The Problem with ‘Pay to Play’

In the past few months I’ve come across a several blogs and people griping and moaning pay_to_playabout the practice of ‘Pay to Play.’ My blog post of a the Bridging the Music Local Band Showcase continues to draw readers based on the Google search “Bridging the Music pay to play.” And being in a band myself I have firsthand knowledge of how this sort of thing works. The thing I notice about just about every website I see dedicated to exposing the practice is that they’re all missing some underlying problems and offering no solutions to solve them.


The term “Pay to Play’ is a little misleading. It’s not a strict trade of money for a spot on a bill. What usually happens is a band is contacted by a promoter (or Event Organizer) and if they agree to the terms set forth they are sent about 100 tickets to sell. Usually tickets go for $10. If a band sells all of them they’ll be given $2 for every ticket sold. 99 or less and they only get one. Now, to be clear, this is a good deal. A bad deal involves buying all the tickets up front or having a mandatory minimum to sell.


This isn’t much of a problem if you’re playing with a well-known national act (say The Misfits, Kittie, Otep, Wednesday 13). People will buy tickets because they know it is worth $10 to see those bands. It’s a little bit of a harder sell when your doing a show like Bridging the Music or Spring Fest because your asking people to drop $10 on a bunch of bands they’ve never heard of and who probably suck. Basically to sell a ticket for something like this you have to convince people your band is worth spending the $10 to see. I’m not good at this. My band is worth maybe $3 to go see. We’re working on making it to $5.


It probably wouldn’t be as much of a problem for me personally if I didn’t live 2 hours from where these events are held. Have you ever tried selling a $10 ticket for a show that far away? You might as well try to sell someone a fart.


But logistical problems aside, there is the problem of where does the money go? I don’t mind getting only $1 for every ticket I sell. Hell, I’m happy to play for free. The problem I have is that someone is getting $9 for every ticket I sell. Does that go to the venue? To other bands? To lights and sound production? As far as I can tell it just goes in someones pocket. And they do this to other bands so they make a pretty good living doing… well, nothing. Being a concert promoter/event organizer must be the easiest job in the world. It’s like being at the top of a great pyramid scheme that young naive musicians just cant wait to be a part of.


That being said, what’s the biggest problem with this. I mean, every one knows you have to spend money to make money right?


The problem is, making music shouldn’t be about making money. I play in a band and consider it a hobby. I’m just like the guy fixing up a motorcycle or building a model train set only instead of buying a new carburetor or track, I buy strings and 9V batteries. I don’t expect to make a million dollars; I just want to have some fun. But I don’t want to be taken advantage of.


StayAway04Luckily, there are a few venues in my area where I don’t have to deal with this crap. I can play at the Buzzbin Shop or Sadie Rene’s. Hopefully the guys at Breakin Your F’n Records will come up with some good alternatives. But as long as there’s money in it I don’t think this practice will stop. And though I’m getting out of this game, I’m betting there’s two more bands lined up waiting to jump in.


8 thoughts on “The Problem with ‘Pay to Play’

  1. Pingback: Another Problem with Pay to Play: The Death of the Local Scene | The Audible Stew

  2. Dude.. I hear ya. We have some venues that expect us to bring a certain amount of people. Everyone in the band is in their late 20’s early 30’s and all our friends have kids and can’t commit to every show. We work with ‘promotors’ and think they’re going to handle the fliers and ‘promotion’ of the events, only to be told to drop fliers off at the venue (40-45 minutes away) and to sell 20-50 tickets to people that live just as far. Venues should stop booking 3 out of town bands with 1 local band and expect that local band to ‘bring the crowd’. And, yeah, the money is going to someone’s pocket. I’ve played in Cover bands before where the bars PAY US $500 to entertain their crowd for 3-4 hours. Sometimes we’d bring 30-50 people. Even Sadie’s with a $5 cover on some nights was able to PAY my metal band $75+ at the end of the night for bringing 50ish people to drink for a couple hours. Carriage House does good on paying bands AND they stopped charging a cover. So, I’m very wary of these promotors. They’re getting payed for their time to find bands to play at a bar… and that’s it.


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