A Life In Music # 2 by Lord Zion of SPiT LiKE THiS Print E-mail
Written by Lord Zion   
Monday, 14 September 2009 16:30


If there is one thing about this business that REALLY pisses me off, it is the whole notion of Pay To Play. It is a trend that comes and goes and, every time it appears, it seems to be disguised slightly differently but, essentially, it boils down to the same thing: for your band to appear at this gig / tour / festival, you have to outlay some cash before you can play a note.


I realise a lot of people that read this blog aren't in bands and have no experience of this, so allow me to elaborate.


My first encounter of Pay To Play was in the mid-late '90's. It was a term I had heard bandied around but, being a bit green and new to the rock n' roll world, I had no fucking clue what people were going on about. I'd done some gigs in decent venues and, although I'd never got paid, I'd never been asked to fork out any cash.


zion1Then I showed up at a famous old pub venue in Fulham, London, excited at playing in the big city again. As was (and, sadly, still is) quite typical, I could see that promotion extended as far as my band's name (misspelled) in chalk on a board outside but, no matter, I was here to ROCK. Except, apparantly, I wasn't, unless I was prepared to cough up £50. You see, before we had even started unloading the bus, the venue owner appeared and informed us that, to step inside his venue - which was a total shit hole, I might add - we would have to pay him £50 to "cover expenses".


And this phrase, "cover expenses" is something that we still hear today. Now, correct me if I am wrong but, if someone runs a business, they should consider their expenses when they sort out their business plan. I mean, if you run a venue, there are certain expenses that you should pretty much know about: staff costs, electricity, gas, food, drink, PRS license, engineer hire are just a few I can think of from the top of my head. If you are running your business with any sense of nous, there should be no unpleasant costs that suddenly occur because a band has shown up to actually play. I run a business myself and charge people a fixed amount for a product they buy from me. I would be out of business pretty soon if I charged £10 for a T-shirt then contacted the customer to ask for another fiver to "cover expenses" that hadn't occurred to me.


It isn't just venues that have this attitude, promoters are just as bad, if not worse. Now, don't zionhrhget me wrong, there are some AMAZING promoters - and venues - out there. Alas, they are far and few between. The most common trick that promoters employ to cover their expenses is to ask bands to buy tickets to sell. Of course, they disguise this by presenting it as a money making opportunity to the band: "Hey, if you buy 50 tickets at £2 each and sell them to your fans for £4 each, you make £100 profit!". Put like that, it sounds like a good deal but, just look at it from the bands' perspective:


To be in a band is expensive. Damn expensive. Without bitching and whining about bands whose parents buy all their gear, before actually stepping on stage for the first time, most bands will have spent money on instruments, lessons to learn to play the pesky things, amplification and rehearsal time. Already, several thousands of pounds in the red. If you're a slightly more ambitious band (like SPiT LiKE THiS!!), then you will have also spent money on stage props, stage clothes and some kind of dedicated vehicle to get you to and from each gig. That takes those several thousands of pounds and doubles it. So, from what I can see, the band has already done their bit. Now it is time for the "promoter" to do their part of the deal, no?


Apparently, the fact that the clue is in the job title is not enough for most "promoters". They want the bands to do their job for them. They don't want the risk and they don't care if you take the risk on their behalf. OK, everyone is trying to make a living but, not at my expense! We can work together as a team, but I ain't doing the donkey work for you!! The most idiotic of these promoters are those that try and send the band tickets to sell for a gig that is hundreds of miles away. In the early days, each gig is a hustle so, when you get a promoter or venue say Yes, that's a good thing. "Sure, we'd love to come and play at your venue", "Great! It's a 400 mile round trip so, with diesel and hotel costs, it'll cost us about £150, what is the fee?", "Well, how about we send you down a book of 100 tickets for £2 each that you can sell for £4 each - you can walk away with a profit!".


The thing is, if we don't do this (and we never have), there will be hundreds of other bands keen enough / naiive enough that will do it. And don't think it stops at the small pub / club / idiot promoter level, because it doesn't. A few years ago, we applied to play at Guilfest. We were still unsigned so, imagine our delight when we got a call back saying that we had been approved. "So, I can put this on our website?", "Sure!", and up it went. Details were to follow.


And, boy, did we show off about that. We were the big fucking Kahuna Burgers on the scene now. Yeah, take this MoFo's, we're playing Guilfest.  *Ring-Ring* "Yep, we're dead excited about playing. What's that? You want us to buy tickets to sell? Why, don't you sell enough?  Well, what does that cost? £1,500!!!!!  Forget it!". I raised merry hell about this and those good folk at Organ joined in, even contacting the organiser. He stated that they wouldn't do this Pay To Play scam the next year, but they did, and still do. Every year, loads of bands pay £1,500 to play one of the more poorly attended stages at Guilfest. That fucking sucks. How about giving these bands a genuine break?


This kind of business does no-one any good. If I go to a gig / concert / festival, I expect every band I am seeing to be of a certain quality. Nowadays though, what I am seeing are those bands who have enough money to buy-on to that stage. If ever you have gone to a gig / concert / festival and wondered how on EARTH that XYZ band got on the bill, now you know why.


zioncardiffI didn't even get around to talking about tour buy-ons, did I? Once upon a time, a headline band set off on tour, got together and said "Hey, have you heard this new album by Anal Suckpiece? It's freakin' awesome, dude, we have to take these guys out on the road with us" and Anal Suckpiece were given a big break. These days, Anal Suckpiece would have to be pretty goddamn rich to get onto the same tour.


