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Is “Pay to Play” Okay?

When our band, “Control the Chaos” decided to hit the highway in June 2010, it was with the intention to spread our branded style of “Vegas Molten Metal” to the masses. After all, what better way to do that than literally go from city to city on tour? Besides, we’d been pretty aggressive in Vegas so we figured it was time to give the venues and our fans some needed time to miss us. We mapped the routes, did our own booking, loaded up our equipment, said our prayers and decided to go for it.

A couple observations: Each city definitely had its own unique vibe and style – no surprise there, but we also started to see a strong pattern of pay-to-play requirements especially as we got into the larger shows and bigger venues. We also found that more places up North were willing to negotiate a guarantee based on success of the show, where many Southwest venues wanted more assurance ($$). Mind you, nobody called it “pay to play”. Rather it was wrapped around the pre-sale ticket requirement policy that many clubs and venues have adopted.

Now, some of this is understandable. Times are still tough so venues and promoters want to make sure they cover expenses before taking a risk on a traveling band. CTC didn’t mind it too much as we were used to hustling our asses off to promote our own shows , encourage ticket sales and drive fans to attendance. Because of this, it became increasingly easier for us to fulfill 20, 30 and even 50 ticket minimum requirements as our fan-base grew. Even in other cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, with some hard work and great support we secured some really nice draws. When possible, we partnered with local acts in order to draw the regional crowds but often had the most attendance even as the visiting team.

On tour, if we played on non-weekends or smaller cities, it got a bit tougher. In Seattle we had a Tuesday after Labor Day weekend that was a bit light and a Thursday in the boonies where 3 of the local support bands bailed at the last second. We even had one venue cancel on us due to slow business overall. But even when it looked like the crowds might be thinner, we still worked hard to promote the event and always gave ‘em a show. This combination produced happy, drinking folks (and more importantly happy cash registers). Thank God we never had a total bust during first tour– there was always some audience.

But back to the point: Does it make sense to “pay to play” in order to gain exposure by leveraging a large name, be it act or venue?

Here’s our thought on this sensitive topic: In one way or another, you’re always paying to play. If you’re promoting with your own resources and efforts then there’s time and money spent there. If you’re traveling in any capacity, then you’re paying. If you took time to record a decent demo, that’s another expense and we could go on and on regarding all of the investment it takes to try and launch and maintain a band. It goes with the saying “It takes money to make money.”

We’ve never been fans of making cash for someone else, while we go struggling. We’ve experienced this and it sucks. We also don’t like getting ripped off – another reality that goes along with the territory. Luckily, we’ve become all the wiser and careful in our business dealings now that we’ve got a few stripes earned. The “trick” is to do just that: Become very smart in your business dealings including well planned out strategies for merch, marketing, promo, partnering, etc. And by all means, build a GOOD reputation for yourselves!

Remember, investment doesn’t mean buying your own tickets. Without an audience, the whole effort is pointless. So even if you have the cash, remember the draw is always more important. And never cancel. You might want to, maybe even need to, but remember “The Show Must Go On!”

In some promotional circles, the only way you’ll ever get to play is if you ante up. Ethics aside, it’s the way it works. But no indie group should try and absorb this right out of the gate. Listen up homies: WALK before you try to RUN!!

If the business of your band is strong, then getting on a premier stage is an investment that can be planned for positive results. When done correctly, it can further expand your brand which will result in greater exposure and ultimately, revenue for the band.

-Keep Bangin’


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Reader Comments (7)

Pay 2 Play is not OK! It's not "the way it works." It exists because YOU allow it! Screw the fact that venues are suffering. It's not your concern, stop defending them. Create your own damn gig!

I've written extensively ( from experience) on the subject. My most recent article can be read at It also contains links to 2 previous articles on building a career w/o P2P!

October 15 | Unregistered CommenterWicked D

For me pay to play with the ticket buying scenario is totally ridiculous. If a venue wants to tell me, "It costs us $150 to have our soundman & someone at the door" & they want to guarantee the make that on a Tuesday, I understand where they are coming from, but they should also understand that it is indeed a Tuesday. A good & professionally run club should be willing & able to lose a little cash Sunday through Wednesday. The same with the band to an extent while on tour. Personally I always talk to the like minded locals when I'm booking a tour rather than looking through gig directories. The results is often some house shows which strangely pay more money & give me free drinks, free food, a place to stay, a better look at the city, & a better chance to build community. If you live in a town where there are at least five different shows every night of the week, there's a good chance that some of those venues really should close down because there isn't the community to support it. Of course, who wants to close down there business?

Here in Tokyo and much of Japan, about 98% of all venues are "pay to play." The band must come up with at least 40,000Yen / $520 USD approximately. Then they also receive a percentage of the door sales...

The other 2% of the clubs are either: well-known clubs which require you to "audition" or already have some sort of fame which will draw the audience, or the usual type of decent or not so decent club/bar which you can play for free and get a small portion of the door.

In this area - due to space contraints, it is the way it is. People don't have large houses or clubhouses in which to have a house party, there aren't people setting up in park located band shells...

In this area, or any area with rampant "pay to play" - what can be done is to: 1. utilize the tiny 1% of decent/indecent free venues to maximum value with a strong set and lots of promotion and 2. organize your lives at "pay to play" venues with other bands, so you can share the cost. When its 3 bands, each with 3-5 members - the price out of pocket is not so unbearable.

