It’s inevitable that at some point in your career you will run across a pay-to-playWhen a venue requires a guarantee from you in order to play. For example, the venue may make you responsible for the sale of 50 tickets. If you don't sell all of the tickets, you are required to pay for the tickets anyways. situation, usually in the form of pre-sale tickets. That means you will be financially responsible for a certain amount of tickets, whether you sell them or not. For most of us musicians, we can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the situation is. Horror stories run rampant about bands that had to sell $1500 in pre-sale tickets, only to be treated horribly by the venue, and play to no new faces. This is not going to be one of those. Today I want to provide a plan of action that will help crush anyone who is trying to leech money out of musicians, while simultaneously making your gig experience better.
How It’s Done Wrong
Whenever I think of ridiculous pre-sale requirements, the first venue that pops into my head is The Cat Club on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, California. Not surprisingly, they have now shut down and been replaced by a restaurant that has no live music whatsoever. On any given night, they would require 60 pre-sale tickets, at $10/each, to be sold by each of the 3 or 4 bands. Now, to anyone who has dealt with pre-sale before, that may not sound very unusual. What made it so ludicrous was the fact that the venue was barely able to fit 60 people in it. The place was TINY! So, if there were even 2 bands playing, and they each had 60 people buy tickets and show up, the venue wouldn’t even be able to let them all in.
Imagine if you were a fan who just spent $10 on a ticket, drove in the never ending traffic of Los Angeles to get to The Cat Club, paid $10 for parking, and then were told you weren’t allowed in because the venue is full. How angry would you be? Now, switch back into musician mode. If you sold all your tickets, you would have packed the place to such an extent that there wouldn’t be any room for any new fans. You wouldn’t make any money since the Cat Club takes 100% of the door and bar sales. In short, you aren’t doing anything to further your music career. This is pay-to-playWhen a venue requires a guarantee from you in order to play. For example, the venue may make you responsible for the sale of 50 tickets. If you don't sell all of the tickets, you are required to pay for the tickets anyways. at its worst.
How It’s Done Right
The Cat Club is a prime example of a venue that has no interest in anything but money. It’s unfair, unethical, and just plain stupid. With that said, musicians need to understand that venues DO have to make money. If they can’t pay their rent and employees, then they’ll go out of business. That doesn’t mean that we have to choose if venues or musicians make money. There is a simple way to make it a beneficial relationship – We have to work together.
Step 1 – Building An Audience
The most important part of any gig is the audience. As musicians, we turn them into fans. As a venue, they turn them into customers. Either way, if there is no audience, we both fail.
Unless the venue is specifically music-only (Which is only the case for larger ones), they are using live music as a method to improve business. It provides a way to attract a larger customer base, as well as tap into any fans of the bands that play their stage. In order for it to be lucrative, the bands that play either need to bring in new customers, or encourage their current customers to spend more money.
Musicians are looking for somewhere where they can showcase their talents. When they are first starting, they will primarily be playing to their friends and family. In order to continue growing, they need to play a venue that has an audience there. This will provide a way for them to gain more exposure and build their fan base.
If the venue has no built in customer base that the band can play to, then they are depending entirely on the band to bring them. In this case, the venue needs to give the band a reason to want to play at their venue rather than one that can provide new fans. In short, the venue is paying to gain access to the band’s fan base. The venue should be giving money to the band in this situation.
If the venue does have a built in audience, then there is now incentive for the band to want to play there. In this case, the band needs to give the venue a reason to want to book them. That means the band either needs to bring fans, or they need make the customers want to stay longer and spend more money. If they can’t provide at least one of those, then there is no reason for the venue to book them.
If you speak to anyone who has booked bands, they’ll tell you that bands often lie about how many people they can actually pull to a gig. Realistically, the only way to guarantee they are telling the truth is to make them financially responsible for those numbers. That means pre-sale!
The trick to making this work is for the venue to be realistic about their expectations. If they only have 15 customers in the venue, then they shouldn’t expect the band to bring more than that. Or if they can only hold 60 people in their venue, they shouldn’t expect the band to fill to capacity.
Some of you might be asking, “How do I tell if the venue has its own audience?” It’s quite simple actually – Go there the night of someone else’s gig. It’s fairly easy to tell the difference between a friend of the band and a customer of the venue. And if you can’t tell easily, start talking to people. The worst that happens is you make a new friend that will come out and see your band.
Step 2 – The Lineup
I’ll never truly understand why building a logical lineup seems to escape most people. Creating a good lineup can be one of the best tools to ensure a good gig. A bad lineup can ruin the night for both the venue and band.
Just like with building an audience, the venue’s primary goal is to build a lineup that will draw people in and keep them there. If one act causes people to leave, it means a loss of business.
The most receptive audience you can find is one that already likes a band similar to yours. Playing with bands that have a similar style and audience will mean it’s easier to turn them into your own fans.
If you put an acoustic act in between two death metal bands, you’re asking for a bad night. It’s not impossible to find someone who likes both genres, and would like to see all three acts, but it’s highly unlikely. Just look at big shows. Metal bands open for other metal bands. Rock bands open for other Rock bands. Hip hop acts open for other hip hop acts. Every so often you’ll see some cross-genre lineup, but it’s fair to say that there was a lot of money spent and research done to make sure that they have a similar fan base. On a small scale, you don’t have the resources to make that happen.
