The Pay to Play Argument

The internet can be a harsh place if you have an opinion.  The short answer to it is not to have one I guess and I do try to do that most of the time.  Especially on Facebook.  Some of my biggest regrets have come from commenting on Facebook.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Yesterday I passed a (very long) comment on someone’s feed that I didn’t even know.  Someone I do know liked something, a blog, and as I’m always looking for things to put up on the Conti timeline that are music related, I read the article to see if it had anything relevant that the Conti friends group might find useful.  Instead I found myself disagreeing with it.  I then, rather stupidly, decided I would put my thoughts on why I disagreed with it in this person’s comments section of that post.

Cue the trolls.

Of course I couldn’t just leave it at that when the negative comments came through about what I’d said and, even though I knew I probably couldn’t change their attitude to it, I continued to engage.

As my wife said to me… “Don’t feed the trolls”.

Yeah.  I should have listened to her.  The last thing I wanted to do was make people feel like their point wasn’t valid.  I just actually wanted to give them an alternate point of view but, in hindsight, I should have kept my big mouth shut.  Strangely though, I can’t even do that now after the event.  Though I’ve done my best to diffuse the situation and done all I can to shut it down.  I’ve still got it stuck in my craw so I figured I’d spill the argument over to here… My happy place.  The spot where I am king of my domain.  lol

The topic?  Pay for play opportunities.

If you saw the post I put up you will already know half the story.  If not, here’s the article I was commenting on…

http://www.tonedeaf.com.au/448102/musicians-undercover-investigation-reveals-the-truth-about-pay-for-play-gigs.htm

I went on to rant about this and why I thought it was a misrepresentation of the facts and possibly shed an unfair and biased view of that end of the industry.  Nobody on the gentleman’s friend list that read my views was particularly convinced I was right.  In fact I was told on two occasions that I was “out of touch”.

Out of touch.  Hmmm.  They could be right.  I have been working in the industry a fair while.  Some 18 years with Continuumusic alone.  Plus I’ve been in bands, both original and covers since I was about 14.  So that’s almost 30 years.  I do own a recording and rehearsal studio.  I have done live sound at pretty much every venue on the Northern Beaches, a tonne of venues in the city and a string of venues in other places around the state.   I record music of my own and for customers and I talk to people who play music both professionally and as a hobby all day long.  I teach singing.  I have been a judge and a major prize giver for a council run band comp for the last 14 years and I gig every so often.  I have worked as the sound guy at pay to play gigs and I have played at them plenty with my own bands too.

Of course, none of that says that I am “in touch” though.  I am getting kind of old.  Certainly I can see why some 21 year olds would just think I’m an old geezer that is clueless to how things work now-a-days.

So… fair enough.  Out of touch or not though, I think that both sides of this argument read as true dependent on the perspective you hold.

They’ve presented theirs with anger and distrust and portrayed themselves as being victims of what they believe to be a completely unfair situation.  A conspiracy they think to rob young, naïve musicians of money.

I think they are misguided in that belief. Although I admit that they may well be right about specific occurrences, I just haven’t encountered them so I can only speak on what I know and what I’ve experienced.

What they are probably right about…

Some people who do gig organising and promotion are snakes. (their word, not mine but we’ll use it.)  I can’t say I’d disagree with that.  It happens.  There are nasty folk who are only out for themselves in all walks of life and navigating the ones who wish to profit off of your hard work and the genuine ones who are trying to create something good is a difficult process. (I would prefer to think of myself and those that I work with are in the latter category)  It’s a fair call.  However, stereotyping all promoters into this category is unfair.  I think it fails to take into consideration many factors about how the industry works and what musicians need to do to further their careers.

There was probably a time when I would have jumped in with the chorus of people who were slagging off the promoters.  Telling the world how we musos were victims of unscrupulous tyrants who controlled the venues and set out to rob us blind.

Remember Rock’s Rhythm Boat?  Does that still exist?  Not sure if it does.  I remember playing a few gigs on that boat.  I’ve also done sound on it a number of times.  (I kind of vowed not to ever do that again though as their generators play havoc with PA systems but that’s another story.)  Anyway, the Rhythm Boat would run a cruise on the harbour and you could put your band (and often other bands) on a bill.  You had to buy so many tickets up front and then on-sell them to your fans.  It was pretty expensive but the shows were fairly cool.  The bands had to organise the PA themselves and they concentrated on you doing all the work of selling the show out.  If you didn’t, you needed to front the money for the tickets you couldn’t sell.

