Thursday, February 7, 2013

"Pay-to-Play" the Great Debate

Almost everyone is against "Pay-to-play," but once you understand the reasons behind it, the more it makes sense. There are always exceptions, but when 1.9 million bands are wanting to be that exception and want to play for free and get paid to play, it is just NOT a realistic possibility.

Music artists have this misconception about the entertainment industry as a whole. I know, because I own a radio station at KGUP 106.5FM "The Emerge Radio Networks" and own a music awards platform called the Artists In Music Awards and I'm out there listening to artists complain about it. When I used to manage bands, I would moan and complain about it too, but then my eyes started to open and quickly realized that it's our responsibility to build a fanbase and promote ourselves to get fans out there to see my bands perform. The venue relies on you to bring in a crowd, otherwise, if they book just any act, then they put themselves at risk of closing down.

Another misconception are major artists don't have to pre-sell tickets. You are mistaken. They ALL do. EVERY ONE OF THEM. They all sign contracts guaranteeing a specific sales number and it is typically 80 to 150 in tickets sales for places like The Viper Room, The Roxy, and other venues alike. And, if you want to play at a bigger venue like Hard Rock Cafe, House of Blues, El Ray, Paladium, etc, you better get ready to fork over up to $30,000 if you want to headline your own show....upfront (not based on ticket sales at the box office). It only gets more expensive from there, especially when union organizations like Live Nation is going around to all the major cities  buying out all the big clubs. Soon, no one will be able to play anywhere in Los Angeles or New York or any major market unless you're with a major label. It will become too expensive to play anywhere that has a capacity over 500 people. It's no coincidence that this is happening. Major labels make money in three ways: radio airplay royalties, live performances, and merchandising. This is how the major labels are making the bulk of their revenue. With piracy out of control with no end in sight, no one is making a whole lot of money by selling music. Performing live is where the real money is made.

Hillbilly Herald performs at Viper Room. Photo by Natalie Kardos
Before you decide you're ready to perform at the well known venue in the major markets like LA or New York, you better be ready to fork over some cash to play there. There are always exceptions, but you must first earn the right to play for free or get paid for your performance.

Let's put things in perspective. If you want to display your art, you need to rent the space to display your art. The film industry is no different. The director has to rent the theatre to show his or her new film. People in these industries have to do the same exact thing the music artists do by sharing the financial responsibility of pre-selling tickets using their own resources. The rest of the sales are at the door and the success of that show is 100% dependent on how well your promoted your event. Absolutely nothing is done for free because you're awesome. There is always a cost of doing business. If it was free, then the venue is setting themselves up for failure and won't be able to pay their $30,000 monthly rent and won't be able to pay $75,000 in payroll to for security and staff. If there is no financial incentive to own a venue, guess what? It goes away. This is the hard reality check and bands have got to get their heads out of the clouds. It's not about how great your music is. It's about your draw. When we deal with venues, we are no longer in the music business. We're in the food and beverage business. If the club is not selling drinks and baskets of burgers and fries while you're playing, then you are probably not going to get a second invite until you can demonstrate that you have a draw.

Crowd at Key Club in Hollywood. Photo by
Mollywood Hollywood
Yes, there are some great bars and smaller venues that do not charge, but a brand new band out of Hoboken, New jersey is going to have a hard time booking a gig anywhere in LA. You are a risk to the venue to book and that's why there is a pre-sale. If a band was told to pre-sale 60 tickets at $10 each, the club is expecting 60 people to show up and hoping to exceed that number. If three bands booked that night only bring 20 people each in a venue that holds 400 people, it will look empty and fans are disappointed. Everyone loses in this scenario including the club. 60 people cannot buy a lot of food and drinks. This is a major loss and $1,800 in advanced ticket sales does not make up the loss in bar and restaurant sales, when it typically brings in $10,000 to $15,000 in daily sales it needs to stay afloat. Your talent isn't an instant cash machine...not yet.

