Written by Richard Hassebrock and Jeffrey Hudson
The entertainment used by various venues such as bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, to draw in customers and keep them entertained while they partake of the venues drinks and food services, takes many forms, from televisions to jukeboxes, and from karaoke machines to live performers. These gigs are often a source of “bread and butter” type of income for many musicians, helping them to make ends meet and pay the bills. Musicians make different types of arrangements for compensation for their services with venue operators and event promoters. These arrangements vary widely by the venue and by the event. Often the agreement is simple, the performers receive a flat fee for their service; though often there is also a bar/food tab of some amount that is included. This tends to be the most common form of compensation agreement, though as we noted above, this can really vary widely, from no payment at all too luxurious accommodations, depending on the type of venue or event, and the experience and/or popularity of the artist. Sometimes young bands are so starved for some stage time they'll play for free, just to get the opportunity to get some exposure, or for a chance to play on a big stage in a big venue or concert house. Some venue operators and some event promoters, knowing this is the case, take advantage of the situation to increase their income by not paying the musicians for their service. There is another type of compensation agreement, known on the streets as “Pay to Play”. In this type of arrangement, the musicians are actually expected to purchase tickets from the venue in order to get a gig. What they do with those tickets is up to them, they can sell them at a price above cost to make some money for playing the event, or they can sell them for cost just to get their money back, and play the event for free, or they can give the tickets away to friends and fans. It's all up to the musicians.
Recently we were exposed to a subtle twist on this scheme, where the band is promised a flat fee to play, but only if they sell a minimum amount of tickets. If that minimum amount of tickets are not sold, then there is zero compensation, i.e. the band plays for free. The interesting part of this arrangement is that the band only receives half of the money raised. As an example, here is how it works: The band must sell 51 tickets to the show. The tickets are priced at $10 each. If 51 tickets are sold, the band will be paid $250. If less than 51 tickets are sold, the band receives no compensation. If more than 51 tickets are sold the band receives no increase in compensation until 101 tickets are sold. At that point, the band will be paid $500.
Is this arrangement good for the musician, or maybe a more important question is, is it good for the health of the entertainment business?
I suppose each band/artist has to make this decision for themselves, and perhaps there can be situations in which this is advantageous for them, but this is a decision worthy of ample consideration, not something that should be decided frivolously. You might think that it's worth the exposure, or the experience on the stage of a certain venue, to play this type of gig; but beware that once the promoter knows he can get you to work for nothing (or for less than half of the money you generated in ticket sales), he's not likely to start paying you for your services. Many a band has played gigs for free based on a hope of future gigs where they will be paid, and most of them have been sorely disappointed.
To take this further, your agreement to this arrangement affects the other bands/musicians in your area. Those musicians that are relying on paid gigs to make ends meet are now in competition with musicians that will play for free, that makes things difficult. There is an old saying from an 18th-century poem that goes “No man is an island”. The meaning is that what each one of us does affects everyone else in our society. So you're taking that gig for free ends up putting down pressure on compensation payments for all other musicians in your community. When you agree to that deal, you empower that promoter, and you help to promote the practice of Pay to Play in your community. In our opinion, Pay to Play has a caustic, corrosive effect on the live music business. It's bad enough being in competition with big screen TV's and karaoke, now we have to compete with No Pay gigs. Musician pay has remained flat for about 30 years, gigs today pay roughly the same as they did in the 80's. Musicians trying to make a living have a hard enough time as it is, the last thing they need to be added into the equation is Pay to Play. With this in mind, it is our recommendation to our fellow musicians, especially the blues musicians of Southern California, in particular, those here in Orange County, is to just say NO to Pay to Play. Don't encourage this practice among the venues here, don't empower these promoters who have only their own self-interests at heart, and care nothing for the performers. Don't let the allure of a venue with a big name entice you to give your art away for free, or for substantially less than what you are worth, and in the process damage the earning potential of your fellow musicians.