by Sue Basko
Pay-to-Play is the boogeyman of music. Run, don't let the boogeyman catch you!
The goal of the Boogeyman is to get you to pay to play at your own show. There are many such schemes. My opinion is that all such schemes are illegal because they violate employment laws and/or laws about talent agencies or employment of performers. Even if these schemes are not illegal, they are degrading and annoying. But I think they are illegal and can make a really good argument for that position.
Basically, it goes like this: Any time you, as a musician, have agreed to pay a show for money, the agreement should be this: You will play for a certain number of hours in exchange for a set amount of pay. If being paid or the amount you will be paid is contingent upon anything other than you showing up and playing music, it is most likely some form of pay to play.
For example, if you are required to sell tickets, it is pay-to-play. If you are required to buy tickets, it is pay-to-play. If you are required to put money upfront, it is pay-to-play. If the amount of your pay depends on how many tickets you sell or how many people you bring in the door, it is pay-to-play. If your pay depends on how many drinks are sold, it is pay-to-play.
Do you get it? Anything other than what a licensed talent agent would be allowed to agree to under a State's employment law is pay-to-play. Just because you do not yet have an agent to oversee the situation and make sure laws and just practices are being followed, does not mean they get to be broken.
How To Spot the Boogeyman
Just like a serial killer, the Pay-to-Play Boogeyman is often good-looking. And he probably even drives a cargo van, too. The Pay-to-Play Boogeyman can have a nice website and almost always says very nice, flattering things.
The Pay-to-Play Boogeyman will send sweet little notes to your message accounts on Youtube, myspace, Facebook, and other music social networking sites. These are form messages, and the Boogeyman just pops in your name and sometimes the name of one of your songs. Here is a typical message sent from the Boogeyman:
Hi James and all of the Gang,
I came across your music and am so impressed. Your song, "Walk Away," had me tapping my toes and humming along. I work for one of the nation's best show producers and we are on the lookout for a few excellent new acts. Your music stands out above the crowd. I would like to invite you to call me today at xxx-xxx-xxxx, so I can tell you all about what we have to offer.
GroundSwell Shows produces shows in over 35 cities across the U.S. Our artists are showcased with excellent sound and lighting equipment, full support, promotion, and are paid well. Right now, we have just two positions to fill -- and when those are gone, it may be some time until we have an opening. Please call today.
-- Back Asswards
Anatomy of a Boogeyman Message
Look at the message above. What does it contain?
1) A greeting that makes it sound like it is personally to you.
2) It names one song that is on your music player on the site.
3) It gives flattery that could apply to anyone.
4) It tries to impress you with the company's credentials.
5) It tells you to call today.
6) It tries to make it sound as if this is an opportunity you must act fast on, or it will go away. There are only two spots open -- not a never-ending supply of 20-minute time slots in crappy shows designed for suburban suckers and the urban unknowing. No sir-ee, this is a gen-u-ine opportunity.
Boogeyman Shows, from Trailer Trash to the Ritz
The Pay-to-Play Boogeyman runs all kinds of shows, from low-level outright trash shows meant to lure know-nothings all the way up to fancy schmancy opportunities to open for a major big name act. How you can tell when you are upon one:
At the low end of the spectrum are shows that look like this: There is a company behind it. The company calls itself a "producer." In most cases, this is actually a person or company illegally acting as a talent agent while unlicensed and without following basic laws -- such as laws of paying people for their work.
The Boogeyman often makes acts "audition" for shows, which often means paying a hefty fee and sending links to online music and photos. If you pay the fee, you pass the audition. If you question the fee, you are told that serious people invest in their future. Sometimes "auditioning" means playing a show for free. Sometimes it even means playing a show for free and selling at least 10 tickets. What is being auditioned is your capacity to allow yourself to be treated like a fool while believing you are a rock star.
Once you have walked down into the Boogeyman basement, it is hard to turn back and run up the stairs. All your senses may be telling you to run right out of there. Yet, you are lured by the words: Special talent. Record labels come to our shows all the time. Interscope signed one of our acts last week-- that is why we have an opening for you.
These low-level pay-to-play shows are booked into bars or clubs that sometimes have a good high profile otherwise. One tell-tale sign is that the show will have 4 to 6 bands on the roster. Other tell-tale signs are some sort of ticket-selling scheme that involves the performers selling tickets. Or your pay level will depend on how many tickets you sell. People buying tickets are required to tell which act they are coming to see.
In a legit show, you will be told how much you will be paid, and you will be given a contract saying so. This won't happen with the Boogeyman. Or you will be given an obscure contract that names a formula rather than a dollar amount. The Boogeyman often won't even tell you what time your act will play. He often won't give you time for a sound check, because the Boogeyman does not care what your music sounds like.
High Level Pay-to-Play
High-level pay-to-play happens when an act pays to be the opener or support band for a much more famous act. Often, a touring act on a budget will make it known that it will choose its opening acts from among local bands that offer to play for free. That is not pay-to-play. That is helping each other out. Pay-to-pay is when your manager talks to their manager and offers to help cover tour expenses by paying $2000 if they let you play for a half hour.
My thought is that if you need to do this, there is something wrong with some or all of these: your music, your stage presentation, your management, or your promotion.
Should You Dance with the Boogeyman?
Should you do pay-to-play shows? Probably not, if you ever want to be taken seriously. Pay-to-play shows are degrading, assault your dignity, are not very much fun for your audience, put you into a position where your music does not sound its best, and often cost you more in transportation and losing time off work than they do in pay.
Instead of playing such shows, I suggest the following to get you in front of an audience, with your dignity intact:
Play open mic nights.
Play at open mic afternoons at cafes or restaurants.
Offer to play free at church or for teen groups.
Offer to play for free at a nursing home.
Call bookers at bars and clubs and try to get booked.
Make simple flip-cam videos of you performing and put them on Youtube. Use these to show you can perform live.
Street perform, or busk. See my blog posts about this.
Get booked to play at your local block party, street fair, or church or municipal festival.
Produce your own shows.