The music business is a strange place. There are musicians at the top of the pyramid who make more money than I can even wrap my head around. They have a thousand person team and, more importantly, make enough money to be able to pay that team. On the other end of the spectrum is the guy on the corner with his run-down acoustic guitar and an open guitar case with a hand-written sign that says, “Tips”.
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Some gigs pay well, others leave you in debt. This blog post could go into great detail about some of the costs that goes into playing a gig or going on tour, but I want to address a different topic today.
Unless you’re Justin Beiber, and Usher stumbles across your YouTube channel, every musician has to pay his/her dues. There’s no way around it. And to be fair, I’m sure Justin even had to pay some dues, in his own billion-dollar way.
Dues for a musician include many things. Putting in more time on the “business” side (i.e. booking shows, promo, making travel plans, etc.) of your music than the “music” side (i.e. making music); playing shows that pay little to none, or leave you in debt; spending time networking and pitching your music (and yourself); and so much more. Only those of us that LOVE what we’re doing will last, which is appropriate I think. If music was easy then everyone would do it. And to be honest, it already feels like everyone does it… But if you’re scared of a little hard work then the music business is not the place for you.
However, while paying those dues, there is one concept that everyone musician will come across at some point, and that is the “pay to play” show. This can be set up several different ways. One is a set, straight forward, you have to pay $____ amount to play this show. I’ve come across this during events such as SXSW or CMA. Bars know lots of people will be out during these events and they know musicians will be thirsty to play in front of all those people (definitely beats playing to an empty room). So they throw on a fee to play.
The other structure that I’ve come across for “pay to play” is this: the bar requires each musician on the bill to buy “X” many tickets and sell them themselves. Because they musicians have to buy the tickets, they have to sell them in person, which can become difficult when you’re not close to or know the patrons trying to buy the tickets. And also, if they don’t sell all the tickets then it’s the musicians loss, not the venues.
Never involve yourself in a “pay to play” gig. Ever.
I’ve never owned a venue, nor have a I been a talent buyer, so I can’t speak for their point of view. And like I said before, I am a strong believer in every musician paying their dues (which says a lot, since I am currently a musician paying my dues). But shows that are structured like this make me see red.
First of all, we’re all just trying to make it. Venues, musicians, drunk listeners, everyone. But when a venue takes this to the next level by trying to extort the musicians, that’s taking it too far. It’s one thing to not get paid for the services you’re providing. It’s another to have to pay. Would you expect any other profession to pay for their services? A new lawyer paying you for their consultation because they just got out of school? Or a teacher paying you because they haven’t taught many classes yet? It’s ridiculous.
Second, it is everyone’s job to promote the show. Let me repeat, it’s EVERYONE’S job to promote the show. This includes the venue, talent buyer, musicians, managers, booking agents and maybe even the patrons. No one gets paid if no one promotes it. And if everyone works together, everyone gets paid.
Let me be very clear: no gig is important enough to pay to play it. Don’t involve yourself in those deals. Not only will it leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, but it only reinforces more gigs to be structured like this. And even worse, it will cause me to go on more rants about the subject. So please, don’t pay to play.