May 11, 2011
Robin Davey in Pay to Play, Pay to play

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.


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 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.


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.


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.

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