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Are you paying to play?

July 27, 2013

Pay-to-play runs rampant in LA and some other parts of the country. It’s often thought that Colorado is free of this ugly scenario but it really comes down to how you define it.

What is Pay-to-Play?
In general, pay-to-play means you have been suckered into paying an establishment for the privilege of playing. There are some nuances here, but no self-respecting musician should ever succumb to blatant pay-to-play propositions. Honest venues and promoters also know that charging bands isn’t cool, and it’s a great way to ruin their reputations around town.

Whenever a venue (or more probable, a promoter) asks you to sell tickets in advance of a show, with you holding liability for the cost of those tickets, you are well within pay-to-play territory. Venues/promoters that go this route are often preying on young and naive bands, and the bands usually only make a profit if they sell a very significant number of tickets. The best advice here is “just say no.”

Young bands are especially easy prey for pay-to-play schemes. They might be minors afterall. They might be inexperienced at booking. They might be trying to impress their girlfriends or may think (or know) that their band is too crappy to ask for pay. They may not realize they are being hosed (hence this article), and think this is how things work in the music world. But pay-to-play is absolutely unacceptable.

Who is paying who?

Who is paying who?

Hard Costs
In reality, there are hard costs associated with playing certain venues: sound equipment, sound techs, liability issues, even electricity. A doorman might be required as well as wait staff and possibly security. So if a venue asks for a down payment to play a room, this is not an out of line request – but then you are in effect renting the venue. And let’s hope you know what you’re doing!

When you rent out a venue, you are declaring that you are no longer just a musician – you’re an entrepreneur now. You are assuming risks with the hopes of obtaining nice profits. You should be setting the ticket prices, you promote the show, you take the net profits (or loss). You own it, baby, so take full responsibility.

There are also other forms of pay-to-play which may not be as obvious and we’ll discuss those soon…

Care to share? Do you have any cautionary tales for local musicians about pay-to-play in Colorado? Feel free to comment below.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2013 5:23 pm

    I disagree that “…pay-to-play is absolutely unacceptable.” As a producer I’m required to pay-to-play.

    Pay-to-play, as you’ve described it, is an fairly rare phenomena in my experiences the past two decades in this part of the country. True pay-to play (as exemplified in Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s) is when a venue charges an “…up-front fee to performing artists for the use of their facilities,” (wikipedia) something I’m required to do as an outside producer/promoter.

    It has become increasingly common I think to charge in advance for some all-ages shows, where expected turnouts are predictably lower and produce lower concession revenues that the venue may count on to meet operating budgets.

    It’s not a bad practice in and off itself if structured properly. It teaches skills to younger performers, as well as some basic business principles that can go a long way towards making them entrepreneurial. The problem there is that most musicians just want to play and be paid without consideration of the bottom line – they assume someone else will take on the capital risk. That might work in some cases, but certainly not all.

    Pay-to-play may feel unfair to the performer who thinks that all they have to do is strap on and rock – but in effect – in today’s business environment – if we expect to be successful as DIY musicians we need to be able to sell ourselves, our tickets, our merch, and our music. Learning the business behind what we do can make all the difference in our success. Pay-to-play can contribute handsomely to that education IMO.

    One area where pay-to-play can reap substantial benefit is paying to open for a national or international star in a large arena or stadium show – something that I remember reading once was somewhat common in Europe. I don’t know if it still is. But if you want to get in front of several thousand people it may be worth the price of paying to play. 😉 j/s.

    • July 27, 2013 5:50 pm

      Good points, sir! I think there is a degree of P2P that lurks here in Colorado (particularly via certain promoters), but I agree that it is rare on the whole. It’s one thing for musicians to learn entrepreneurial skills and personal responsibility, but a whole other animal to be taken advantage of by a club. I’m thinking primarily of younger bands here, and we do have laws to protect minors in other areas of life…

  2. Tad Phillips permalink
    July 27, 2013 8:22 pm

    The industry has changed. It’s mutually beneficial, in some cases, for a band to invest in their performance. Record labels pay booking agencies for their band to jump on certain tours in order to give their recording more exposure. This is how it is. Accept it. You’re all fighting a losing battle.

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