In its simplest definition, pay to play (P2P) is when your band is forced to sell advance tickets to a show, or be held liable for those costs. Your band is paying for the experience of playing and promoters are preying on young and desperate bands to do this. Do your band a favor and just say no.
But there are other versions of pay to play that may not be as obvious. How much pay are you receiving vs. the cost to take the band out in public? This is a simple math equation – if you are spending more in hard costs, such as gas (and gear), than you are being paid, you are also “paying to play” and this should be evaluated. Playing “for the door” can sometimes turn out to be a “pay to play” scenario as well.
Another equation to examine is how much you are practicing compared to how much you are playing out for cash. If the numbers are lop-sided (for instance, practicing 3 times per week and only playing out every other month), something is probably wrong. Maybe everyone is getting too comfortable in the basement…or perhaps it’s time for new management.
It’s one thing to practice heavily in the beginning, when you are still learning songs and learning to gel. But if you are flogging away in the basement multiple times per week and barely getting stage time, that’s a problem. A problem you need to define on your own terms, but it could definitely be construed as “pay to play” by some of your band mates.
Ever play a freebie gig for the heck of it? Yes, that’s pay to play too. You’re spending money on gas, drinks, etc with no (or very little) compensation. The common lure used here is “exposure”. But you need to decide what is viable exposure and what is simply usery. It’s best to be principled about this or one free gig will lead to another and another…
Playing for charity is the one main exception here. If you believe in a cause, volunteering your time is a noble act and has nothing at all to do with paying to play. But if you find yourself relying on charities to set up your next gig, you’re probably just being lazy. Every band should know how to competently book themselves…or seek out a qualified booking agent.
Open mic nights are not “pay to play” either. These are opportunities to work on stage presence at a live rehearsal. They are also good opportunities to get live recordings, video and well-planned promo photography. Another truth about open stages is that many, many bands should be playing at these until they have developed enough quality to pester the paying venues, but that’s stuff for another article…
Additional reading: Here’s a site produced by Girl Trouble that explores P2P in further depth. GT got in a major lawsuit with a well known national agency and that story is here as well.