Back in the 90’s (I think), I remember thinking they had it pretty good and they were making it pretty damn hard for the bands with wanting money from them.  How were we to sell all those tickets?  What if we couldn’t?  We’d be paying to play!

That wasn’t their problem.

I didn’t think that was fair… but I was young and pretty stupid and self absorbed and thought the world kind of owed me a living because I was such a huge undiscovered talent.

And now, I feel that their stance on that was pretty much fair enough.  They, after all, just had a business plan for their boat.  They needed to make X amount of dollars to pay for fuel and staff, mooring costs and other boaty things and they wouldn’t leave the wharf without ensuring that was covered.  Why didn’t we think that was fair?  Any idea what it costs to own and run a cruise ship?  (I don’t either by the way but it can’t be cheap.)

Their plan was that if three bands played on the boat on a night and those bands basically hired the boat and sold the right amount of tickets, the band could be in profit.  If they only sold the minimum number, they’d break even.  If they sold less than the minimum… well, someone has to pay for the fuel.

What it offered was a place to play.  A place to have something a little out of the ordinary as far as gigs go so that your fans could attend something that was a bit unique.  Yes, it cost money to do it.  All gigs cost money to do.  Their business plan was not exploitative.  You knew what you were getting into and if you couldn’t sell the tickets it was essentially your problem not theirs.  Once again, why isn’t that fair?  If you own your own boat then put on your own harbour cruise gig.

The same goes for any festival or gig that’s being put on.  I don’t disagree that the band should be paid for playing music if they are entertaining a crowd that is only there because they want to hear the band.  Most of these pay to play opportunities do offer you the ability to do that though.

The Rhythm Boat had a pretty small margin from the minimum to the maximum amount of tickets you could sell but the take home income from the band if they filled the boat, I feel, was more than fair.  You wouldn’t get rich from it but it was a good wage for the effort involved.  What didn’t seem fair is how much work you needed to put in to get to that capacity point.  You actually had to get off your arse and become a salesman.  I’m not a salesman.  I’m a musician.  What a horrible thought that I might have to prostitute myself so much to get my fair day’s pay for playing music.

All gigs are Pay to Play.  You may not necessarily have to front up with cash but you need to pay.  You do so by ensuring you bring a crowd that is either going to buy tickets to enter or buy enough drinks/food to warrant the venue opening its doors and putting staff on or both.  At least to the point where the people who are there working are getting their wages met.  In some cases, this won’t happen.  Sometimes the venue operators and organisers of the gig will just wear that.  They’ll rub their hands over their faces and fork the money out for their staff and the PA system and sound guy and let the band walk away but you can be sure that they won’t get you back for another gig.  It’s not personal.  They just can’t sustain losing money.

Sometimes, they’ll hit the band up for the costs.  This happens.  We once had to pull a hundred bucks out of our pockets to pay the sound guy at a gig that nobody turned up to.  I bitched about it at the time but in hindsight it was more than fair.  The venue owner still had to cover the lost money for wages on his bar staff, electricity, etc.

A lot of my detractors said that it is the promoter’s responsibility to get heads through the door.  They said that if they didn’t, they weren’t doing their job properly.

Not so sure about that.  I do agree that promoters should be doing the best they can to ensure people come through the door but if people don’t want to come and see your band, whose fault is that?  Yes, lack of advertising can often be blamed and you could pin that on the promoter but ultimately, the band needs to have a big enough following of fans to get people in and a name that is recognised when it is advertised so that people want to come.  Advertising a show with bands that nobody has ever heard of rarely does much to bring a crowd.  I know that’s hard and it’s harsh to say it but what are you doing with your band’s promotion to make that different?  Expect people to come out to a venue just because there’s live music is a pretty big ask if they don’t know any of the bands.  Before you condemn that, ask yourself, would you?

Other people used the tired old “I don’t have time to sell tickets and promote myself cause I’m busy working and going to uni and supervising my sister’s dance class…” excuse.

I’m sorry.  How is that the promoter’s issue?  I’m sorry that you are working a day job instead of being a full time musician.  Wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place if everybody owed you a living?  It’d be great if you didn’t have to do anything other than write songs and practice and then play gigs right from the moment you started your act and there would be someone out there who would discover you and take care of all the rest of the stuff that it takes to make you a household name and you wouldn’t have to do anything but play.

You’re time poor.  I get it.  That sucks.  It’s the same for all of us.  The ones who manage their time well and do all that needs to be done to get their name and their music out there are the ones who get the notice.  They put as much effort into furthering their marketing as they do into furthering their music.  Sometimes more.

Don’t shoot the messenger!

