FEATURE: Pay-to-Play: Is It Time to Put It to Bed?





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Is It Time to Put It to Bed?


THE term ‘pay-to-play’ is exactly what you’d imagine!


It can take one of two forms. Either a label will pay a venue to put their artist up – or get a D.J. to spin music from their artists. More commonly, though, it refers to artists (normally independent) paying a venue so they can play a gig. That might sound insane but it is not being limited to smaller spaces. Venues, larger ones, are still charging bands to play; hoping they (the gig/concert promoters/venue) will not lose money and turn a profit. I can see some sense with regards charging larger bands, perhaps. There is a lot of talk concerning the declining live scene and how it is impacting pubs/venues. I see a lot of musicians change their normal routine and travel further afield to get gigs. A lot of local bars and spots are closing and seeing fewer people through the doors. Dwindling profit and a less visible social scene means there is a definite sense of endangerment in some areas. People are spending more money on their own alcohol and staying in; we are choosing to find our own entertainment and there is not the same culture we saw years ago. Many would say the reduction of people in pubs is good regarding public order and the burden placed on the NHS. That is true but we are still seeing rampant drunkenness and many areas are proposing the idea of a ‘drunk tank’ – where lary drinkers can sleep it off without having to go to their local hospital.


If we are as irresponsible as ever; perhaps we are less sociable and happy – binge-drinking a sign of a nation whose psychological health is deteriorating. That is another matter but I wanted to look at whether the shrinking live music scene is forcing many venues into this pay-to-play scheme. Before I go on; musicians Christine Rage explained the concept of pay-to-play:

Regardless of whether you're booking a hole-in-the-wall club in a small town, or all 18,200 seats at Madison Square Garden, the process for show promotions is the same. All venues owners want a venue usage guarantee and will require the promoter to pay this fee upfront. Smaller venues may allow a promoter or band to share the door fee in the case they can be convinced that there will be enough of a draw. If, however, the band or promoter don't bring in enough fans then they may still owe the venue money at the end of the night. Clubs and promoters like the Pay-to-Play business model because it guarantees they make the money they want upfront and without any hold ups. If the band has no audience, the venue isn't put out financially. Pay-to-Play is essentially scaled down concert promotions when you get to the heart of the matter. Your band can make money with Pay-to-Play the same way that the big name bands do, through sponsorship dollars, merchandise sales, and creative marketing techniques”.


That is a simplified explanation but it makes sense, definitionally. If there are very few people coming out and drinking then how is one to predict what repercussions that has on a bar/venue’s profit?! If, say, twenty people came out to watch a band for free and only bought a pint each; that might be £200 for a bar. They might pay each member of that band £50 for a set and so, if they were a quartet, that would mean the bar breaks-even. Unless you ask people to pay for a show – and know what numbers you’ll have well in advance – you are running the risk of losing money. A lot of people, because of streaming and less disposable income, are unwilling to pay for gigs and find the total cost of a music-based night out is too steep. I can emphasise with struggling bars but a lot of the pay-to-play implantation is imposed by promoters and outsider forces. Smaller bars might be working with a local promoter who are questing tariffs from artists. Bigger venues might be working off their own back but whoever instigates the scheme; is it something we should look to eradicate?! Before I come to the argument against pay-to-play; returning to that aforementioned article – where Christine Rage explains ways artists can turn a profit and merchandise/get sponsors:


Sponsors are advertisers that want to get their brand name or product in front of a specific demographic. Some sponsors that might want to advertise to your fan base include:

Musical instrument and pro audio manufacturers

Music schools

Beverage companies

Clothing retailers”.

A lot of artists have their own merchandise stalls so they can make a bit of money on T-shirts, C.D.s and other assorted good. It can be hit-and-miss how much money (if any) they will turn on merchandise. You consider the ‘hidden’ costs of playing a gig and you start to see how the idea of making a profit (under these circumstances) is far-fetched. Most artists do not have the luxury of being walking-distance to their nearest venue. Even if they have a great pub/venue down the road; they will travel to get to other gigs. Some can load all their kit into a car - but many artists have to hire a van and pound a fair few miles. Throw in hire costs, fuel costs and band fuel (eat and drink) and that is only the half of it. You might have your own sound engineer and someone manning the merchandise stall and other assembled crew to help you set up your gig and run the show – maybe a local bar does not have their own security (so another body needs to come along).


Social media is a handy and free tool but many artists will still need to consider an advertising outlay. Facebook offers a service where you can boost a post – get it out to a larger audience for a fee of your choosing. Depending how many people you want to hit depends on the money you spend. Posters and flyers are a quick and easy way of reaching people. Once you have the printing and digital costs tabulated; toss that into a spreadsheet alongside the physical costs; put that with the money you are paying a venue – how much will that run you?! Say you are a solo artist and you are playing a gig twenty-five miles from your home. You can fit your guitar and amp into the car and do not have to hire that many people. Consider the petrol costs £20 (for the return) and promoting has set you back £40. You spent £15 on food/drink at the bar and have to pay the venue £20 to play. That is £95 before you even play a note! I know, from gigs I have put on, unless you are headline-worthy; you are not going to get more than £50 or £60. That means an artist is going to be indebted and in the red – unless their merchandise can tip the scales! That is a single example but a scenario that is not uncommon. Bands might be in a slightly better situation but they have more kit/people to ferry around.


