The Business of Pay-To-Play

Should Musicians Pay to Play_PitStop Musicians.jpgSo, let's say that your band is all tuned up and plugged-in with nowhere to go. Until you've experienced the process of booking shows, you may not be hit with the harsh reality of the "Pay-To-Play" racket.

Are you familiar with the phrase? "Pay To Play is the act of turning in money in order to play a show. It doesn't matter where the money comes from (out of pocket, through ticket sales, etc) it's the act of turning money in before a musician performs that qualifies it as pay-to-play. This practice is mostly implemented by independent promotion companies."

This is not unsimilar to so many other avenues of business and promotion within the music industry. Remember our dear friend Payola? - "The practice of bribing someone to use their influence or position to promote a particular product or interest." The act of paying to perform is not much different.

Let's think in terms of the big picture. You may have heard, throughout your years, people mentioning the phrase "it takes money to make money". This is true even if you're running a little ice cream shop. You've got to purchase the product, typically at wholesale cost, allowing for some profit margin. You've got to purchase or lease the property that the shop will be housed on and not to mention all of the promotional methods that will attract those sweet-toothed ice cream lovers to your shop.

This method rings true throughout all of business, no matter how big or small. It's helpful to borrow this mindset when deciding whether or not you are going to invest in the pay-to-play methods.

So, what are the elements of this method anyway? There are a multitude of options, typically the venues have one or two ways of working, depending on the night of the show and the current popularity of their space. Often times, they may barter with you and propose the idea of pre-sale tickets, as well as demanding that you must sell a certain amount of tickets or you will have to pay the difference.

Another type of deal would be within the door sales. It's best if you can get them to agree to giving you a percentage of the sales or a particular flat rate amount, whichever is the greater of the two. This will vary greatly depending on the city and the hype of the venue. Take your time and suss it out.

So, is it a racket after all? Is there something illegal going on here? It is true that venues need to pay their rent too. They need to protect themselves for filling an evening with performers that will not draw any fans, so this isn't exactly as sneaky of a practice as everyone makes it out to be.

Should I Pay to Play_PitStop Musicians.jpgWith payola, we all know that is very illegal and very much a head shaking "no-no" in anybody's book - but it is still done. Much like lobbying, where there is a will, there's a way. It's a tough situation because you almost must play the game that everyone else is playing in order to compete at their level, otherwise you could just get left in the dust by following too many rules, all of the time.

Recognize that time passes rather quickly. You may feel the rush to play a particular evening at a widely popular venue just because you like one of the bands on the roster. There will be plenty more. Don't rush you and your team. You won't go into debt over paying to play a show that nobody attends, but it may bruise your ego for some time and may not be a good look if word gets around, be it to fans, other bands or venues.

If you're in a band, you can split the costs of pay-to-play so that it doesn't hit you too hard. However, on the flip-side, due to the amount of people involved in the split, the profit will be that much lower. The benefit of being in a band is that it is five times the amount of networking connections, brain power and talent. It's not all that bad - just gets a little rough in the departments of money, power and opinions.

It is our suggestion to focus on sincere friendships within the business. If you team up with fellow songwriters or bands, you can host your own show and create your own ticket system that feels fair. If you do find a venue that seems to jive with you and your creative pursuits, embrace it. Don't be shy in speaking with the manager or owner of the club. You'd be surprised at how many businesses are looking for big ideas, willing and waiting with open ears and minds. Everyone is in the business of making more money and being more successful. If you've got ideas - speak them! Attempt to negotiate a deal where you have minimal damage if it falters.

In the end, you don't know until you try. Situations are beneficial for some and not for others. We suggest that you weigh your options and test out every strategy that's out there, the key is to just not get stuck in a rut. If you stay on the surface level of testing, say you play only one pay-to-play show every other month - you'll start to feel where the real traction is occurring and you'll begin to gain the wisdom that you need on this wild little journey weaving in and out of the music business.