You’ve got to market yourself.  Nobody else is going to do it yourself!  Why should you expect them to?  How do they even know to?  They don’t know you.  They don’t know your music.  They don’t care until you bring it to their attention and then convince them that they should care.

If a promoter says you’ve got to sell twenty or so tickets to make your show break even then that’s what you’ve got to do.  If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be on the show.  And…. Wait for it…. You’re lazy.  (cue more hate, I’m sure.)  But, hear me out because I’m lazy too.  That’s why my own music hasn’t gone anywhere in as many years as I can remember.  I don’t want to do any self promotion either.  I’d also love it if someone would just pick up the ball and run with it for me.  But they ain’t going to.  Why?  Because they don’t know I exist.  Why don’t they know I exist?  Because I haven’t done anything to get them to.  And the word “lazy” is how I would describe that.  You make time to pick up your instrument, make time to push your band out into the world.  You may have to give up that Game of Thrones marathon or shift around something else but if you really want something, you will be prepared to juggle things to make it happen.  Or you’ll be too lazy to and you won’t.  Am I wrong?

Winners do it until it’s done.

“But I can’t sell twenty or thirty or forty tickets to people to see my show”.

Why not?  Is it that you aren’t good enough to entertain more than 5 people who’d be willing to pay for the privilege?  If that’s the case, best go do some practice and get your show up to a better standard where people would want to see it.  Too lazy to do that too?  Ouch.  Maybe you need a different career path then.  Music isn’t for you.  BOOM!

You could promote yourself.  You could work hard at it.  Spend every spare second you’ve got getting those people to know who you are, become invested in your music, love you enough to want to come to a show.  It’s what successful people do.  And, sometimes they invest money into that process.  They take out half page ads in The Drum to promote their band’s name, they pay for targeted Facebook ads.  They put their ads on the backs of taxis, the sides of busses.  They make phone calls, send texts to their fan base, they travel far and wide to spruik the band and to play free gigs whilst spending money on petrol and, yes, they do pay for play gigs.  Why?  Because it extends their reach.  It widens the circle of people who will come to their next show, buy their CD or other merch.  And they end up making money from it.  I said it in my original rant and I’ll say it again.  You gotta spend money to make money.  This is a basic business principle and your band is a business.  (or it isn’t and it’s just a hobby.  In which case, don’t do pay to play gigs.  They aren’t for you.  Actually, why are you even reading this???)

Pay to play opportunities have existed for a long time.  If you don’t need them then don’t use them.  You will already be making money because you are bringing crowds and therefore the venue operators and promoters are assured of their costs being covered and them making a profit.  Which is what they want to do.  They wouldn’t open their doors to lose money.  Not for art’s sake.  You don’t go to work at your day job for art’s sake.  Why should they?  Make some damn money.  You can do that.  It’s not actually as hard as it sounds.  These P2P opportunities very rarely limit you to the break even point.  It’s not like they say “sell all the tickets and give the money to us”, they just set a minimum to cover their costs.  There’s pretty much always a reasonable incentive for you to sell out the house.  Just like any other gig.  More bums on seats, more merch sales, more album sales, more bums on seats in other venues.  More attracts more and then you are on your way to making a profit from your business.  But yes, you may have to reach into your pocket a bit to start with.  Just like starting any other business.

Let’s say you get on a P2P gig that requires you to sell 40 tickets at $15.  There’s three bands on the bill all with the same deal.  The venue holds 200 people.  (this was suggested in the article but to be honest I haven’t come across anything that asks you to sell that many.  The benchmark I’ve seen around is usually 20 tickets… but… remember… I’m out of touch.  Usually the number of bands on the bill would also be higher for that too.  We’d be looking at five or six which will actually only improve the following maths but I’m keeping it at three to save my brain from doing to much maths.  My brain no likey maths.  You can work that out for yourselves though.)

Okay.  You try really hard but only manage to sell 20 tickets.  The other two bands do the same.  You’re all out of pocket $300 a piece.  Ouch!  That might seem like a lot and possibly it is but all three bands play to a crowd of 60 people.  Not great in a 200 seater room but it’ll work okay.  Roughly two thirds of that crowd haven’t seen or heard of two of those bands before.  So, play really damn well and turn the additional 40 punters into fans of your band too.  It’s cost you $7.50 each for those new fans and your database has tripled in size.  Yeah, that may not be a great conversion figure but if half of those plus your original 20 punters come to the next one because it was such a great night out, you’ve broken even on the next show.  Not to mention that if you’re really good, that 40 people will connect with their friends and spread the word about what an awesome act you are and the next thing you know you are getting more fans connecting with you and wanting to see you play.  If the second gig brings in a different pair of bands to be on the bill who also only sell those 20 tickets each and you convert them, by the third show you are looking at bringing 100 people along to see you play whereby you are in profit, the venue is stoked with you and wants you back as the headline and your fan base is getting bigger by the minute.  The fourth gig is sold out by just the crowd you bring plus the twenty tickets the next two support bands sell.  Your band is making $1800 for playing the gig plus whatever it sells at the merch table.  That $7.50 a head starts to look like a pretty good investment over the medium to long term.

