For anyone who is new to live music, a “pay to play” show is one where a band is offered a gig, but only with the agreement to guarantee payment of a predetermined amount money, typically generated through ticket sales. The money earned will be turned in to a promoter before the show, and if the band falls short of a sales requirement, they are required to pay in the difference out of their own pockets. Regardless of the shows success, they are not typically entitled to a cut of any of the tickets sold by the venue or the booking company, a sold out show could still leave a band paying in because they did not sell enough tickets personally.
Quite a few musicians believe that this method of using musicians to mitigate risk while limiting their earning potential is absolutely destroying the local music scene. There are loads of anti pay to play groups on the internet constantly devoted to exposing unfair business practices and encouraging younger musicians to steer clear of the pitfalls.
But there’s just one little problem with all of this –
Pay to Play works. It works extremely well.
You might say to yourself, I’ll just refuse all pay to play shows. OK, that’s a great start if you are trying to build your band like a business instead of trying to catch a lucky break at a big gig (this is not an attack on pay to play bands mind you, I think you ought to approach your project however you see fit, no loss of respect from me unless you’re an asshole). It doesn’t make financial sense to put the effort into pay to play gigs when you could be booking and promoting your own shows. But is refusing the gig going to make pay to play go away? Not on your life. In fact, you might be supporting pay to play in more ways than you recognize. Here’s a list because lists are a popular way to write in internet blogs.
1. You Don’t Promote the Living Hell Out of Your Own Shows
You’ve booked a show. It’s completely DIY, the bands have controlled everything. No one has any financial risk, everybody’s going to split the door at the end of the night and bands will make money. Pay to play has been soundly defeated right? Nope. Time and time again your shows are poorly attended, and the venue has once again been burned by local bands giving them a slow night.
The pay to play show on the other side of town will be packed. Sure there are 6 local bands on the bill who are all getting ripped off, but the venue is making money.
So what went wrong? Well, a lot of the time, without the threat of losing beer money and a slave driving promoter scaring the bands into selling tickets, quite a few of the musicians playing your show did NOTHING to promote it. Either through a lack of know-how or through a lack of self confidence or even sheer laziness, they barely even managed to share a facebook event page an hour before start time. As it turns out, musicians and artists aren’t always button down shrewd business types and chances are, you’ve only got 1 or 2 band members who are seeing the show as a business venture.
So even though you’ve got 15-20 musicians all working towards a common goal, you’ve managed to end up with less patrons at the bar than musicians.
If your bandmates are keeping to themselves, if they are afraid to help promote, if YOU are afraid to promote, then I am sorry to inform you that you are actively supporting pay to play and you are hurting the local scene for everyone else. If we are constantly proving to the venues that we are a risk, we are reinforcing the idea that bands cannot be successful unless they adhere to the pay to play model.
2. You Aren’t Going to Shows (That Aren’t Yours)
As musicians, most of us have already juggled our schedules around intensively just to get out to our own performances. It seems like a daunting task to add attending shows on your off nights and after all, it doesn’t benefit you directly right? So you stay home and watch more Netflix.
But those other bands shows are just like yours. If the venue isn’t full, they aren’t going to focus on booking more local shows. You have once again actively supported the pay to play model by making it look like the safe bet for the venues and the touring acts. This should be especially important to you if you are playing in a project that is looking for a niche audience. If you aren’t a country western cover band, you’d better make sure you are supporting the similar acts in your area. The venue needs to see a busy night if they are going to keep booking bands like yours.
Don’t underestimate your own influence. How many of your fans are musicians? I’m going to wager that most of your first fans are other band members. You’ve got an opportunity to influence both sides of the coin here. Being a local music fan, going to shows, inviting your friends to see your favorite comrades on stage is what will influence the popularity of local music and your own scene.
Embrace fandom, be a giant nerd about going to see shows. Show the masses how to be a local music fan instead of calling to them from the stage. Be the fan you wish you had in your audience. If you aren’t feeding it, you are starving it.
