Should bands pay to play? Let’s face it, it happens. At some point in your career as an artist, you will be offered the “opportunity” to pay to play a show.
These offers come in all shapes and sizes. From sneaky promoters looking to take advantage of naive bands to legitimate opportunities that may be worth paying to take advantage of.
Unfortunately, the independent musician is left to sift through these opportunities and figure out for themselves whether the opportunity is legitimate or not.
Should bands pay to play? In short, maybe.
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When Should You Pay To Play
It’s safe to say that for most artists paying to play is generally undesirable. You value your music, and so should other people. You absolutely deserve to be paid for your work.
That said, there are times when your compensation can come in the form of “exposure”. I know that’s a bit of a dirty word, but it can be legitimately beneficial if the opportunity is there.
In the music business, it’s called a “Buy-On” and it’s way more common than you think.
Basically, a bigger band will go on tour, and they need an opening band. So they allow other artists to literally bid on being the support for the tour.
Sometimes, you can come out on top. You’re a) playing to crowds much larger than you would normally, and b) selling a bunch of merch. If you’re good and you’re ready to play with the big boys and girls, this can be the opportunity that takes your career to the next level.
Is it fair? No. Is it sneaky and pretty lame all around? Definitely. Can it be a worthwhile investment? Yes, if you’re good and ready for the opportunity.
This isn’t the only time you may find it worthwhile to pay to play. In fact, I have paid to play on a few occasions and found it to be beneficial.
For example, in 2016 my band made a commitment to play in Toronto (Canada’s largest and most important center for music) every month. We went for opening slots and showcases, and managed to get a solid career building show every month there.
This did great things for our band. We made more important industry connections and friends in that five to six months period than we had in years prior.
The thing is, we barely got paid at all for those slots. Sometimes we were playing for free, and sometimes for $50 – $150.
While we weren’t really “paying to play”, we had to spend a great deal of money getting there. Ultimately, we were losing between $600 – $1,200 per show. And I would totally do it again if we had the money.
That wouldn’t have been worth it if we weren’t ready for those opportunities. Without a super tight show and a great work ethic, that would have been wasted time and wasted money.
We also traveled to Nashville on our own dime to firm up a management deal. It was expensive, but it needed to happen, so we did it.
To sum up, paying to play is never ideal. But sometimes, you weigh the options and find that the money spent is a worthwhile investment.
When You Shouldn’t Pay To Play
Generally, there are more situations where you shouldn’t pay to play than when you should. Here are a few situations to avoid at all costs.
The “Purchase Tickets Upfront Or Minimum Tickets” Scam
This is always garbage. This happens when sketchy promoters poke around the internet looking for naive bands.
Basically, you have to sell 35 tickets to play, often for a selection of “industry people”. Either you have to purchase the tickets yourself and then re-sell them, or if you don’t sell enough tickets you have to buy the rest to make up for it.
This is the worst deal ever. Usually, you’ll make $3 a ticket or 20% of ticket sales. This is outrageous, considering that you did literally all the work involved. You might as well have put on a house concert and actually made money.
Not only is it a bad deal financially, but as far as advancing your career, these so-called showcases will do literally nothing, or next to nothing.
The “industry” in attendance probably don’t care and are just doing it to get paid, or they are wannabe record label execs who don’t have anything to offer except sunshine and rainbows.
Bands are often tempted to do this because it’s in a cool, hip venue, or the “industry” in attendance seem legit. Do not fall for it.
Push your career in an honest way, make great music, and you will eventually play those “cool” venues.
Pay To Play A Festival
The only festivals you should even consider paying to play are major industry showcases such as SXSW.
Regular rock festivals, folk festivals, electronic festivals, etc. have a budget with which they are paying the vast majority of artists. It’s very rarely worth paying to play a festival.
Even if it’s a huge, big-name festivals, you’re probably going to end up on a side stage at noon, playing to 50 people. Not worth it.
For many artists, festival season is when they make most of their money. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have to pay to play a festival. Hard work and great music will eventually see you playing high-caliber festivals and getting paid well for it.
The Minimum Draw Deal
In major centers, specifically L.A and New York, you’ll occasionally come across venues/promoters offering a 50/50 split of door income after you draw a specific amount of people.
This is generally garbage. For example, if the minimum draw is 50 people and you draw 55 at $10 a ticket, you make $25 and the venue/promoter makes $525. Not even close to fair.
If a venue/promoter doesn’t think you’re going to be able to draw enough to make the show worthwhile, don’t take the show. Clearly, they don’t want to put any work into it anyways.
Expenses/Venue Rental Deal
Alright, this is pretty standard and reasonably fair.
Often, venues will charge a door price and take expenses off the top. Then, 100% of the door goes to you. Obviously, this is not ideal, but it’s not completely unfair. The venue wouldn’t have had to hire a door person or a sound guy were it not for you playing there.
I believe that a venue rental fee is a little bit sneaky, especially when the bar bills itself as a live music venue. However, I understand that it is hard to make money in the venue business, and sometimes that’s what it takes to stay open.
Ultimately, you are the judge of whether or not you should be playing for free or paying to play. Sometimes, it’s worth it. Most times, it’s not.
Value yourself. Value your music. Make sure that you are being treated fairly. Go from there.