Many might say the fees artists are paid is not a lot to begin with: what does it matter if you are losing a bit of money? I know venues are limited with how much they can pay an artist; they might not be able to charge an entrance fee and they have to think about their coffers. The reason so many speak out against pay-to-play is because bands/artists are not playing gigs to make money. Most of them have to work two jobs and are never going to make a big profit no matter how many gigs they squeeze into a year. They are performing to get their music to people and win fans. Streaming and social media promotion shares music but it does not guarantee you will reach everyone – how do you know which people are listening to your music? Many need to perform to solidify their skillset and ensure they get that experience in their back pocket. Most love the thrill and experience of playing. That excitement and reception they get when performing their music to a crowd – that is what drives them and keeps them going. If you are charging artists to play then that will lead to a few things. Not only will they perform fewer gigs – if they know they will lose money or take home a few quid – and lose that faith in the live circuit; they will struggle to make money and that will impact their mental-health and love of music.


Fans feel uncomfortable knowing venues are charging artists so might stop going to gigs as a protest. That means venues risk closing down and that impacts not only musicians but the local economy. Is this problem limited to smaller acts? Are they the only ones aggrieved and concerned? I have been looking at an article from 2011 - that provided Elbow lead Guy Garvey with the chance to explain his position:

"There needs to be something really strong in place if a promoter is found to be ripping off young bands. It's really, really unfair. It's basically playing on the hopes and dreams of people who are at the very first hurdle of their musical careers."

One man who has experienced gigging on both sides of the fence is Samuel Nicholls, aka Whiskas, guitarist of Forward Russia.

In his late teens and early twenties Whiskas was a promoter as well as a musician and has this advice for young artists tempted by play-to-play deals: "There's no need to do it. Pay-to-play deals never make sense as you're only ever going to play to your mates and family.

"My advice would be to put on your own gig. Buddy up with some other local bands, book a room in a pub, print some posters and do it yourself.

"You're risking your own money by doing it but probably no more than under a pay-to-play. If you do well you'll make more money and get more of the right sorts of people in to your gigs."


Money is a big concern for all new artists. The more music becomes digital and free; the harder it is for any new artists to make a profit and realistically survive. It is not only the unsigned/newer artists suffering: bigger performers are still having to pay venues so they can get their music to the people. It is a scene-wide scar that needs medicating and addressing. It might be obvious saying scrap it from all venues and ensure there are better ways to ensure profit is being made at gigs. At a lot of the problem is with greedy promoters and labels wanting to make money – rather than pubs/venues seeing a chance to get some cash in and taking advantage. I can see the problem regarding smaller venues and them feeling the pinch when only pull in a small crowd. It is clear we need to get rid of the pay-to-play concept. It is less common than years ago but I am reading posts where it is still happening in certain places. Every gig I have organised with a label/P.R. company has seen them do things fairly. They will pay a headliner £100; smaller artists get £50 and they have to play a set of around thirty minutes. They get beer tokens – so they can get booze for free – but they have to arrange all their own travel and instruments (they would be provided a backline and sound engineer).


That sounds like a fair deal because, if you are fairly local to the venue; that means you are still making money (even if it is £10 or £20). Even that set-up is still only turning a tiny profit for artists. I have seen a lot of them set up merchandise stalls but many are going to a gig and choosing to get that artist’s music on streaming sites. Look at the reality of gigs in music and you see what tight margins are present. Only the truly established artists can confidently play a gig knowing they will make a tidy bit of money. Of course, the passion of music and love of performing means many artists will play gigs for a small fee and be happy with that. Given the stress they are under – and the fact they have to work full-time jobs – how can any venue expect to sustain a pay-to-play model and not face backlash?! It is clear abolition needs to occur but, given the shaky future many small venues face; are there alternatives to the problem?! My ethical conundrum arrives when establishing whether it is scrupulous promoters/labels or hard-working venues culpable. The most common infractions are happening in small bars so I think you can split guilt down the middle. If you can only remain in business if you turn a profit; paying artists to perform means some venues suffer losses and, therefore, face closure – is it the only recourse in some cases?!


Some artists are willing to play for free if they are performing for a charity: others will do it in exchange for beer or petrol money. Whilst there are exceptions and room for bargaining; compensating artists for their hard work is only fair. To retain those ethics; if payment is not possible for artists, then some sort of immunity or indemnity must be formulated. As far as I know; artists who have to pay to perform are, unless the venues have a specific policy, not paid after the gig – if lots of people get in and there is a lot of money made behind the bar. There is that assumption, when making them pay, not enough money will be made at the venue that gig. If a contract can be worked up where the payment from an artist is a deposit – that means they can get their money back, and maybe get paid, if more people come in. Perhaps more venues should do the same as many festivals: offer food and drink as a minimum. A lot of artists I know (who have gone down the pay-to-play route) do not even get that. I think there should actually be something a bit more lucrative for artists. Maybe there is no other solution but force every venue to pay their artists fairly. Unless an artist volunteers to play for free then there should be money provided following every performance.


The notion of playing to perform is not exclusive to music – it is present in the entertainment industry and sport – but the issue of financial struggle is more vivid and clear than other industries. I have seen disgusted Facebook posts where artists have had to pay to get a gig and, at the end, have been out of pocket. One would think the rise of streaming and free music would put issues like pay-to-play into the spotlight. It is harder now (than ever) for new and established artists to make a crust from what they do. Unless you are an established act who can command multi-date tours and guarantee a healthy kitty after the end of any run – how much money are you going to make?! It is a testing time for new musicians and the off-putting side-effects of streaming need to be counterbalanced by positive rewards. That can come from passionate crowds and a fantastic network of fellow musicians. When you think about it; there are not that many benefits and obvious bonuses for a new musician. The passion and love of what they do tend to override the bad points. If some venues insist on maintaining their (Scrooge-like) pay-to-play policy then that will put so many musicians off. The music industry is a tough market, I know. Getting gigs, however, is a right (for those deserving) and not


A privilege.