3. You Aren’t Spending Money in the Studio
Home recording has gotten massively cheaper over the last decade. Literally anyone with 15 minutes and a smartphone can record and release a single. So why in a culture where people barely buy music and can’t tell the difference between a $10 recording and a $50,000 recording would you ever burn your band fund on studio time? (afterall, you’re going to need that money to pay the promoter for your poor ticket sales right?) It seems like a bad move anymore for a working band.
Here’s how I see it – First and foremost, your recordings are the first impression you are giving a venue, a potential audience member, a touring band looking to set up a DIY show, etc. So now that we religiously attend each others shows and I want to promote your band to my friends, do you have something I can show off? Or do you have 30 second clips of distorted fan footage? Help your fan base (your fellow musicians) promote you by giving them something they can display proudly.
Finally, when you pay a studio to record your band, the studio makes money. When the studio makes money, they almost always reinvest it into better recording gear (have you met those guys? They are worse than guitar players!). When they have better gear, EVERYBODY who records there has a better sounding record. Think of your local studios as a collective gear horde. What we can do on our own doesn’t come close to the businesses we can build up together.
Your shows will be easier to promote, your local studios might even attract bands and record labels from other places. No matter how many grainy cell phone videos of practice you have on your vine account, I guarantee you the pay to play show will have polished media, a well established social network and an advertising budget. You’ve got to have material that’s easy to share. It’s got to be easy for your fans to brag about. You’ve got to be giving the audience reasons to be interested in the local scene that go past showing up early to a national act to catch the openers.
Take a chance, invest your money into your local music economy instead of trying to make everything yourself. Home recording is great for writing and rehearsing, but you’ve got an often missed opportunity to build the scene. Your entire region could be well known for putting out good records and that’s good for local shows and that’s good for your record sales. It doesn’t have to be an expensive project to blow your smartphone recording out of the water.
4. You Aren’t Rehearsing Enough
You don’t practice enough. No matter how much you practice, you don’t practice enough. Your benchmark isn’t the other local bands on stage. After all, that’s most of your audience on the average night. We are collectively trying to get FANS in the door. To do that, we all need to be on our game. Playing bad sets with technical problems and approaching our performances with lackluster attitudes is one of the worst things you can do to the scene as a local musician. One of those 15 band members on tonight’s show actually convinced a few friends to come out and check out what local music has to offer, and your unrehearsed, drink ticket indulged slopfest has just convinced these potential fans that local music is not as good as the big national shows.
Share all the memes you want, nobody wants to waste $5 to watch you halfass it on stage. You’re hurting everybody when you aren’t giving it 1000%
5. You’re Afraid to Burn Bridges
There’s a terrible mindset that there are certain “keepers of the kingdom” out there. There is established venue royalty all over the place. There are booking agents who you don’t want to piss off, there are venues you think you NEED to play at because they draw a crowd. It’s a shitty feeling to walk away from gigs. But some of those guys are vultures, circling around a dying scene looking for scraps. You aren’t losing anything by walking away from people who aren’t truly supporting you. There will ALWAYS be more bands, there will ALWAYS be more venues, there will ALWAYS be more shows. Sociopaths aren’t going to stop being sociopaths and there are plenty of people out there who won’t lose a minute of sleep after stealing from you. Internet flame wars aren’t productive, there’s no reason to throw your band through the mud with a big fight (I’m sure your post reach will go through the moon) but seriously, walk away from the ones who aren’t helping you. Be honest with yourself about what you want to get out of this and avoid the bad guys like the plague. You don’t need them. No matter how many times they tell you that, it isn’t true. You didn’t pick up an instrument to express your inner desire to be ripped off and taken advantage of. You don’t have to be a diplomat. And you don’t have to protect their business model by keeping it a secret if they rip you off.
What do you think? Am I right? Am I an elitist asshole who deserves to be cast into the flames of the internet? I’d like to hear your thoughts regardless. And check out my band goddammit.
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