If you want to play the LA/NY game, it's best to bit the bullet, pay the bill at the venue and sell or giveaway the tickets for free, but don't do this a week before the show. Plan it months ahead, schedule radio interviews to do ticket giveaway contests, and promote like crazy. Find fanatic fans in the area that are willing to create a small street team to pass out flyers and post flyers on college bulletin boards, etc.

Let's put this scenario into another perspective. Los Angeles is vast and clubs are abound. Anyone can go anywhere they want and see some popular artist at any given night. Why would they go see someone from Small Town, USA they've never heard of and why would a venue book a nobody? These are some of the questions bands members and managers have to ask themselves. Most artists live in a fantasy world and cannot grasp why someone won't book them. Of course, there are always exceptions, but it's not the norm.

How are these so-called exceptions made? Well, a booking agent will look at your artist profile. They go to your Facebook page, your Reverbnation page, Youtube account, and your Twitter account and they look at how many fans you have and they look at all your activity. Are your fans active? Are they interacting with you? Are you interacting with them? Are they taking photos of you, sharing your posts,  and retweeting your Tweets. Do the videos of you have a lot of people in the crowd?  If you fit the profile they are looking for, then they begin to look at other aspects like, does your music fit the theme of what they typically book for their venue. If you meet the above requirements, it's almost irrelevant that you sound good.

You cannot not book a popular venue and expect it to be packed and hope they all love you. The reality is the people that are there, they are not there to see you. They are there to see another band and once their band plays, that crowd leaves when the band does. It's rare to play at a venue where the crowd is there no matter who's playing. This only happens when there is a once a month promotional night, when there is no cover charge and a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon is on sale for $2. If this is what you are waiting for, you better stand in line, because you're going to be in for a long wait behind the bands that have a massive draw.

While you're waiting, you really need to keep touring other venues to build up your fanbase and focus on social media branding. Don't wait for the perfect opportunity. The longer you wait, people will begin to forget you. Work on building your own draw, otherwise it's going to cost you.


  1. The truth will set you free .. artists have to give value to venues by the fact that they are in town, give more than they expect, you must give to receive, it is the only way to success, as an indie artist who books all my own gigs and gets paid good and is able to pay a band well, this is due to constant attention I give to my venue owners, fans and promoting my music all day every day in every way I know or can learn. I invest in myself when I invest in a venue, making these relationships in for a lifetime, you can't be a fake for it to work for all involved. Great article Mikey!!

  2. Last year, Madonna's star guitarist, Monte Pittman (Solo Artist, Musician, & Songwriter) for the past 6 years entered our awards program and won the award for Best Solo Artist and said, "I know how the business works. It doesn't come easy or free. The only way we can get to the next level, like Madonna, is by paying our dues as musicians. No one is going to just hand you a Grammy and hand you over money. Pay-to-play has always been around and Madonna didn't become Madonna by complaining about Pay-to-play."

  3. Greet, but it would be better if in future you can share more about this topic. Keep rocking.

  4. I don't understand the appeal of playing at larger concert venues anymore. When I'm on the road I just want to play bars- there's usually an enthusiastic crowd there anyway, I get paid, and get free food/drinks. For me, big fancy venues are just more work for much less payoff. That's just my approach. Great article though

  5. I really don't agree. Let's put this into perspective. You are a club owner, you are responsible for the payment of the staff from the waitresses all the way to the bartender. Your patrons pay the fee to get in and they pay to drink. Telling the musician he must pay for your staff is telling him he's bringing home your bacon-yet he is on that night, a part of your staff, not a part of the public. Basically, pay-to-play is another form of SLAVERY and EXTORTION.

  6. $30K for the Hard Rock Cafe? That's more than tuition is at MI...
    That's also the same as a year's wages for some folk. This is slavery, plain and simple. This is just another way for booking agents and talent agents to NOT have to do their JOB. FIND GOOD TALENT.