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Pay to Play?

To quote Peter Griffin, "You know what really grinds my gears?" 

For musicians, its this hideous pay-to-play scam perpetrated on stardom-seeking musicians in major cities like Los Angeles and yes, even Nashville, Music City USA.

The scam basically goes like this: Shiftless nightclub owner (who secretly hates musicians) says its a privilege and honor to play in their fine establishment with your unknown band. After all, it costs him a lot of money to open his doors, why should he let YOU in on his good thing? Yes, its such a big deal and honor for you to play this fine club that instead of them hiring your band for a fee and making the money back with a cover charge, your band pay him. Yep, your band gets nothing in the way of pay and has to not only cover the costs for the sound guy that evening, but guarantee the bar owner than "X" amount of people are going to walk through those doors and buy a ticket or pay the cover charge.

If fewer people than the club owner demands come in that night, the musicians have to make up the difference. Yep, you read right. Now not only is the performance of the band worth nothing to the club owner whatsoever, but he thinks so little of your group that he's going to charge you money if he doesn't think enough people came into the club. I recently heard of one where the club owner wanted $1200.00 for the night in ticket sales, suggesting the band get two other bands to play with them that evening, surmising that it was a bargain then, only $400 per band, or about $100 per musician. They could earn it back by running around and selling their own tickets. OMG. I was floored. 

On top of that, some clubs even require you to pre-sell drink tickets with each ticket, assuring the club owner that none of your ticket-buying friends is going to just hang around and stink up the joint. They want you to sell their liquor for them, plus sell the tickets for them, promote the show date yourself with flyers and posters, spamming your fan list, etc., but you're also going to get charged for every Coke you drink that night, not to mention beer or other drinks. Selling merch at these shows? Some of these crooks want a piece of that, too.

Wow. There are so many things wrong with this picture I hardly know where to begin. I guess the club owner would have you mop up the joint and clean the johns after the gig as well. 

This is not how it SHOULD work, but unfortunately there are so many stupid and inexperienced musicians out there desperate for a gig they allow these club owners to pull this crap, and have allowed it for years and years now. This is NO WAY to get experience playing clubs. This was originally an LA thing, but it spread like a sickly virus across the country to other major markets, sucking in bands wanting to experience the thrill of playing some room, but getting none of the benefits of doing it for real, as it, being hired to do so. They can't get away with this crap in smaller markets where there is no chance of a record label person showing up, but some of these crooks will try it anyway. My theory is that if a club owner can't do the work of running a club, including hiring the right musicians to help sell booze, they should change careers.

How SHOULD it work? Well for starters, the club owner should know who his customers are, and then screen and HIRE bands to perform for that demographic. The club owner is not only in the business of selling booze and maybe food, but the experience and scene of their entertainment establishment. They are supposed to be mini-concert promoters, making money off the booze people buy when they choose the right kind of acts for their scene. People would go to that club because they knew the club had the sense to create a scene they were into, and they'd come in no matter who was playing.

The club owner should either pay a flat fee to the band or they should offer the band a guarantee against a majority percentage of what comes in at the door. There are hard costs to running a club and selling a drink, from electricity to run the coolers, lights, AC, etc. to the cost of the glasses, to the cost of the booze. I don't see the club owners telling the bartenders that they'll pay them to pour drinks if the bartender guarantees them they'll make the basic costs of serving the drinks, first. Believe me, if some of these crooks could, they frickin' would.

Bands should get paid. They are working when they play and that work means the club sells booze. In some cases, they should also be fed if the club serves food and the gig is several hours long. They should at the least get a discount on the food if the club serves it. If the band is from out of town, the club should spring for a couple of cheap motel rooms, or even have a band apartment rented for traveling acts to use as they come in and out of town. Musicians should be paid for their work, just like the doorman, the bartender, the bar backs and everyone else who works there. Somewhere along the way, musicians forget that the music BUSINESS involved commerce, income that is, and that they should be earning money for their work if they want to be called professionals. 

I used to play a place called Paddy O'Tooles in Mobile, AL three nights a week, about once a month, back in the 90s. They only paid a solo act $75 for the Thursday night, but $125 a night for Friday and Saturday. They made it up by giving me a free meal and drinks each night. And it worked out just fine for me, it kept my calendar full, and the place was always packed no matter who played there because it was a cool scene. It was an 80 miles drive for me to go there to play, so I stayed with friends or got a cheap room rather than drive home. I brought my own little PA to the gig. Even though I usually charged $150 a night for a solo gig, I played Paddy O'Tooles because they treated me with respect, fed me, and knew that the lower paying night should be made up somehow, so they threw in some chow. It was good food, too. So what's my point?

