Repeat After Me: I Will Not Pay To Play

Sometimes you know exactly what you want to say and when you want to say it. Other times, life comes along out of nowhere and slaps you in the face with an idea or thought you then immediately feel compared to share with others. It’s a momentary eruption of thought that can be influenced by anything, and that is especially true in the digital age. For me, such a moment struck last night as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, and I will admit up front I was initially looking at my phone in hopes someone would be sharing something I had written earlier in the day. The answer to my inquiry was a definite no, but before I put my phone down to throw a personal pity party for myself a tweet from Michigan punk favorites The Swellers caught my eye and I knew right away there was a topic we needed to discuss on the blog today.

“We’ve been a band for almost twelve years, played on five continents and never had to sell tickets to play a show,” The Swellers wrote. “You don’t either.”

For as long as I have been a part of the this industry, which at this point is well over a decade, pay-to-play performances have been a topic of debate in the music community. Some will have you believe they are a necessary evil that exists to protect promoters from booking bands who do nothing to promote their own shows, while others – including myself – will tell you they are little more than a bullying tactic used by essentially needless middle men and women to make money off live music without needing to promote or perform themselves.

So, what is ‘pay-to-play’?

There are a number of ways to describe pay-to-play situations, but essentially it is any situation where promotion companies require musicians to pay a “fee” to get on a bill for a show (aside from application fees to appear at musical festivals and conventions). You may be paying with your own money out of pocket, or with funds gathered through advanced ticket sales, but as long as you are paying the venue/promoter/etc. before you step foot on their stage then you have found yourself in a pay-to-play situation. Independent promoters developed this method of booking to take advantage of naive talent, and over the years a countless number of excuses have been developed to cover up this fact, including the need for artists to help cover venue costs. That is not your job, and you should never feel obliged to pay a promoter, including in circumstances where they incur expenses at the end of the night. That is a risk that accepted when they took on the role of promoter, and anyone who is an actual professional will never ask that you help chip in to cover their loss. There is of course an exception to this rule if you are somehow directly involved in the planning of the show, say as a ‘co-promoter,’ but 99% of the time that should not be the case.

Are there good pay-to-play situations?

In short, no. Artists are asked to enter into pay-to-play situations because the promoter either has very little faith in the success of the event or because they know it will be a success and want to cash in as soon as possible with the free promotion presented by local talent. If the show you are paying to play on involves a national headliner, there is a good chance the tickets you are selling will go towards paying that touring act’s booking fee. You know who didn’t have to sell tickets in advance? The touring act who gets the money from your sales.

As I mentioned a few paragraphs above, the risk of loss/expenses in on assumed by the promoter when they decided to book the show. You are not responsible for making sure they break even at the end of the night, and you are definitely not responsible for guaranteeing a profit. You are responsible for showing up on time, performing your set to the best of your abilities, and doing your best to not be a dick to anyone in charge. You’re the talent, not the lead salesman for a promoter who offers you little-to-nothing in exchange.

These companies are asking artists to promote. What’s wrong with that?

When you require someone to do something you are not asking them anything. You are demanding it. Artists should promote shows because that is part of their job as musicians, yes, but nothing in the job description of a musician states that they will market until a specific amount of people agree to purchase a certain product. In pay-to-play situations artists are being forced to hard sell fans, which has been proven to be a terrible marketing approach in music, and furthermore they are made to assume the promoter’s risk, as well as the stress associated with handling the cost of putting on a live performance.

From personal experiences, I have known many small bands to make last minute calls to family and friends hoping people will buy tickets to a show – even if there is no way that person can attend – just so the artist can perform for fifteen minutes an hour and a half before some mid-level national headliner comes out and half heartedly thanks the ‘local talent’ that opened the show. In situations such as this, which happen daily in cities and towns across the country, who benefits except the absent, uninvolved promoter? No one.

It can also be argued that pay-to-play actually hinders marketing efforts, as it forces artists to focus on those they believe they can immediately sell on attending a performance and makes no mention of the need for general, routine marketing. They may send out a few digital posts asking those in need of tickets to contact them, but at the end of the day they are going to focus on hitting whatever threshold they need to meet, be it a number or tickets or an amount of money, and then the initial pressure is off. Once an artist meets the goal set by the promoter they can play the show, and even if the only people who show up are the twenty people who were able to come out of the twenty-five that artist convinced to buy tickets there would be nothing the promoter could say to put the blame on the artist because the artist had, at least on paper, met their obligations as talent.

This is all great information, but if we’re being entirely honest Haulix is a company dedicated to fighting piracy. What do you know about booking?

