Pay to play shows are… interesting. On the one hand some argue that this whole thing couldn’t exist without them, meanwhile others say that it’s just about the worst thing that can happen to the music industry. That being said, I can sympathize with promoters who buy into them, at least to a limited extent. There is an interesting balance at play here and as someone who has had to deal with this pressing issue from both sides of the spectrum, I think I have a unique perspective to contribute to a debate that has been raging for decades with even giants like Ozzy chiming in. It has led to many of the broken hearts and fall aparts that so often define life in the music industry. What I’m trying to say is that, the music industry can be kind of a nightmare, especially now that shows are the only way to make any real money.
So let’s take this apart, first from the promoters perspective. In many ways it makes sense for them to want to do this. The fact of the matter is that, especially with new bands, you have no clue how these people are going to draw and if you have a bad night at the bar then in the high stakes world of music venues then you might be seeing everything fall apart. Furthermore, you don’t want to have a touring band who has to play in front of nobody because the locals couldn’t get anyone to show up to their concert. It guarantees that at least some effort will be made to get people to the show rather than the usual thing that happens where indie bands don’t bother to promote their gigs at all and then wonder why no one bothers to show up.
As controversial as it might be, venues really do need a way to set a fire under the asses of musicians. After all – folks are resigned to not getting paid for shows anymore, so why bother to spend time promoting something that will make you no money? People are awful, always. they don’t understand the importance of ambition – in fact I might go so far as to say that that is the true problem with this generation. All griping asides, it makes sense for venue owners to do this, especially with bands they don’t know who are simply going to give them a grossly exaggerated estimate of what their draw will be. As a venue owner, every night you are taking a risk with amateurs, so why not ask them to put a little bit of skin in the game before you stick your neck out?
Now as for the band perspective. Well – a lot of bands simply aren’t going to have the money, especially for some of the bigger shows that requite you to sell as many 50 tickets. Venue owners will say ‘well if you can’t sell 50 tickets then you shouldn’t be on this show, go play local shows’ but of course as we all know, in an increasingly fractured market you can only get so many fans just by playing local shows. Furthermore – even if you can draw fifty people to one of your shows – what are the odds that you can get every single one of those people to buy a ticket before the show? A lot of fans are into walk ups because they often don’t know if they can make a show until the day of due to work schedules and the like. And after all, by the time you are drawing 50 people to local shows people in power will already be reaching out to you.
The other side of the band argument is that they are doing the venue a favor by bringing themselves out and lending their brand to the venue. Now – I’m not entirely sure if this is a valid metric for everyone involved but I certainly can see the argument, especially for some of the larger names in local music. A venue that has a reputation for booking some of the best local acts will eventually be able to boast a built in audience which is always good. Playing a show is hard work and often requires band members to take a day off their normal jobs – should they be expected to pay to do this? It’s pretty easy to evidence all the struggles that come from being deeply involved in the music industry like this and it’s certainly going to give up and coming bands a hard time.
In my experience the answer lies somewhere in the middle, as it usually does. Venues and promoters have a right to expect bands to provide an audience for them. However, the venues and promoters have an obligation to know the scene and have realistic expectations from their groups. In most cases they are only asking for each band member to bring three or four people – frankly speaking this shouldn’t give you too much trouble if you are spacing your shows out appropriately. If it is giving you a hard time… well then you probably need to re-evaluate your priorities. Music costs money to be able to create. That being said – venues also need to learn to be a bit more sympathetic and engage in higher level promotion on their end. Finding this balance is going to be one of the great struggles of the music industry in the 21st century.