shits, promote yourselves, believe me it can be done.

Garry the Hat

Sonic Bids is such a scam! Why should I pay a fee so that "maybe" someone will look at my press kit and hire me for a gig??? I can book my own gigs and actually make some money and build my career. There's a major festival that I've played before and gotten great response from. I was going to contact them about playing again this year, but they are using Sonic Bids - I think I'll pass. It'll be both of our losses.

The other side of this is ask anyone in another career if they will come over and work for free - they'll think you're crazy?

"Hello, Ajax Plumbing, my toilet is plugged, do you think you could come over and fix it for free. If I like your work, I'll tell all my friends." CLICK "Hello…hello???"

If you really want to play for free, rent a hall and play for your friends…

May 15 | Unregistered CommenterIctus75

I've known Robin personally for a couple of years now, and I agree wholeheartedly that pay to play is a fool's game. If you're a serious artist, you should never pay to exhibit your work. I wrote a short piece expressing my opinion of pay to play a few years ago: you can find it here http://www.myspace.com/gigboss/blog/485400834.

And for Ictus75 and anyone else that's looking for gigs without going the pay to play route, you can find a bunch in California and Nevada on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/GigBoss.

Peace,

-GB

May 16 | Unregistered CommenterThe GigBoss

OK, I'll play Devil's Advocate. I have entered into a couple of these 'pay to play' deals in different cities and the results for us have almost always turned out better than putting on our own shows or playing a lesser venue on the outskirts of town.

First off, people are quick to say "screw these promoters, do your own shows", well doing your own shows costs money too, probably more than you'll be on the hook for if you don't get enough people through the door for a promoter. Every show you do costs something, even playing in someone's living room will cost you gas money and possibly a small PA rental

Second, it's not really pay to play if you bring some people through the door. Bring enough people through the door and you'll make money, which is really the same deal you face playing anywhere. Maybe you'll be on the hook for another $100 if you don't bring anyone through the door, rather than gripe about the $100 you paid the promoter you should probably be asking yourself why no one showed up for you. If no one is coming to your shows you won't make money, evil promoters not withstanding.

Third, it's a lot easier to get people to come to your show at the Viper Room on the Sunset strip than it is to get them to your show at some podunk bar in Riverside. Here's how the money brokedown on a recent trip to LA

Viper Room - 26 people through the door @ $10 a head = $260, minus $75 to the promoter = $185
Bar in Riverside - $150 guarantee = $150

At the Viper Room we played to a packed house, sold another $150 or so in merch, got a few e-mail addresses and hooked up paying gig with someone in the audience who liked us.

In Riverside we played to no one and left with our $150 and our tail between our legs.

Which gig would you rather do?

Hey there, thanks for this post putting the thing right on the spot. "Pay to play" is not as common here in Germany, but as we tend to take over everything good and bad from the US, it will probably soon be. I can only agree: Don't do it.

Even if you happen to be the worst band ever, it is you putting effort into it. Regular rehearsals, (probably), practicing (hopefully) and all the other stuff you do, is that worth nothing? If you wanna get ripped off, go for free drinks and free food only.This can be, as the post says, the first step of getting into a venue that will book you again. But never ever pay to play, this is stupid. Soon you will find, that there are bands doing worse than you and they do get paid. Sounds stupid? Well, for me this was the thing that made my first real band hit the road even though we were not satisfied with our performance. We got better and have so far played over 50 gigs in three years. We never payed anything, and we even got our own PA. And even when we played in jail we got free food, though the stuff wasn't exactly for gourmets. :-)

There's only one mistake to make: thinking that things are just gonna happen.

You will do advertising via MySpace, Facebook, perhaps flyers, sending mails to local papers and perhaps radio stations, maintain a web page, collect people's email addresses on the spot for your newsletter, behave when talking to venue owners and not get wasted like there is no tomorrow. Sounds like work? Eh, did you think the people taking your cash would do this for you?

Btw, we live in capitalism. Sad enough, but this means: What you are worth is evaluated in cash. If you pay to play, your value is negative. Think about it.

June 30 | Unregistered CommenterDrNI

I currently run a small pub on the outskirts of Wolverhampton in England and have run several nightclubs and music bars in the past, I have always tried to help the local music scene wherever I have been by giving new bands and bands writing their own material a venue to play in. I have found in the past that charging an entry fee (even a small one) to see a (usually unknown) band doesn't work so we offer the bands that play here 10% of the bar take from the night. This dose require a degree of trust from the bands but has proved successful to both sides with the bands keen to bring as many of their friends and family to a free gig and locals who now know that there will be some (free) entertainment on. All these extra drinkers obviously helps us and the bands grow a following eventually becoming too big for us :-)
I would advise any bands looking for gigs to offer the venue this type of deal as its a no lose deal for the venue (free entertainment and extra drinkers) and gets your band heard.

