Should You Pay to Play
"I live in LA. I've only been here 3 years, but in that time I've met many excellent musicians in town all talented enough to explode at any moment. The sad reality is, in a town so saturated with incredible musicians, the cream isn't necessarily rising to the top as quickly as it would in other cities. Everyone who is great here is on the same level - getting little victories here and there. Some land a major tour and hit the road. Some get signed and go through the major label roller coaster. Some work the YouTube angle. Some make their livings on song placements. Some fly around the country playing colleges. Some get in their car and tour the coast/country on their own. But what all the non-superstar musicians in LA have in common is, when we play a show in town we accept shitty shitty deals. How do I know that these are shitty deals? Well, I've booked shows in nearly every major city in the country and know how other cities do it.
This isn't going to be a post about LA (as that could fill a book), but rather the issue of "pay to play" clubs.
Let's explore some of the many scenarios bands get offered by venues and promoters every day:
Require bands to purchase tickets upfront
WHAT IS IT: Typically this happens with "promoters" who scour Reverbnation (they used to use Myspace), find naive bands and promise them slots at well known venues. All you, the band, have to do is sell 35 tickets (which you must purchase in advance). But hey, you get to keep $3 for every ticket you sell! What a deal! Except you have to buy the tickets for $7 and sell them for $10. If you do the math, you are making 30% of the cover from the people JUST there to see you - which is the shittiest deal in the history of shitty deals. They usually put about 5-15 bands on a night, who each play about a 20 minute set. And the bands almost never fit together musically.
IS THIS FAIR: F NO! How these "promoters" get away with this is they prey on young bands who don't know any better and will do anything to just play the venue - including paying lots and lots of money for this. As tempted as I am to name the names of these fucktard promoters who do this (and boy would I like to), I will not and hope that enough of you read this article and tell these promoters to politely fuck off when they contact you (as I have many many many many times).
+++Fun story: My final year in Minneapolis, one of these promoters kept hounding me to play a club I had actually headlined many times. I told them that I typically get 500 people to my headlining shows and I'm not interested in their deal (as I had a very good relationship with the club already). They responded explaining how much money I could make with their shitty deal if I brought 500 people (duh). I responded telling them no thanks and to please not contact me again. I was then hit up by the same "person" with the same stupid form email multiple times in the coming weeks. Each time my responses got more and more annoyed, until finally I contacted the owner of the club and told him what was happening and how it was giving the club a bad name and that they should stop working with this promoter. The owner cancelled their upcoming show and hasn't worked with them since. BAM! More bands need to do this in more cities.
LESSON LEARNED: Don't pay to play cool venues. You will be PAID (a fair amount) to play these cool venues when you are ready and can draw a substantial crowd.
Venue takes a band's credit card at the beginning of the night to cover the difference in the required minimum draw
WHAT IS IT: This is almost as bad as the above scenario. A venue takes a band's credit card at the beginning of the night and unless a certain number of people pay to see that band (the door guy has a tally sheet) at an absurd cover price, the venue will charge the band's credit card to make up the difference. This actually happens at clubs on Sunset Strip.
IS THIS FAIR: No. You and the venue should be in this together. You took a chance playing their club, they should take a chance on you. I get it, they are trying to protect themselves financially, but there are much more ethical ways to do this.
LESSON LEARNED: If the venue doesn't have enough faith that you will bring a crowd, then don't take the show.
Venues charge a "rental fee"
WHAT IS IT: Music venues that also host private events like weddings got smart to the fact that they were making a buttload more money when they got wedding parties to rent out the venue than if they book a night of music. So, these venues figured, "why not ask bands to pay nearly the same amount to book a night in our beautiful venue?" They'll make you rent the place for, say $1,500. You can charge whatever cover you like and will make 100% of it (if you're lucky). You are essentially acting as the promoter. Oh you play music too? Eh.
IS IT FAIR: Well, it's not ideal. The venue is basically completely covering their ass and will make out on this deal regardless if you bring anyone. The venue is basically admitting they have 0 faith in your draw and they are doing YOU a huge favor in LETTING you play their club (for an exorbitant fee).
LESSON LEARNED: I would say pass on this deal typically. Play a different club that gives you a fair and standard deal. Or, crunch the numbers and if you think you will bring enough people to make this deal worthwhile then go nuts. It helps to fill a promoter's shoes once in awhile.