GREAT QUESTION. We may have built our company online, but as individuals our team has years of experience working with live music, both as promoters and musicians. That said, we understand that when dealing with matters related to tour life it can be more reassuring to hear things from people who are currently involved in your area of the music business. With that in mind we reached out to a number of influential people, including Nate Dorough of Fusion Shows and DC Area show promoter Tyler Osborne, to learn their thoughts on pay-to-play:

"I think it’s bullshit. If you’re required to pay to play an event, that’s not at all cool. Bands should never have to fork over money or do any sort of crazy thing just to get on a gig. However, I am a big believer that for local acts, their draw is best when they help sell tickets to their fanbase.

One of the biggest pushes we make in the concert industry is to get people to buy tickets in advance. That way, it’s sealed that they’ll attend. You can budget based on advance sales, whether you need to spend more marketing dollars or not, how much money you can spend on hospitality for the bands, staffing, etc. If someone does not hold an advance ticket, they may decide the day of the show that the couch looks nice, that they’d rather stay home and watch TV, etc. All of our marketing efforts are pushing to get people to come to the show, however they choose to do so, but it’s easier on everyone if they buy tickets in advance.

So when a local act is added to a show, they have the unique ability to physically deliver tickets to friends and family who would attend. So at Fusion, we give artists the OPTION of selling tickets, and usually pay better the bands who sell more tickets. We also pay bands who don’t sell tickets, if the show itself does well. But no one with our group is ever forced to sell. If they’re just not into it, that’s OK by us.

Unfortunately, some of the folks who want to make a huge fuss about pay-to-play will lump the way we do it into some sort of "scheme”, and we couldn’t be more against pay-to-play situations.“Nate Dorough, Fusion Shows (Founder)

”Does it make sense for a promoter to have opening bands sell tickets to play their shows? Sure. That doesn’t mean as a band you have to. We played houses or rented out VFW halls and chose the places where we could build our own fan base. It worked. I still feel guilty when we play a show and the local band had to sell tickets. Sure it helped us get our guarantee, but they did the legwork. The goal is to become an entity to where you get asked to play by a promoter because everyone knows you draw people. Or be good/cool enough to where the headlining band asks you directly. Selling tickets is the insurance policy, but in the grand scheme of things it isn’t guaranteeing those people staying to watch the other bands. Make a good reputation for yourself by promoting the hell out of your shows, building your own scene and following through with a killer show. That’s how you can sell tickets.“Jonathan Diener, The Swellers

"It would be easy for me to just give a one liner and say "pay to play” is completely bullshit, and yes that is the case, but there’s more to this. In my time involved in music I’ve seen this play out in many different ways. Most of the time I see promoters give a band X amount of tickets and have them sell as many as possible and then have them pound the pavement hocking tickets to whomever will fork over the money; most often parents and close friends come in to save the day and the show for the promoter to cover the cost of the headliner. Now, this is BS on so many levels. First off the promoter has put all the pressure on the bands to make the show a success and absolved themselves from any risk. Also in doing this, the promoter diminishes the value and morale of the bands that they want to sell their (the promoter’s) tickets. Shows need to be a two-way street with promoters and bands working together and being paid fairly to have a truly successful show. A lot of times bands feel trapped, having to play this game in fear of not being booked again at that venue and that fear is abused by SOME – not all – promoters to keep bands in their pocket. This also bleeds the scene dry and makes concert-goers not give a shit anymore because they’re tired of being hassled by bands to buy tickets. Another somewhat common practice is for a promoter to say you need to sell X amount of tickets or you can’t play. This is the worst of them all. Bands bust their asses to sell tickets, over-post on social media, and still need to come out of pocket to play the show. This makes for a shit show on so many levels…..the bands are pissed out of the gate that they did not meet the promoters goal, that their fan base is not what they thought it was and so on and so on. Then the promoter is pissed because now they fear having to come out of pocket to make ends meet. All that being said it often turns into a crap show with fans/friends/family showing up and watching their kids/friends band and then leaving, leaving it a half empty or less show for the headliner. So I’ve said what is wrong but the real question is how to fix the problem. That’s a way harder question that I think about a lot. So I would love to hear from the fans and bands on what they think would be fair.“Danny Fonorow, Jonas Sees in Color

"I know some bands get some good use out of it, but as a concept pay to play shows generally suck. Some scenes are so deeply entrenched in this model that it’s almost necessary, but within the punk scene, if you make good music, people will notice and your band will play shows. I never have and never will run or have my band do play to play shows, there’s just no need at the DIY level.”Tyler Osborne, DC Area Concert Promoter

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.