In music pay-to-play is the practice of having to pay money to perform somewhere. This is not the same as renting a venue and organizing a show yourself. With pay-to-play you are paying for the ‘privilege’ of playing at someone’s establishment, typically a pub, club or bar.
Selling tickets on behalf of the promoter is another form of pay-to-play. It doesn’t matter if you have to purchase the tickets yourself first, or if you are expected to give the promoter the proceeds from the tickets you have sold, it is still pay-to-play – you do the work and the promoter gets the money.
Of course, if you are performing somewhere it is in your own best interest to promote the event and get as many people as possible to come, but as a musician your primary responsibility is to put on a good show.
One of the main arguments for pay-to-play is that it offers musicians a chance to get valuable playing experience. This is true, but it’s not necessary to pay to get this experience. Playing to family and friends, organizing your own mini concert, doing a charity show, entering competitions, taking part in talent shows, or even busking are all ways to gain experience without it necessarily costing a penny.
Another argument for pay-to-play is that it offers you and your band ‘exposure’. Well, yes, but again you don’t have to pay for this kind of exposure. Do gigs where you don’t have to pay to play and you are still getting exposure.
While researching this article I read someone making the point that if you pay to play you can use this as an opportunity to sell your CDs, or advertise your website where fans can buy downloads. This is true, but yet again this is something you can also do at non-pay-to-play functions as well, so why pay to do it?
There are a countless number of reasons a promoter might use to justify his or her pay-to-play event to you, but they all boil down to you parting with your money.
Still not convinced that pay-to-play is bad? Ask yourself what you are getting at the pay-to-play venue. The chances are it will be nothing more than a bit of floor space. Even if you are getting a physical stage to perform on, along with a sound system, a mixing engineer and a lighting technician, it’s still a dubious endeavour. Why pay for this when someone should be paying you? Rent your own venue, promote your own show, and make money. It’s not that difficult.
One thing that I try to get across in my book Breaking into the Music Business is that as a musician you are in fact a small business, something I’m sure many musicians, particularly young musicians, don’t realise. Pay-to-play makes no business sense.
But can pay-to-play ever be justified? A large piano school in the town where I live charged its students £45 to play for up to four minutes in a concert. This may seem ludicrous, but for the money the students got to play on a beautifully maintained Steinway concert grand, in a real concert hall with a stage, lighting and excellent acoustics. Even taking this into consideration the £45 might still sound expensive, but with the rent of the piano and hall, plus the heating fee (heating a large hall is not cheap) and administration costs, I would guess that not much profit would have been made. The small audience – mostly family and friends of the people performing – had to pay a nominal fee (about £2.50). I was in the audience thinking about all this while listening to a truly awful rendition of Moon River. However, I realised that for those who might have a dream to play an instrument in concert in front of an audience, but lacked either the ability or desire to become a professional musician, this was an ideal opportunity for them. They could live their dream and enjoy the experience for a relatively small monetary outlay. However, although this is technically pay-to-play, there is a difference: for the performers in this scenario music was simply their hobby. They were paying to fulfil a dream.
As an amateur with no aspirations of becoming a professional musician, it could be argued that pay-to-play is acceptable. I make no judgement on this, but as an aspiring professional, or semi-professional, pay-to-play is definitely not the way to go.
You haven’t spent time developing your musical skills and getting to a level high enough to perform for a fee only to have to pay to appear in a concert or show. It makes no sense. Look at it this way: you wouldn’t expect a mechanic to pay you to fix your car, or a hair salon to pay you for the privilege of cutting your hair. Similarly, you shouldn’t expect to pay to perform somewhere. Playing for free is different, but paying for the privilege of playing is demeaning. If you take yourself seriously as a musician don’t pay to play!