This is how it’s done people.  This is how bands have made successes of themselves.

 

Is this too hard?  Only you can answer that.  If it is, don’t do P2P.  In fact, stop dreaming of stardom that probably isn’t right for you either.

Do you know what it takes for it to work?  All it takes for it to work?

Three things.

Belief in yourself that you can do it.

Being awesome at what you do on stage so people really want to be your fans.

Don’t be friggin lazy about marketing or selling yourself.  Make time and do it.  Do it hard core!

…. Or don’t do any of those things and play the victim.  Why should I care?

“My music isn’t going anywhere and doing a little bit of work to make myself rich and famous is tooo hard!”

Cry me a river.

Welcome to the music industry.

That really is your problem.  No-one else’s.  Sorry to break the cold hard truth to you.  Once again, don’t shoot the messenger.

Look.  We all want to paid for playing.  Certainly if you are doing weddings or functions or playing covers in an RSL club, you want dollars in your pocket.  Not rock star dollars but a reasonable amount of pay for your skills.  Especially if you have been doing it to such a degree that you’ve built up a reputation as being a pro outfit but then, pay to play won’t even come up on your radar.  Why should it?  You will already be getting paid to play and rightly so.  But that’s a different job to trying to bring a new, original band into the light and make it profitable.

Of course, there is also the path of the free gig.  The one where you don’t have to cough up dollars to walk on the stage.  They’re out there but there are fewer of them than there are bands and they still need you to bring the numbers.  You just don’t have to front the dough.  You can do these gigs with the same mentality as above.  Hope that the venue operator doesn’t rub his face with his hands at the end of the night and he invites you back to play again or, at least, doesn’t chat to the other venue operators or promoters around and tell them how you didn’t bring enough people to warrant having you on.  Yes, they do that behind your back.  Are you wondering why it has been tough getting a gig since your last one?  It may have nothing to do with how musically wonderful you are.  You did know that right?  Venues and promoters could rarely give two shits about how good your music is.  Can you fill the room with paying punters or be willing to pay to play.  This isn’t just the so-called snakes, folks.  They all feel this way.  They have to.  Running a venue is a business.  Don’t take it personally.

Pay to play is not the big evil.  At least not in my view.  It’s a tool for you to use when you are starting out on the path and it has created a way for you to get out and get seen and heard.  If those types of gigs didn’t exist, I wouldn’t expect the vacuum that would occur by them not being there to be filled by free or paying opportunities.  The risks to the promoter and venue are high.  That’s why there aren’t many non P2P gigs going around for up-and-coming bands.  Boycotting them because you don’t think their business model is fair may serve to give you some (misplaced) moral satisfaction when they disappear through lack of being able to make a show happen but it won’t create more opportunity from their absence.

Yeah, there are probably some promoters out there who are skimming just a bit too much out of the system.  Maybe they are taking advantage and some of their ticket sale ratios are a bit out of whack.  They won’t last.  The genuine ones who actually do a good job and put on a good show in classy venues with good sound and vibe though should not be lumped in with the bad apples.  Just be careful.  Do your sums before you agree to anything, ask about the production and what advertising will be getting done if any and if you don’t like the deal, by all means, walk away from it.  No-one’s holding a gun to your head.  But research your figures.  A good show can cost a fair bit to put on so what the promoter is hitting you up for may be completely warranted.  Just that you are going to have an awesome PA and light show or something.  If the deal makes sense then seize the opportunity to invest in your band’s future.  Start making it a viable business.  But don’t expect the world to fall into your lap.  You’ve got to get out there and work your arse off if you want to get to the top of the pile.

Now, just quickly before I end this (and I know you’ve had to read a lot!)….

Some of my favourite gigs that I’ve played with original bands I’ve been in have been pay to play and I have made money out of them.  If you do it right, you can too.

Now, I invite you to express your opinions on this.  Am I completely wrong about it?  Out of touch?  You are free to express your thoughts as always but please keep it a thoughtful debate.  No room for it being nasty.  I know I’m passionate and you can be too.  Just .. please… keep it respectful.  I don’t think I’m up for any more trolling today.

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