Touring is expensive. Just a quick tally, if you are a small band like us, we have to put diesel in the bus, grab a couple of hotel rooms a night and get some food inside the 4 of us and the 2 or 3 kindly volunteers that make up our "crew" (roadie, merch girls). Let's say that is £150 a day (and I'm not even taking into account any money lost through having to take time off the day job). To cover that expense, we are fortunate enough to be able to charge a moderate fee to play and sell enough merch. So, we come away sometimes making a very small profit, other times just about breaking even. Soon, we will have to start actually PAYING our crew and hiring a sound engineer too, along with a driver (because I get DAMN tired doing all that and performing night after night - forget it when we tour across Europe!). You get the picture. 


Now imagine that you get offered a tour - a perfect tour for your genre of music, one that could potentially take you a couple of notches up the ladder - with a big name band. Exciting stuff.  Except, there is one tinsy wincy catch. They want £7,000 from you before you even set off. It's only a 10 date tour though and the venues are only 400ish capacity and you'll be on at 7.30 each night, because they have another band willing to pay more for the main support. Add that £700 a day to the previous £150 a day and you soon see that, unless you have some major backing, or idiotic parents, you have to say No.


More recently - and you will love this - we got asked to tour throughout Europe (approx 20 dates) with a band that was reasonably succesful in the '80's and was now barely living on past glory. We were asked if we would provide transport and backline. We have a fairly spacious bus so, it would be a squeeze, but we could actually get the 5 of them in the bus, driving them around would be an experience and, hell, we're going to the same place anyway. OK, we'll do this!  What will our fee be?..  Guess what, there was no fee! They honestly expected us to provide free transport and free backline for the priviledge of supporting them! We would have to pay for the diesel and our accomodation on the road with ZERO chance of making back even 50% of what it would cost us to do it. Bonkers.


Sadly, they eventually found a band new enough to fall for this bullshit. We, on the other hand, contacted some venues direct, got on the support anyway and got a fee thrown in too. Now, I am not blaming the bands themselves. Even if they are aware of what is being proposed by their agents, they just want to play music. They aren't big enough to play the sorts of venues that warrant the expense of hiring a back-line / driver et cetera - this is the only way that they can cover their own expenses. I can see it from their point of view, but it still sucks balls!


The bigger bands though, the ones that make a decent living through touring, they should be ashamed if they charge buy-ons. How about just putting on an amazing show for the people buying the tickets? Fuck, if we'd have done the tour I mentioned earlier (the £7k one), that would have been an AMAZING line-up, night after night. Instead, some shitty band that no-one gave a fuck about, paid up and got slagged off on forums night after night. They broke up shortly after, totally demoralised by the experience. The public walked out complaining and we got emails saying we should have been playing instead. Fucking right! Give us a chance, we'll put on a killer show and give people value for money. 


tailzspit(I should, at this point, mention that Welsh glamsters, Tigertailz, are NOT one of the bands I am talking about! We are playing with them soon and I know that a lot of readers of this site are fans of theirs and may be aware of this and wondering. Well, those gents did it right!  No pay to play, we were just asked to as they knew it would ADD to the whole event. So, hats off to them!)


I'd love to pretend that we are going to be able to go through our whole career avoiding Pay To Play but, I fear, as we move up the ladder, it is going to become more inevitable. It has been explained to me, time and time again, that we will have to do it to get on some of the bigger tours. I don't agree with it but, if that is the game, then I will have to play it, until I can change the rules. When we get to the point where we can set a good example to other bands and take some fledgeling bands out on the road with us, not because they had the money, but because they deserved it, then we will. 


Is there anything you can do to help rid the industry of this bullshit? Well, at the lower level, I think there is. If you are a regular gig goer, before buying your ticket from the door, ask them what percentage of the ticket price is going to each band playing. If the answer is zero, push the point a bit and ask if the band(s) are getting a fee for playing. If you get a whiff that the bands are playing for free or, worse, having to Pay To Play, point out that you want to SUPPORT bands and walk away. Ours is the only industry where it is expected, at a certain level, that those hired to entertain do it solely for the love of it. Would you go to work and put in a full day then pay your employee for the pleasure? Exactly. And neither should we.


If you are in a band yourself, have FAITH in what you do. Don't sell it short. Refuse all Pay To Play gigs. There ARE gigs out there that you will get paid for or, at the very least, you won't have to pay to do. Just say No, walk away, but explain why. If every band did this tomorrow, the whole thing would stop overnight. If you do Pay To Play, you are feeding the demand.




Before I go, I want to say a big THANK YOU to everyone who read, and seemed to enjoy, my first article last month. I've had lots of really positive feedback from it and am glad it was well digested. Great to see it being discussed on the forum too. Hope you have enjoyed this month's article as well!


Until next time...



 Zion x



P.S. Visit http://www.spitlikethis.com/ and http://www.smellyourmum.com/ - thank you!


© 14th September 2009 Lord Zion