On Pay to Play

If you talk to the people who were going to gigs in London in the ’60s and ’70s, or even playing such gigs, it sounds idyllic compared to what happens today. I’ve been told plenty of stories of music venues drawing large crowds of young people looking for a good night out and hoping to catch some hot new band. And supposedly the musicians even got paid for their trouble. I don’t know how reliable my sources are on the matter, and I’m sure a couple of them have less than perfect recall of events back then, but I can believe that, on the whole, this picture is not a million miles from the truth.

The scene in London today is markedly different. Music venues are no longer a rare and exciting feature of the city: Camden alone contains an untold number of glorified toilets that put on live music a few nights a week. But they struggle to draw a crowd, most nights, because there is no hot new band playing. Just some other band who’ve cajoled all their friends into coming down to see them play, but actually most of their friends saw them play at a nicer place last month so they’ll give this one a miss, but maybe next time. And the musicians will be doing well if they even get a free drink out of the system.

Having been the launchpad for bands such as The Who, The Kinks, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones – to name but a tiny few – London has long had a well-established music scene. Millions of young people migrate to England’s capital with the hope of “being discovered,” or at the very least, “establishing their career.” I admit it: I was one of them. Sort of. I have certainly played plenty of gigs of the type I described above. Yeah, the ones in the second paragraph.

From the more cynical viewpoint at which I now stand, I’ve been had. We all have. We all emerged from soundproofed rehearsal rooms and thought, so many live music venues to choose from, where should we stage a gig? Well, actually it looks like most of these places have all their live music nights handled by a promoter. Well, he’s already got two other bands booked that night, hopefully some of their fans might like us too, we can build up a fanbase.

When you’re that new to the game, you don’t take much notice of certain phrases in the instructions they send you.
“YOU MUST BE CONFIDENT OF BEING ABLE TO BRING A CROWD OF AT LEAST 15 PEOPLE”
“ENTRY £5 PER PERSON. (The band will receive £1 per person coming to see them after the first 20)”
It seems obvious now. It probably seems obvious to anyone who isn’t so excited about simply having somewhere for their band to play. But if it isn’t obvious: you are being ripped off. Or rather, your friends are.

With the benefit of hindsight (oh, glorious hindsight), I wish I had been quicker off the mark when a promoter called me to ask how many people I would be bringing to see my band. Because rather than spluttering about “erm…well, I’ve maybe got…erm…10…?” the sensible response would have been, “well, how many people will you be bringing?”

You’re the promoter. Unless I’ve been completely mistaken about its etymology, the word promoter surely means “somebody who promotes.” So what have you done to promote this gig? Are you, in fact, just leaving the work to the bands, in the hope that their friends will come along, stump up the entry fee and pay your wages for the evening? Granted, we’ve all got to make a living, but if you’re depending on the bands’ friends for that income then you clearly like to play a risky game.

Of course, if you don’t like to have the risk as the night approaches, why not guarantee that you’ll receive the money upfront? Band want to play at your night? Simple: tell ’em they’ve got to buy a book of tickets from you, then it’s up to them to sell them. The bands are out of pocket from the get-go, and the promoter is quids in. Then it’s the musicians’ problem if the venue if half-empty on the night. Suddenly they’re doing well if they break even, let alone if they make a penny from it.

Systems like this are often lumped under the umbrella term of “pay-to-play.” It doesn’t take a genius to see that it’s an easy way for promoters to take advantage of bands. As long as they can keep control of a few nights at a couple of music venues, there will be a stream of bands looking for somewhere to play, and ripe for being ripped off. And once a band gets wise to this system and stops booking gigs with them, there will be plenty more fresh-faced and naive bands queuing up for a chance to play.

This cynical practice hopefully cannot last forever. There are even some signs that the wheels may be making their way off the axles of this particular cart. A number of venues in Los Angeles have apparently closed down after years of “pay-to-play” policy, LA being another classic case of too-many-hopeful-bands-and-not-enough-gigs-to-go-round. The Musicians’ Union has been advocating fair pay for musicians with its “Work Not Play” campaign.

What the Musicians’ Union hasn’t yet advocated, of course, is a general strike. Not that I’m about to try and rouse one myself – I merely want to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment here – but could you make it work? There are no clearly defined workplaces, no factories or office blocks you could picket, so how do musicians strike?

As I see it, the closest approximation would be an agreed boycott: musicians refuse to play in any venue which operates any of the policies described above, and only play in places where they are guaranteed some income, for a couple of weeks. Would it work? Would the venues and promoters lose money over a couple of weeks, and wonder why no one came to their now quiet rooms? Or would there be too many naive and more inexperienced bands ready to take these gigs, oblivious to the abstract picket line around the venues? Hard to tell, but worth thinking about.

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