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterStu Wilkinson

I just found this topic..2 years or so after it was created.
So has anything changed for any of you regarding getting paid for playing?
I have just finished playing in a band in Australia that folded after 6 years due to all of us wanting a break and having other projects to follow.
We are all very experienced musicians with about 150 years playing/performing experience between us so we know all the tricks that venue owners and promoters use.
We played 1 free gig as an audition then charged $600 ( there were 6 of us ) and we got the $600 despite grumblings from those who hired us but they always presold all tickets to all shows...they were responsible for any advertising not us.
We got our first cd onto local radio play lists and sent them off with a bio to large venues around Australia and that got us a lot of work including a foot in the door to the festival scene.
Promoters were the worst to deal with but they soon realized that if they didn't pay us what we wanted then there would be no show and no profit for them.
Over the years we put our price up in increments of $200 to $1800 and eventually it got to the point of us charging $2400 and having to knock back gigs due to us deciding we would have 1 weekend a month off to spend with family and friends.
Marketing was an important factor in our minor success as well as knowing the target audience and tailoring our shows to suit them.
Playing in a band can be fun ( and very hard work sometimes ) but getting paid for doing it means treating it as a business and making business decisions rather than ego based mistakes.
The fact we got paid made us try harder to become a better band and by the time we wound the band up we were pulling up to $4000 a show to full houses of 500 people and traveling around the country (touring sucks to be honest unless you like long drives, crappy motels, airport lounges and takeaway meals)
Other bands I knew when we started out, folded quickly due to being disheartened by not being paid and not having any incentive to become a really good at their craft....they ALL played for free or for peanuts whenever a gig was offered...people got used to not paying to see them and it became impossible to get anyone to pay to see them...they cut their own throats!....they didn't approach it from a business point of view and became suckers for venues that wanted free bands...they folded and started new bands that made the same mistake and failed again.
If your band is good enough to deserve decent pay and you attract a good crowd then demand good pay...if your band is not good enough to get paid well then get good enough or give it away and just jam with your mates.
I have just formed another little band (with no desire to have to tour again) and did a free gig...the bar owner was very happy with the amount of people we pulled in and totally rapt with the quality of the music...but he dared to suggest we could play on a weekly basis....for free....he got laughed at and has since decided he can afford to pay us despite other local bands being willing to play for free.... something that is free is perceived to be of lesser quality than something that costs $.. we now have an incentive to get even better in order to get better paid gigs in the future while the bands that play for free are doomed by their own poor decisions.
Good luck with your struggles to be adequately paid for the time and effort you put into performing.

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterMRe

I couldn't agree more with Robin on this. These venue owners, unlike Garry above apparently, invest nothing in musicians. What's worse, some of them pay NOTHING and expect the players to make it strictly on tips in their little venues that only hold about 30 people or so to begin with. They do no promotion, they feed the players a skimpy meal and restrict or don't offer comps on beverages, even for older and responsible adults, and generally simply want to build their business on the backs of musicians without compensating them. Ridiculous and shameful. And, 90% of these jokers go out of business in no time at all. Dumbth at its worst and bad for everyone concerned. Next time a venue owner tries to get you as a musician to play for tips alone, especially if he runs a restaurant, tell him you'd like to invite him to your home to cook a meal for you and your friends using his own equipment and ingredients, that he should promote to his patrons to come, that you'll collect money for it and he can put out a tip jar while you pay him a small percentage of the take, but that he'll get great exposure for his restaurant by doing it. What do you think that venue owner would say? (Probably what you should say to him when he asks!)

There's a correlated topic that should be addressed though: BMI, ASCAP and the like, who dissuade venues from even offering live music at any price because of royalty strong-arm tactics. While its understandable that, in major centers where potentially covered artists live, copyright should be safeguarded because such artists could and in many cases would play out, in many places it's unheard of for major artists to even bother with small venues, yet the pursuit of fees by these protection agencies have to be agreed to for those artists to maintain their careers. For most, coverage of their work means free advertising and ultimately purchase of their music products, so the royalties do get paid in the end. Stop the nonsense of bullying venues for royalty payments (probably by a movement to legalize live royalty-free performance under certain conditions) and more bars would engage in presenting and paying for live music, which might help solve the problem of the mickey-mouse venue owner who won't pay musicians or advertise properly.

February 20 | Unregistered CommenterBB

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