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The Perils of Pay to Play at the Grassroots – Louise Dodgson


The dreaded phrase ‘pay to play’ has been known to strike fear into the hearts of many a musician over the years, but don’t worry! Louise Dodgson, Editor of The Unsigned Guide, is here to spell out exactly what it is and how you can have a marvellous live gigging career without succumbing to it.

What is pay to play?

This may be a familiar term to you seasoned giggers but for bands and artists still cutting their teeth on the live circuit, let us explain. Pay to play is very simply paying money up-front to a promoter so you can play their gig. It’s not good and it’s not necessary, but don’t be worried about falling prey to it; there are plenty of other opportunities to bag decent gigs in your town or further afield without taking this option. However, before we look at the ways around this, let’s first look at what isn’t technically ‘pay to play’ as well…

What isn’t pay to play?

Advance ticket sales – Some promoters may ask you to try & sell tickets in advance of your gig and tap into your valuable fanbase and circle of friends, family and co-workers. This is fair enough and technically not a pay to play situation. Encouraging ticket sales up front can make sense – people who have already bought a ticket in advance will feel more committed to coming along on the night and not cry off because it’s raining outside or another of the multitude of terrible excuses for not making it to your gig. So being sent a certain amount of tickets in advance of the gig to sell to anyone that definitely wants to come is one thing. HOWEVER…if you are told by a promoter that you need to sell X amount of tickets to earn your place on the bill, or that you will need to pay the deficit for any tickets you don’t sell in advance, then I would definitely advise thinking twice! This is verging on pay to play territory and is not fair conduct from the promoter so steer clear.

Buying onto a tour – This is not a situation you are likely to come across day to day when playing local gigs, but if your music career does reach a certain level in the future, you may be in the position to buy-on as a support act for another band’s tour; the main attraction being that this offers the opportunity to play to larger audiences as you open for a more established act. It is not always necessary to buy-onto a tour to get a support slot of this nature; you may be good friends with the touring band in question, or may be on the same label or management roster, but generally buy-ons are quite common in the touring world. If and when this does happen for you, seeking legal advice and drawing up a contract is essential which would no doubt be handled by a manager or booking agent. So whilst this scenario does involve paying money to play a series of gigs, it’s not strictly ‘pay to play’ as you know it, and as such is not an approach that you should experience from venue bookers or independent promoters.

How to avoid pay to play

There is just one answer to this – simple and straightforward – do your research! Whether it be chatting to other bands you know, going on live music forums to get the lowdown on recommended gig promoters and those to avoid, or contacting the promoter yourself to thoroughly question how their gig set-up works and what would be expected of you – make sure you investigate before you agree to anything.

The way that different gig promoters operate can vary, depending on whether it is their sole job and primary source of income or more of a hobby, but each business model has its place. So whilst some promoters may want you to do your best to bring an audience of 30, for example, other promoters won’t expect you to bring anyone as you may be on the bill with a larger name who is likely to bring in the punters. As a band starting out, you will encounter a wide variety of different approaches which affect how you will get paid – for instance a share of the door takings, or a share of the bar takings for some or all of the night. It may or may not be that your fee will be conditional on the level of ticket sales. Much will depend on the venue and promoter. There is no right and wrong, the key is finding a scenario that works best for you so make sure you communicate clearly with any gig promoter you deal with so you both understand precisely how the relationship is going to work.

I recently wrote another blog entitled The Lowdown on Gig Promoters  in which I interviewed several UK live promoters to ask how they select their line-ups, find decent venues to work with, how they promote their events to attract a good crowd, and the risks they undertake (financial and other!) in putting on gigs. The responses were very interesting, especially taking into consideration the differences between those who solely promote as a living and those who put on gigs in their spare time.

Don’t forget – there’s nothing stopping you taking on the promoter role yourself and organising your own gig. Obviously this involves some financial outlay, but it’s in support of your own promotional activities, not somebody else’s. With a bit of hard work and a little money, you could have a great event on your hands! Get in touch with some fellow bands and artists who would be up for playing, approach some venues to get a cheap, fair deal. If each band chips in a little money for any venue hire fee required, PA and lighting (if not included in venue fee), promotion costs and a sound engineer for the night (you may have a mate who can do this cheaply too) then you should be able to break even without too many worries.

Ultimately, whilst pay to play is still out there and you may come across it, there are many other gig promoters who are working legitimately and fairly and are as keen as you to put on a great gig.