By mixing and matching drastically different genres, you’re risking people walking out because they don’t care about the next act. That means less money being spent in the venue, and a smaller audience for each band. If you can get them in there and keep them all night, it’ll improve everyone’s night.
Another plus to booking acts that have a similar fan base is that fans will see it almost as a “Buy One, Get One Free” kind of deal. For the price of one ticket, they get to see two or more bands that they like.
Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to only book Technical-Blackened-Doom-Sludge-Metal for a good night. Just be reasonable. Having Metallica open for Lady Gaga is not an acceptable lineup.
Step 3– Promotion
It doesn’t matter if the gig is pay-to-playWhen a venue requires a guarantee from you in order to play. For example, the venue may make you responsible for the sale of 50 tickets. If you don't sell all of the tickets, you are required to pay for the tickets anyways. or not, promotion is not any single person’s job. Every party involved should be doing their best to get the word out.
The venue should be promoting themselves whether or not you are playing there. Your particular gig is just another event that they should be promoting. If they aren’t bringing their own audience, they have a broken business model.
There is absolutely no excuse for you to not promote one of your own gigs. You should be trying to pull as many people as you can to every gig. The more packed the place, the better your show will be.
Work with the venue to promote the show. Not every gig requires you to print physical flyers and pass them out on street corners. But if this one does, there’s a good chance the venue will know how to keep costs down and what corners are best. Plus, if you work with them, they can get other bands involved. That means costs will be minimal, and the work can be divvied up. Which brings me to another point – ALWAYS promote the entire lineup. As mentioned earlier, anyone who likes more than one act is more likely to show up.
One of the best ways to market anything is to make sure that people see it multiple times. More often than not, someone won’t come to your gig if they only hear about it one time. If they see your ad every day for a month, hear their friends talking about it, and drive by the venue marquee every day, there’s a good chance they will come. Working with the venue, as well as the other bands, will ensure that there is more exposure.
Simply put, stop arguing over who is responsible for promotion. Everyone is!
How We Can Make A Difference
The sad truth is that this one article won’t be able to change the mind of the entire music business. In order for a real difference to be made, we musicians will have to work together and show the venues that things need to change. Kicking and screaming will get us nowhere, though. We need to hit them where it hurts – in their pocketbooks. I’m very open to hearing suggestions as to how we can do just that (In fact, leave a comment if you have any suggestions), but in the meantime here is what I propose – Only do pay-to-playWhen a venue requires a guarantee from you in order to play. For example, the venue may make you responsible for the sale of 50 tickets. If you don't sell all of the tickets, you are required to pay for the tickets anyways. after asking yourself these questions:
- Are there any new fans?
- Are there any big names?
- Would you pay that much for the promotion?
Before you starting dishing out all your money, ask yourself, “Are there new fans for you play to?” If not, then don’t do it! If there are, then you need to compare what you are asked to bring versus what they offer. There should be AT LEAST one audience member that they bring for every one that you bring. There’s no reason for you to bring 60 people to a venue if they are only going to bring 2. Use those numbers to find a venue that will bring 60 of their own. Keep in mind, the other band’s fans don’t count as venue audience.
When we are talking big name headliners, the rules change. When the Foo Fighters play, the place is packed with ONLY their audience. Being able to open for them will expose you to so many new people that it would be ridiculous not to take the spot. Of course, that’s only if your music makes sense against Foo Fighters. As mentioned before, you need to make sure that fans of the band will like your music. Generally, if you are selling tickets to a show with a big headliner, you’ll run out extremely quickly. Why? Because your tickets are cheaper. Unless you are including Ticketmaster and venue fees and taxes in your sale price, you’ll always have cheaper tickets. That means all of your friends will want to buy them through you.
Every so often you’ll run across a gig that does such extensive promotion that it makes the money worth it. By being part of the gig, your name will be thrown around so much that you’re essentially just paying for promotion. In these situations, you have to decide whether you could use that same amount of money for promotion that is any better. If it’s as good as it gets, then there’s no harm.
I want to point out that I don’t just mean playing the Whiskey-a-go-go in Hollywood. Yes, they have a famous name. Yes, your bassist’s mom will be super excited that you are playing the same stage that Motley Crue used to frequent. But no one else gives a crap. Any band that is willing to fork out $1,000 in pre-sale tickets has played there. The prestige is only recognized by the people who are so disconnected from live music that they wouldn’t show up even if you put them on the guest list. Record label executives and A&R guys no longer sit in there every night scouting talent. They only show up when big names they represent are on the stage. So unless you’re opening for a big name, you might as well throw your money in the garbage.
If the answer to all of these questions is, “No,” then you really need to reconsider the gig. Don’t let the bookerThe person who schedules shows for a venue. They can be an employee of the venue, or someone who works independent of the venue. spoon feed you their sales pitch. If the gig is really such a great opportunity, it should be really easy to see how it’s beneficial for you.
As soon as we as musicians collectively stop giving the leeches our money, they’ll go out of business. Use what little money we do make to reward the people who are actually trying to work with us and help keep live music a thriving art. You have to remember, there is no limit to the amount of music one person can like. Music lovers are always itching to find new music to listen to. We aren’t competing with each other. We don’t need to compete with music venues. We don’t need to compete with booking agents or promoters. We need to work together.