Scams are everywhere you look. Banks ripping off people. Politicians lying through their teeth. Everyone is out to make a buck on the naivety of others. We are all unsuspecting of scams until we realize what is really going on and then we feel like suckers. Well, in music scenes across the country and around the world, there is a strong sentiment amongst bands that they are being suckered by the “pay for play” promotions being run by groups and venues. The strategy is simple: blast inviting messages to bands about playing a particular venue for prize money at a “Battle of the Bands” or some other catch phrase. Bands that are starting out often feel a slight euphoria and excitement because a promotional group found them and wants to put them on a ticket. But once the good feeling of being “found” fades, the reality sets in of the true purpose of the spontaneous booking: they have to sell as many tickets as they can. Some musicians feel this practice is a scam. But is it really? At the end of the day, they push the tickets on family and friends that genuinely come to support the band. They ultimately experience a crowd and interact with other musicians, but what do they truly gain? Well, it all boils down to one’s perspective.

Jeff Totten of On-Stage Management and the founder of Project Independent asserts that what bands refer to as “pay for play” is actually a safeguard for venues to ensure bands bring in people to their establishment. Totten says, “MOST bands think that it’s everybody else’s job to promote them, most do very little to self-promote and bring out heads. So, the venue/promoter (whoever is picking up the tab) require the bands to GUARANTEE that a set number of people will show up on their behalf.” In a perfect world, bands would play at a venue that already has people in there hanging out and they could magically get exposure. However, in the real world, venues bank on musicians drawing people/fans in, which helps generate more business (for everyone). Most rely on this basic model, even though musicians often feel cornered into selling tickets and essentially “paying to play at a venue.” So-called “Pre-Sale tickets” are part of the self promotion process. Totten goes on to say, “[This is] a common practice that MOST bands refer to as PAY-TO-PLAY… however this is far from the truth. In truth if a band sells the required number of tickets, then the band pays nothing at all, and in some cases can make money as well.”

But not all feel this “common practice” actually helps bands. The argument would be simple if these types of promotions actually benefited the bands all around. Perhaps there are some prize monies won or an obscure sponsorship that is picked up along the way, but for the vast majority of participants, there truly is NOTHING in it for them except to say they played at a particular venue. And really, venues and promotion groups seldom care anything about certain bands unless they bring in a number of people, regardless of their collective talent or anything music related. It’s purely business and that’a all. Rob Hamrick of Entrust Music, started the agency to promote bands and “give the power and the freedom back to the artists.” Hamrick believes music scenes are doomed because of corruption, and musicians need to take a stand against practices that are counter-productive to invigorating promotions of independent musicians.

Hamrick started Entrust Music because of bad experiences with venues requiring “pay to play” and the corruption he witnessed with various promotion groups. Here is an excerpt from an open letter in which he speaks of how he felt after a gig that featured terrible bands praised for their ticket sales and not their music: “The following month I didn’t DARE even look for another gig. I was that disgusted with this short burst into the Baltimore music scene. We tried one more P2P out a couple months later just to get out for a show in Lancaster, PA at a venue called The Chameleon Club. That was actually a decent show…the venue is great, they had relevant AND good bands there, the crowd was great, however THEY DID NOT PAY US ONE DIME OF ANY TICKET SALES!! The excuse was, “You weren’t the headliner and you only sold 22 tickets for the show. We don’t pay the bands who don’t headline.”

Some say venues need to be cutthroat because their business depends on musicians bringing in and keeping people in their establishments. And since there are many “terrible” bands, and “lazy” musicians who don’t promote themselves, one truly cannot always blame venues for being so demanding. But in fairness, venues and promotion groups also need to do more to create a better music scene. It is nullifying on the part of venues to say their business depends on a healthy music scene, but then act like it isn’t their place to foster one. If a music scene is suffering because businesses don’t take bands seriously, yet simultaneously places blame on them for poor head counts, then it is no wonder everyone is at a loss. True: bands need to step up and promote themselves more, but also venues need to be fairer with paying bands and letting more get a share of the action. Only booking high drawing musicians is great for business, but also give the up and coming bands a shot as well. The “pay for play” mentality may seem like a foolproof plan for some, but it is a formula that hasn’t worked and will not work in the long run if all parties involved are not fair with each other. It appears “pay for play” is here to stay. But whether or not it will be a working formula for all parties is still the subject of great debate. There are pros and cons and each individual musician has to decide if the rules are in place to favor them or the promoter/venue. When you weigh out the differences, then making your decision should be easy.


>>>  For more on Rob Hamrick’s story, check out what he posted on Facebook.  <<<

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