Nirvana – Pay to Play

Hi there Songwallers! I’m new here but let me announce my presence by saying that I am by no means new to the local music scene. I have been playing in bands for almost 10 years now and I’ve been resident in Birmingham for about 4 of those good years.

I currently write and perform in a local band called ZERO WASTERS and in our time on the local and national gigging circuit we have encountered what us musicians like to call “pay to play” promoters more often than we would like. It’s worth pointing out at this point, that my own views on the matter do not necessarily express the views of other local musicians and I have indeed met several musicians who do regard “pay to play” performances as a good opportunity, however, I think that the vast majority of bands and artists in Birmingham will agree that the cons far outweigh the pros with these sorts of performances.

Now, allow me to explain, for some of you who may not already be aware, what “pay to play” means.

Deals do of course, vary but generally speaking, a “pay to play” opportunity is one where a promoter will approach bands or artists (often online) and offer them a performance slot. Sometimes going to great lengths to encourage an artist to take advantage of said opportunity. In our case, we were told that we would be performing at the prestigious o2 Academy as part of a showcase for record label executives, managers and in general, individuals who we would want to perform in front of but there would be an upfront cost to cover the cost of promotion and unsold tickets. Now at the time, I was skeptical, I mean unsold tickets? What exactly does a promoter do? if not promote the show and sell tickets? This may be a controversial point for some and I do intend to sit on the fence a little bit on this one as I firmly believe that yes, while a promoter should handle the main bulk of gig promotion, the show simply cannot be successful without the help of all of the acts performing on the night. Promoters who I have worked with before, have never put any pressure on us to draw in a crowd but it is always been the understanding that it is in everyone’s best interests to bring as many people to a gig as possible and this cannot be done by one person alone.

In short, yes, the bands on the bill should all contribute some time and effort into bringing people to the show, but should they also have to help cover the cost of performing and play for less than nothing? No. Absolutely not. I am in contact with at least two other promoters who could put us on a show at the o2 Academy at the drop of a hat and without costing us a penny.

So anyway, yeah, I was skeptical but I thought, well where’s the catch? this does sound like a promising opportunity for us. I discussed it further with the promoter but when they started talking about upfront ticket costs, I began to wonder if this was worth our time (and potentially money). Having played dozens of shows on the Birmingham circuit, I had never before been asked for money upfront to cover the cost of tickets or promotion and this came as a bit of a shock. None of this was helped by the fact, that prior to contacting me, I had no notion of who this promotion company was and I was unaware of most of the acts that they advertised on their pages, who I can only assume were bands, much like ourselves, just starting out and hitting the local scene.

So anyway, I did my research and after a quick scan of said promoters website and social profiles, I did notice that a band, who we have played with before had taken part in one of these events. So, my first port of call was to directly ask the band how their experience was. To my surprise, they seemed quite indifferent to the whole thing. They didn’t say anything about ending up out of pocket or hassled about ticket costs etc. and that if you can draw a bit of a crowd and you’re not bothered by the upfront cost then it might be worth doing. Mostly though, I got the impression this was just another gig for them, nothing terrible, nothing special. They certainly didn’t walk off stage to managers and record labels just waiting to snap them up. So at this point I’m thinking, okay well maybe we’ll give it a go but I wanted to be sure so I contacted some local promoters that I know and trust, just to see if they knew of this promoter and if they had any knowledge of their dealings with bands.

I was met with skepticism from my contacts and they urged me to just be aware of what sort of opportunity we were being offered as well as what the potential pitfalls might be. One of these promoters told me of a band who were very badly burned and left out of pocket by a similar promotion deal and advised me to avoid such deals. In the end, I trusted my instincts and decided it wasn’t worth the potential cost of such a gig when we could play the same venue with a promoter who won’t ask for any money up front, in fact, said promoter would actually pay us a fair amount, depending on how many tickets we sell.

I have since then, spent quite some time talking to other artists about their experiences performing for “pay to play” promoters and while some of them admit that they have taken part in some pretty big shows, (one band in particular had the opportunity of supporting Foals but ended up 700 pounds out of pocket.) the general consensus seems to be that “pay to play” gigs are simply not worth the time and money for a band on an unsigned level.

Nirvana – Pay To Play

Niall Creane,
Guitarist and Songwriter for ZERO WASTERS,
(Bmus) Popular Music Performance Student, and all round opinionated, music nerd.
If you want to know more about ZERO WASTERS then you can check us out on facebook

If you want to know more about pay to play, there is a number of useful videos, blogs and articles online which you might find interesting and informative.

DIY Musician Podcast.
BBC article on Pay to Play gigs.
The Musician’s Union website.
Music Think Tank article.

Pay To Play

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