October 19 | Unregistered CommenterApryl Peredo

I personally think that there is just something wrong with that concept "Pay to Play". Does a doctor have to pay you to make you well? Does a plumber pay you to fix your toilet? Hell even in the oldest profession in the world does a frigg'n hooker pay you to have sex with her?

Local independent musicians, new touring bands,etc. have lost respect or their value some for some reason? In my eyes if a concert club can't afford to pay a band for the evening then they are in the wrong business. To me pay the band a fair wage is just the cost of doing business.

Clubs used to promote bands in the local paper, post the show on their website, even spin the demo or CD if it's good quality and announce that if you like this band come see them.They will be appearing such day and time! The band can invest in promotional materials like posters and table cards and have the club put those out to help promote the show.

Bands don't have time to peddle tickets, especially touring indie bands who don't know anybody in small town USA or big city USA for that matter. I agree with the person that said that this happens because we allow it to happen.

I've even started a page on facebook called "Musicians Against Pay to Play".!/pages/Musicians-Against-Pay-to-Play/126148654103765

If you agree with this I'd love for you to show your support and sign in. Personally I refuse to sell tickets, or buy my way in for the opportunity to entertain at a business establishment just to make them look good to the public because the have a live show. F*@K em!

Musicians work too damn hard to purchase good equipment to enhance their show. Then there are clubs that want you to bring your own PA system and then they still want you to sell tickets. There are musical idiots that will do it too! I would open my garage door and have a backyard "byob" and "byof" party with a couple of grills going before I'd even consider that and have a tip jar out front. Some of you may say "What's the point you are still playing for free? My answer to that is at least I'm doing it on my terms!

The bottom line is pay to play is wrong. PAY ME!

One more thing... to "Control the Chaos", I thank you for starting this discussion. Yes we are paying for our gas and wear and tear on our vehicles,etc. We are paying in that regard, but this is our cost of doing business and supporting our musical fix. You factor that in when you are touring anyway. The swag sales should be gravy. This is the way that it should be.

My name is Taj Sonchai my "Think Tank" handle is TAO 35 and I approve this message.
"Yeah...Keep Rock'n!"

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterTaj Sonchai

F@$K PAY TO PLAY! so let me get this straight. We as musicians make little or no money on the music because of illegal downloads. Then we have to pay for everything, and on top of that you want me to pay to play are your out of your MIND!!!
This promoter called me the other day and said, look ill promote the show and you can play for free and that would be great exposure for you. So I told him, tell you what how about I talk to the owner, and do the show, and ill let YOU PROMOTE ME FOR FREE!! hey it will give you exposure and a great reputation as a promoter since you are bringing a great show, people can enjoy and listen to that would help you rep man it would legitimize you a a promoter. The guy got insulted why would I take my time and promote for free, EXACTLY YOU MORON, THATS WHAT YOUR ASKING ME TO DO. Well then Ill go get another person to pay me to play, I said fine but its not going to be ME, and they will probably suck, and so he did and he's show totatlly flopped. But he made money out of some up and comming band and their family and friends. This practice should be Illegal as entertainment is considered a job and its Illegal under the labor law anyway LOOK IT UP. and quit being loosers have some respect for yourselves and your art, this business if you can still call it that is hard, so rather than crying and bitching talk to the owner, I DO be like Ill promote the show, Ill have the full door you can have the bar, or we can split it or what ever, ill bring my sound guy or you pay him, since you have to anyway, and lets do this, hey the night is dead anyway what do you have to lose, or even better, go to a club that is already full of people talk to the DJ have a mic set up before the show on stage and go there perform 3 songs, no more and promote your website, pass out some free cd's and promote that way, without even talking to anyone, and do it for free, thats it, but NEVER EVER EVER EVER PAY out of this loosers to play EVER!!!

November 2 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Like any busines it all comes to suply and demand.

There are way more bands that can pull small audiences of say < 100 than there are clubs and venues to house them. The result of this is that it puts clubs in a position to negotiate terms in which they offset a good portion of the risk to the artist.

For many bands if they refused to "pay to play" than they wouldn't be able to secure shows so it's a viscious cycle until a band can establish a fan base and prove to be an act who can reliably draw an audience, then the tide turns. If you can become an act that can reliably pull 300-> 500 just on value of your brand than you'll have clubs and promotors all over you as there isn't as much of a supply of bands you can easily pull this kind of draw and every club is in the market for a band who can pack their club. Then the artist can negotiate a nice guaruntee and a whole bunch of other things into their rider.

Pay to play is a sad fact of the music industry and is definietly unfair but unless their starts to be a decline in the amount of bands who want gigs or unless going to see live bands becomes cool like it was years ago it's a reality of our industry and we have to work with it.

It's a shame that the music industry and the entertainment industry in general is such a flooded market. There's just way to many bands out there.

November 2 | Unregistered CommenterNate

Thanks everyone for the great dialogue around this subject. When originally posted, we expected a ton of debate on both sides. Appreciate all the passion around this topic and we absolutely respect everyone's perspective here.

We've learned a ton, including how to negate pay-to-pay situations when possible. One solution is to create a mutually beneficial environment for all involved by exploring partnerships and cross-promo ideas, as some of you have already described. When done effectively, the conversation moves into a give/get scenario and everyone gets into a better position.

Alas, "creating mutually beneficial environments" takes work. And work takes time and often, time equals money. We're thankful for a great team.

Happy Thanksgiving,

November 25 | Unregistered CommenterControl the Chaos

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