Pay to Play?
So I was at a record store recently and a girl came up to me and asked me if I wanted to buy a ticket to see her band at the Knitting Factory (Hollywood) for $15. I politely declined and she continued asking people around the store. She was freaking out because they needed to sell 70 tickets or they were going to get “blacklisted” from the club.
Depending on where you’re from, you may or may not encounter these pay-to-play scenarios. It’s pretty common here in L.A. at certain venues. The promoter basically requires a guarantee from the bands that they will make a certain amount of money. The promoter gives the band a number of tickets to sell and is usually held accountable to pay off most or all of the face value of the tickets that they’re required to sell.
Personally I don’t have any moral objection to this arrangement. The club is in business to make money and the promoter has to pay the club and make a profit on top of that. That’s business. If you don’t like business then that’s fine – play in your garage and don’t ask anyone to buy anything from your band. The reality is that your band is a business too. The difference is that the club probably is a little more in touch with the fact that they are in business and a little better at it than most bands are. This is why you have bands who are willing to commit to selling 70(!) tickets to play at the Knitting Factory – even though they can’t sell 70 tickets.
So the question is…what is it worth to play the Knitting Factory, the Whisky or the Viper Room? That all depends. If it’s your life’s dream to play the Whisky then maybe selling 50 tickets is a good deal for you. If you’re committing to selling the tickets because you think someone might be there from Interscope Records and sign you to a recording contract then you are WRONG.
When you are ready to be signed then you won’t have to sell tickets. The promoter will already know who you are, or at the least, you will be able to prove to them that you draw a lot more than 50 people.
The problem is that a lot of bands put way too much importance on the “prestige” of certain venues. If you’re promoting the show as if the venue itself is the star of the show then you’ve got the wrong idea. Your band IS the show. The show is wherever your band chooses to play. You bring the party. You don’t pay to play because you don’t need to.
What I suggest is that you play the venues where you will draw the highest percent of capacity. If you draw 80 people, then find a venue in your hood that holds 50. Don’t play the Roxy where the room is going to look practically empty. Play to as full of a room as you can. The energy will be MUCH better. The perception will be MUCH better. Imagine these two scenarios:
a) You commit to selling 70 tickets to a venue on the Sunset Strip that holds 500. You’re having a hard time selling the tickets and you resort to begging so you don’t have to fork over the money out of your own pocket. You end up playing with 5 other bands and the show runs behind. You go on late and have to cut your set short. Your show is decent, but the room is at less than 20% of capacity. Your fans mostly enjoy the show, but not too many of them would want to do it again anytime soon after having paid $15 for the ticket, $15 to park, and $5.50 per Bud Light.
b) You play Joe Shmoe’s down the street. It costs $5 to get in, parking is free, bud lights are $3 and it’s close to a large chunk of your fan base. The owner of the place lets you put on your own show, so you recruit two other great bands that you vibe with really well and everyone gets to play their full set. The place is packed so the energy is electric. As a result, the performance is great. People get turned away at the door because there isn’t room for them. Everyone inside has a great time and tells all their friends – especially the ones who got there too late and got turned away. Everyone is looking forward to the next show. (oh yeah – and you actually got paid too!)
Same band, same number of fans. Which band do you think has the right idea? What is the difference in people’s perception of the band after each scenario?
This is HUGE. If you bring all of your fans to come see you at a venue that’s too big and too expensive for you to play at then you’re setting yourself up for failure. As soon as people perceive that you’re failing in any way then you’re basically screwed. Things will go downhill very fast. People will not spend time and money to come see your band unless they are CONVINCED that you will rock and that your shows are the place to be. Nobody said it would be easy. That’s why there are thousands and thousands and thousands of bands out there and you probably only spend time and money on a handful of them.
So when you’ve firmly established your rep in your neighborhood and everyone knows that they need to get to your shows early and that they are going to rock – then kick it up a notch at a slightly larger venue. Always be bigger than the venue. YOU are the show – not the venue. YOU bring people. YOU have the power. You don’t have to be over-the-top about this and you certainly shouldn’t be arrogant and unprofessional – just know it in your heart and negotiate and make your decisions with that frame in mind.
Pay to play? Not your band. Your band knows what’s important and knows how to leverage it’s power. Your band IS the show. Your band isn’t cool because of the venue you play at – the venue is cool because your band is playing there.