Venues only pay you after a certain number of people come to see YOU
WHAT IS IT: I've only really seen this kind of deal in LA and NYC (some other cities are catching on though). Basically, the door guy has a tally sheet with each band's name on it. The venue works out a separate (standard) deal with each band. Typically, you get paid ONLY if a certain number of people (I've seen 15-75) pay to see you (and not the others on the bill). You then get a cut of the door from dollar 1 after the minimum number of people come. Meaning if the minimum is 35 people at $10 a head and you bring 33, you walk with $0 (and the venue takes your $330 - and all the drinks your fans buy). However, if you bring 35 (and your deal is 60%) you walk with $210.
IS IT FAIR: Kind of, but not really. On the surface it looks like they are just covering expenses, BUT if they have 5 bands on the bill and each are required to bring 35 people at $10, the venue is getting WAY more than just the amount to cover expenses. If every band brings 30 people the venue makes $1500 (30 people x $10 x 5 bands) and each band makes $0. Yikes!
LESSON LEARNED: I don't like these deals because it encourages competition amongst the acts and not a "we're all in it together" approach - like I stand by. You have 0 incentive to work with the other bands on the bill to make it a great night - encouraging fans to stay from beginning to end. Because of this, bands in LA and NYC don't get to know each other that well and typically show up right before their set and leave shortly after. "Hit it and quit it." Which rubs off on the fans too. It's VERY unique to see fans in LA or NYC come for a full night of music (because of this practice). Venues don't realize that if they stopped working their deals this way and started encouraging complete bills and promoting the entire evening of music, they would get more people in their club for a longer period of time (i.e. more drink sales). But hey, I don't run the clubs.
Venue takes expenses off the top
WHAT IS IT: A venue will take an amount off the top to cover expenses before they split the door. I've seen anywhere from $50-1500 for 700 cap and below clubs ($1500 was the Roxy on Sunset Strip). Standard is $50-350 depending on the size of the club. Anything above $350 for a club under 500 capacity is screwing you.
IS IT FAIR: Sure. They wouldn't need to hire a sound guy or a door guy if you weren't playing there that night. This money (typically) does directly go to these people and then the venue splits the remaining money with you fairly.
Door split from dollar one
WHAT IS IT: Many venues are happy to have you and will split the door with you from the first person who pays a cover. This is ideal. If 10 people come at $10 a head and you have a 70/30 split with the venue, you walk with $70.
IS IT FAIR: Absolutely. I see this deal occasionally, but most will at least take $50 off the top for the sound guy.
Guarantee + % of door
WHAT IS IT: If you are more established and have a great relationship with the club, you can negotiate this kind of deal. It takes some serious clout though and a proven history in their club. Venues will do this to get you to play their club (and not the many other options in their city). Because of your proven history, they feel confident that with the amount of promo that they will do, they will be able to get enough people out to your show to make it financially worthwhile for them.
IS IT FAIR: Absolutely. You earned this!
There's a fine line at what is acceptable, ethical, smart business and career advancing.
Look at it from the venue's standpoint: They are taking a risk every time they open their doors for a show. If no one shows up, then they do lose money (door guy, sound guy, bar tender, electricity, heat, AC, on and on). If they are strictly a music venue and don't open unless they have a show, then they really are losing money the moment they open the doors, until people (ideally drinkers) enter their club.
The biggest misconception bands have about venues is that the venue is supposed to promote their show and bring people to the club. Venues think bands should promote the show and bring people to the club. In the end, neither end up promoting the show and no one shows up.
The reason all the clubs in LA and NYC can create such horrible deals for the bands (and fantastic for the club) is because there are SO MANY bands willing to take these shitty deals. If one band refuses, then there are 10 more waiting in line (maybe not as good) that will take the deal. Venues in smaller cities tend to create better deals to lure in the good bands who will bring a crowd. They realize that if they offer shitty deals and enough bands pass on the deals, there will be no bands left to play their club and they'll go out of business.
The most important thing to understand is don't play a big venue if you can't fill it. Take shows at a smaller clubs and fill them. Open for bigger bands at bigger venues to build your crowd. Keep selling out the small clubs and eventually you'll be able to move up to the big clubs with enough clout to get a fair deal.
If you want to Get Specific with me about your project and situation, shoot me an email (via the Contact Ari button HERE) and we can setup a consulting session."
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Ari Herstand has played over 550 shows around the country and has been a full-time, DIY musician for over 5 years. He has opened for artists such as Ben Folds, Cake, Joshua Radin, Matt Nathanson and Ron Pope and his songs have been featured on TV shows like One Tree Hill and various Showtime, MTV and VH1 shows. His latest studio album debuted at #11 on iTunes singer/songwriter charts. He writes an independent music business advice blog, "Ari’s Take".
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