(Just don’t) Pay to Play

2012-01-01 11.06.28It’s with some enthusiasm that I begin the too many fireworks’ blog’s industry advice column, “2mf vox”, with a subject dear to my heart – and the reason I got into DIY in the first place – “Pay to play”. Oh, I hear your muffled,anguished cries, this is DIY 101. This is standard. Don’t “pay to play”. We get it, let’s move on.

Well, no. Only yesterday did a friend of mine recommend an “Emergenza” event for one of our bands, so it seems you can never too often spell out why Battle of the Bands, and Pay to Play shows are bad for your band, and bad for the music scene, in general.

For as long as the music industry has been around, “Payola” has existed. “You pay us, we’ll play your record”. “You pay us, we’ll put you on television”. “You pay us, we’ll give you a support slot on tour”. And somewhere down the line, independent concert bookers got wind of this and wanted a piece of the action.

Pay to Play

2016 is already shaping up to be a bumper year for demise in the music industry. If only this particularly joyless collection of 365 days could see the death of this questionable business practice. Any time a band is expected to give a booker money before performing, or to be allowed to perform at a show, that’s “Pay to Play”. Often independent bookers – I refuse to call them promoters in that many seem inherently incapable of promoting – will hire venues on “dead” nights, run Battle of the Bands competitions or “showcases”, and will throw together a random assortment of bands with no attempt to compliment or to program a show.

Emergenza – the internationally infamous Battle of the Bands competition – for instance, is well known for these practices. To “enrol” to their competition, each band must pay a one-off fee of 200zł. Battle of the Bands competitions, like a dull toothache or a Ted Cruz stump speech, have long been an acute irritation to many. Their destructive, almost aggressive nature, engenders competition rather than a spirit of cooperation. It can’t even be argued they are strong opportunity to increase an artist’s fanbase, each band’s ticket sales like a warm, encouraging, supportive blanket to themselves, and to others, ambivalence at best, and at worst; outright hostility.

Other independent bookers give artists a minimum number of ticket pre-sales required with all money earned being funnelled back to them. If you don’t sell your minimum, you are contracted to pay the difference.

Back in the early 2000s, my first band – troika – with the clueless innocence of a particularly dumb puppy, got involved with a booker who gave us our first shows. We were young and flattered someone had taken notice of us. We were given a book of 50 tickets, and told to sell them at £4 (20zł approx.) each. If we didn’t sell at least 20, we had to make up the difference ourselves. It was a sly way of charging the band £80 (400zł approx.) to play the show.

Let’s look at that for a moment. With each band being no more experienced than we were, the average ticket sales per band may have been 25 (it wasn’t, but let’s be generous). With 4 bands performing, the booker earned £320 (1700zł approx) from the night. Each band then earned £4 for the additional 5 tickets sold. £20. A combined £80. In this scenario, all bands together earned in total what the booker took for 1 band. Of course, this is a specific example, but it is by no means rare.

Now, this wouldn’t be acceptable even if the booker had programmed the event to ensure the bands complimented each other, and had papered the town and the internet with promotion. It’s even more galling when you factor this next point in:

If the booker is already guaranteed cash, they have no incentive to promote the show.

So what to do instead?

When Troika had begun to slip slowly into the cracks of pay to play misery, it took befriending another band to show us there was another path. Our singer, a dapper chap called Andy, met and befriended Paul McGazz of My Legendary Girlfriend and he shone a light on the possibilities of DIY.

Why DIY?

Let’s look at that. If your 4 “showcase” bands are paying a combined 800zł* to a booker, for next to no promotion, bad programming, and often competitive atmosphere; then bookers have become, simply, an unnecessary middleman between band and venue. Doing very little, if anything, to justify the money they take away at the end of the night. As useful, and welcome, as a glass trampoline.

Instead, artists or bands can choose to work with smaller promoters who operate “fair-trade” or “fair-play” shows ensuring that while taking a fair cut for themselves, the bands will also earn a fair fee. If the show isn’t busy or doesn’t break even, then at the very least, the band won’t lose money on the other side. At worst, if the booker, or in this case, promoter isn’t interested in the music – and they should be, they has some incentive to guarantee an audience; doing this be programming a great show and promoting it strongly via online and off-line means.

Many bands, however, will go a step further, bypassing a booker or promoter entirely and simply hire a venue and run the show themselves.

By way of a very rough example, there are venues in Warsaw you can hire for free; your only cost is for a sound engineer of 200 to 250zł. There are places in Warsaw that will print 100 A3 posters for around 100zł. Add another 100zł for online promotion, 50zł for taxis, and if you’re willing to run around town distributing the posters yourself, your total cost will be 600zł. Split between 3 bands, that’s still 200zł cost? Well, yes but if you sell the show at 15zł per head in a venue holding 100 people, that’s a potential 1500zl in revenue. Split between your three carefully chosen and complimentary bands, thats 500zł each. You recoup your costs, and you make 300zł on top.

Thankfully, Pay to Play is a concept that is slowly dying as artists, bands, and musicians become less tolerant of such exploitation and realise they can do it on their own but DIY is about so much more than that. Consider that the above is only the financial side of the story; in organising DIY shows, you will meet and cooperate with other bands, share ideas and you will make Warsaw’s music scene a better, more collaborative place.

2mf vox

In the coming months, we’ll be following this post with a collection of hints, tips, methods, and advice on organising, programming, booking, promoting, and running successful DIY shows. Not only this, we’ll write more about promoting, performing, managing, and working within the independent music industry. Our focus will be on the Polish market with a glimpse across to the UK but we hope this blog will be relevant to anyone interested in independent music, wherever you are.


*Given the differences in markets between the UK and Poland, from here, I have adjusted approximate values based on prices I’ve seen quoted by various pay to play bookers.