Never Ever Pay to Play a Show, You Fool

This is a wad of money. You should be given this in exchange for playing a show, not the other way around. - Flickr / 401(K) 2012
Flickr / 401(K) 2012
This is a wad of money. You should be given this in exchange for playing a show, not the other way around.

“Hey, my name is _______ and I work for _______ Productions. I was checking out your band and I gotta say, I really like your stuff. I’m putting together a showcase of local bands and I think you have just what it takes. It will be great exposure for you and may lead to bigger and better shows in the future. Message me back if you’re interested.”

If you are a musician and you receive a message like this, you have a few options: Ignore the message completely, tell the promoter to kindly fuck off, or agree to their over-hyped showcase/battle of the bands/opening slot, end up doing all the promotion yourself and most likely end up a couple hundred dollars in the hole. A word of advice on that last option: DON’T FUCKING DO IT. Seriously, it is not worth it. You’re not going to see any money, your band isn’t going to be ushered through to bigger and better shows, and you’re sure as fuck not going to gain any exposure. Any money you might see will be a slight fraction of what the work you will inevitably put into the show is worth, but even that is rare. Do not believe a word scummy promoters like this tell you.

I say this not as some bitter local musician. I don’t have an agenda to propagate and I don’t have anything to gain from shaming these people. I say this as a former teenager who has been through this ringer multiple times. I’ve seen this before and I’m here to tell you what you probably don’t want to hear, which is that you are getting fucked.

I remember it clearly. I was in high school, an overly-optimistic seventeen-year-old with a Bieber swoop, and I was ready to hit it big. I thought for sure my band was going to be the next local sensation. After our first show we got a message asking if we wanted to enter into the coveted Battle for Pointfest. Hell fuckin’ yeah brother! We jumped on this immediately, thinking, “We’re going to win this.” Also the show was at Pop’s and that would have been the biggest venue any of us had ever played. We replied enthusiastically and then got the inevitable “I’m going to need you to sell $300 worth of tickets. If you do not sell your tickets you will not be allowed to play,” from the promoter. “Piece of cake," we thought. That’s thirty tickets at ten bucks a pop. We have that many friends, right? Goddamn were we stoked. This was going to be big. This would be career-defining.

As you might have guessed, we could not sell all the tickets. We could barely give them away. Hell, most of our friends weren’t even allowed to go to Pop’s yet! “Oh well,” we thought. “We’ll just go put on an awesome show and have fun. We can just pay for the rest of the tickets ourselves, no big deal.”


We arrived at the show to find out that the lineup is based off of ticket sales and the band that sold the most would headline. We also come to find out that the headlining band, Killer Me, Killer You, had already won a previous “battle” and was now ushered onto the second round or whatever. Their name was already on the top of the flyer. We played our set and it was fun, but that’s not the point of this article. The point is that we were completely taken for a ride and remained totally ignorant to that fact until much later.

If you don’t know or haven’t caught on yet, pay-to-play has pretty much become a standard practice around St. Louis. The way it works is a promoter contacts a local band, often without even listening to them, and tells them that they will make all their musical dreams come true. The catch, of course, being that the band has to promote the show themselves and sell a minimum amount of tickets, under the implication that if they do not meet the minimum, they will not be allowed to play. This minimum is typically around $300, which is WAY more than most new local bands should ever expect to even get paid in these circuits. That money goes straight to the promoter’s pocket. It is important to be mindful of this, as it is an easy way to extort naive teenagers while doing little to no work. (One big-name local promoter didn’t even bother to show up to the shows we played for him. He literally had us drop the money off on his porch the next day).

This is not to say all promoters asking you to sell tickets have bad intentions. In fact, many do not! It is totally understandable to have to sell tickets to meet a minimum if, for instance, you are the only local opener on a national bill. That show is going to have a way higher minimum for the touring acts and chances are any money you bring in will be helping the venue cover its ass. However, if the show is made up of mostly brand new, very young local acts and marketed as a “Spotlight” or a “Showcase,” then that is something to be wary of. Many promoters in town do solid work and seem like they genuinely care about the bands they book. Many others do not. 

This is meant to be less of a call to action and more as a heads up for any younger bands who might be reading this. It’s a shame that a huge chunk of local musicians have fallen prey to shady promoters with shitty ethics. No band has ever gotten big or made a name for themselves because of these promoters. From my own experience I can tell you the only way you will actually build a following and really get people to notice you is to just do it yourself. Book your own shows, contact anyone you can. Small clubs, art galleries, basements — it doesn’t matter where you play as long as you play. Play as much as you can, work to perfect your craft, diversify your audience, sell merch, charge a door price if you have to — and never sell your own tickets if you can avoid it. If you do your own thing and give it your all, people will notice.

This article originally appeared on Biased STL's website. RFT Music enthusiastically agrees with the author's assessment.

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