Professional musicians get paid to perform, they don't pay money to be allowed to perform. Got it? Does this club suck so badly that it can't sell even $250 worth of booze to offer a band a paltry $50 a man for a show one night? Really? They should shut that place down and start selling vacuum cleaners door to door instead of trying to manage an entertainment establishment. A band should get paid some amount of money, even if its small if the club owner is afraid of the risk of a newer band. They should also get a discount on drinks and food, or free food and soft drinks or some other form of compensation for their WORK at that club that night.

Putting on concert is work. Where did this part escape both the club owner and the musician? Not only is it work, but its work you've invested thousand of dollars into gear to do, and thousands of hours into learning the work to be able to do it. I guess the difference is that the bartender isn't hoping some A&R guy for bartenders is going to magically show up and take them away from all this, signing them to a big bar tending deal somewhere. Oh, and that pesky labor law thing would stop club owners from treating a working bartender that way, but musicians, they have zero protection from the government like that. Goes to show you how bartenders and other employees would be treated by unscrupulous club owners if they could treat them like musicians. 

Yes, it SHOULD work that way, but stupid starry-eyed musicians keep it from working that way by allowing these crooked club owners to scam them into paying money to play their club under some delusion that if they do this, out of nowhere an A&R guy from a record label is going to step forward from the shadows and sign them, making them big stars and this pay-to-play an awesome investment. Sometimes they call these "showcase clubs." 

Remember something important about these "showcase clubs" where you have to pay to play: Its not going to get you a return on your investment. Its only going to cost you money, and money better spent buying a tank of gas to go three hours away to a real club with a real scene where real potential fans will be made and you'll get paid "something" to show up and work that night. 

These pay to play clubs don't exactly share the revenues with the band from their sales at the bar or from the kitchen if they serve food. They want musicians to do all the work, from their club marketing to putting on the show, just to hedge their own bets and keep from having to do their job, which is to create a club somebody would want to patronize based on its ability to bring in excellent music.

Wow, I used to get insulted when a club owner want us to play for 75% of the door with no guarantee. I never ever once considered doing a pay-to-play show, and I'll tell you why. That A&R guy bigwig you're dreaming is going to show up and sign you, well, he KNOWS its a pay-to-play gig. He knows because these clubs that bring in groups to do this are notorious. Pay-to-play gigs makes you look desperate. They'll don't fool anyone, especially an A&R guy. They don't fool the local music critic who might write about you in the weekly or daily newspaper. They don't fool anyone in the business. 

Do yourself a favor. Don't play these places. Let the desperate bands do these gigs, the bands with no talent who have no shot at making it, so these crooked club owners have the business model blow up in their faces after a while. Take a stand and just say NO. Then get on the phone and start calling clubs that will treat you with some dignity and pay you for your work, or at the very least not try to get you to pay them for the night of playing rock star. If one of your band mates is trying to talk your band into doing one of these gigs, tell them to get stuffed. Tell them you're a pro and you're not going to pay money to do your profession. By definition, you can't be a professional if you're paying somebody for the privilege of working. Got it? If after all that your band mate still tries to get you to do this, shut him down. Don't do it.

Listen, these clubs can't sell an ounce of liquor, a product which they mark up 500-1000% and sell, without music. Get it? They need you, you don't need them. If musicians would just stop doing these stupid things that make them look like posing loser wannabes, it would do everyone a world of good. If you have to go on the road to get paid, then don't play Los Angeles or Nashville clubs. If you're not going to get paid, then figure out how to perform where you don't have to pay for the privilege. I got news for you, a major news flash here.... you can rent a rehearsal hall fully equipped with gear and somebody to run it and have your own private party, invite all your pals and industry people you want and give liquor away there for less than these clubs want you to pay them to use their stage. Put together a benefit concert with a charity, or play for free somewhere, but never, EVER pay money to play a club.

Pay to play? Just say NO! Now you know what really "grinds my gears." 

Posted: 2/1/2009 12:14:42 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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