The Unsigned Guide is a mammoth online music industry directory contains over 8,750 UK music contacts from all sectors of the music business, including live music. Beyond the contacts, The Unsigned Guide is also packed with useful articles and blogs helping you get to grips with how the UK music industry operates. You can take a look at all the benefits you can take advantage of as an Unsigned Guide member here.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


6 thoughts on “The Perils of Pay to Play at the Grassroots – Louise Dodgson

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  1. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world and has been going since 1947 (IIRC). The Fringe has always been an open festival which is to say any act can put a show on at the Fringe, given certain financial restrictions – like paying the Fringe organisation to insert a show description in the Fringe programme (and that money actually covers a lot of other things which the Fringe provides to help get the show on stage and an audience in the venue).

    The basic deal pretty well universally across the Fringe is a 60:40 split of gross door sales; 60% to the act and 40% to the venue/promoter and so on. I help run as venue called Acoustic Music Centre @ St Bride’s – aka simply AMC – and in 2014 we’ll have been doing so for ten years and that 60:40 split model is the model we apply. Occasionally I’ve had to explain to musicians that this model is NOT a pay-to-play model. Sure, you’re going expend some money in order to participate in the Fringe at AMC but this is really no different from hiring any venue in which you will promote your own show. That goes on the world over and has done for centuries.

    At AMC we provide two fully equipped perfomance spaces, a full modern box office service, complete FoH staff cover, retain a publicist to help shows get the info ‘out there’, and print posters, leaflets and a venue brochure listing the entire programme. That is not pay-to-play – it’s the way the whole Fringe works – yet still I get the occasional complaint from musicians about this modus operandi.

    Pay-to-play in its worst form is pernicious. It’s simply a rip-off. With another hat on I am also an entertainments agent and would make strenuous efforts to swerve such deals on behalf of the acts I work for.

    • I have a slightly different take on what constitutes Pay To Play compared to what this author writes here. It is this:

      “If the amount a musician or band spends (their expenses) to perform in a particular venue, festival or event exceeds any payment – the musician or band is in deficit on a particular gig – that musician or band has indeed “paid to play” that gig.”

      Expenses include transport (fuel, parking, congestion charges) and accommodation, if away. Rehearsals, instruments and back-line, PLI cover, road tax, insurance, and repairs/replacement must be factored in, otherwise you’ll find yourself unwittingly paying to play.

      As a musician and band leader, I want to be concentrating on performing, not accounting, so I keep in mind a ‘rule of thumb’ figure for expenses that includes sufficient margin (give and take) when negotiating a fee for a gig. For central London this is £40 per band member, for my particular musical scenarios — yours may differ. In other words, I have calculated that, on average, each musician will incur £40 of expenses in order to turn up to perform in any central London gig. So, if fielding a quintet for a central London gig, receiving less than £200 as payment constitutes Pay to Play.

      Promoters need to understand that expenses are *fixed* costs, i.e. just like venue hire. After all, the venue owner will expect to get paid their hire fee whether a full-house or nobody at all turns up for a gig. So, my advice for the fledgling musician accepting a fee based upon percentage gate revenues or bar receipts is to have a written and signed agreement in place with the promoter allowing you to check the tally (presuming the promoter is reputable and trustworthy – do your homework) and whereby expenses are explicitly fixed and guaranteed payable. If not, then you *will* find yourself paying to play in the event of a low turnout.

  2. Using Ged’s numbers, above, 37 x 12 = £444 worth of advanced sales per band.
    Five bands (excluding headline): 444 x 5 = £2,220

    My guess is that the Jamm charges regular promoters £2,000 for a hire — 600 max. capacity venue inc. sound + lights + FOH — seems about right, and the promoter is guaranteed 10% (£220) revenue up front. Doing his promotion online means that this amount of money is hardly touched.

    37 x 5 = 185 tickets, so with almost a third of tickets sold in advance the venue and promoter guarantee they “wipe their noses”. In other words, their fixed costs (risks) are automatically covered by the supporting bands.

    To cover my band’s expenses (see above) I need £200, which equates to 17 tickets. So, to break even on this gig, my band would need to shift 54 tickets @ £12 each. Be assured that NOBODY in my band would be content with covering only their expenses and you have to ask yourself if your band can regularly shift more than 50 tickets, weekly, that is before anyone earns any money.

    While making money is not the reason why anyone should pursue live music, you quickly begin to see why so-called Pay To Play does not suit the professional live musician as a model.

  3. As both a music business professional and a gigging musician, I agree totally with the main blog and the comments.
    I realize that my following comment is a not quite what the blog is about, but it has a very similar aspect : Paying for placement of recorded material.
    This is another predatory practice that seems to be growing.
    As it is quite a long article, I will just post a link to it here for anybody who has also been tempted to pay to get their music placed in adverts, films etc:

    The article is called “Don’t feed the sharks” and can be read from here:

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