Since last week’s Fishlock Fridays on Pay to Play gigs we have had many friends in contact to tell us our thoughts and experiences, some so passionate on the subject we felt we should publish what they had to say. First is one of the people behind TNSrecords and member of Revenge of the Psychotronic Man (playing Seeing Your Scene’s 6th show on March 20th at JT Soar), Andy Davies; who explains his first Pay to Play experience and how this led to the creation of TNS.
I first came across pay-to-play gigs as a teenager in the late 90s (yes, I am old), but didn’t really think too much of it at the time. As I’d only just started gigging, I just assumed it was the norm. The venue was called The Red Rose Theatre in Rugeley (a few miles from my home town of Stafford). It was very strange that they ran this system in hindsight, because the venue was always rammed anyway, and I have some great memories of the place, despite the way they worked.
One of the most confusing aspects of pay-to-play is what it actually is. I’ve heard of some promoters actually take payments off bands as a deposit or make them buy tickets up front to sell on and maybe the band keep a couple of quid of each sale.
The Red Rose didn’t actually work like this. Instead they operated a system where they would only pay you if you sold 25 tickets (you would get £1 back off each £4 ticket you sold). If you didn’t sell your 25 tickets you didn’t get a penny and more infuriatingly, you didn’t get another gig.
At the time we were in college, so didn’t think too much of it at first, as we could easily shift that many tickets to people we knew (who weren’t even necessarily into the music) and get a few quid. We weren’t even bothered about getting paid at that time anyway. It was a local gig, we weren’t very good and it was all new and exciting.
It was only when we started putting on gigs in our home town of Stafford that we started to realise how silly the whole thing was. We were managing to fill local pubs at the gigs we were putting on and soon realised that the Rose was basically just exploiting young bands, getting them to sell all the tickets, whilst they did pretty much nothing.
What they were doing is pay-to-play. It’s a different version of it to the more extreme versions I mentioned, BUT any band playing under these conditions is only booked due to their ability to sell tickets. It is in no way due to the quality of their band. They turn up and give a pile of cash to a promoter who has done nothing, get a pat on the back and told they can play again for doing well on their ticket sales.
I’d like to say early on that any band that doesn’t help to promote their gigs is stupid (especially now it’s so easy to use social networking alongside flyering). Surely they want more people at their gigs and surely we all want to ensure our small venues stay open by keeping them busy. And if you can help sell tickets, it can’t hurt, but it definitely shouldn’t be a condition of playing.
But surely it’s all about working collectively as a community to build a positive scene and working together to promote each gig. Obviously pay-to-play doesn’t encourage this at all. In fact it encourages bands to compete for ticket sales and encourages friends of the bands to only watch the band they have paid to see. Very often pay-to-play gigs have very odd line ups (which can be good, but not all the time). It always feels a bit like a battle of the bands to me and clearly no-one in the punk scene can think music competitions are a good thing? But I guess that’s another debate for another time.
As I started playing a bit further afield with bands I realised that there were many, many more issues than the above. For starters, how are bands supposed to play further afield? I remember being offered gigs in Birmingham and Wolverhampton on these deals and promotors genuinely telling us to put a coach on from Stafford to ensure we sold our allocations. What does that achieve? How does that help you play to a new audience and get a new audience further afield? I’ve heard bands say they can get a couple of hundred quid on a local pay-to-play gig, which is far in advance of a guarantee they might get, but they won’t be able to do that very easily in other cities. Their friends will soon tire of traveling to see them play the same sort of gig miles away from their hometown. Bands need to build followings in new places and that can only happen through a community based scene (unless they have the opportunity to go down a more commercial route, but what punk band wants to do that?).
Fairly recently a promoter got in touch with my band asking us to play a gig in a different city to where we live. I told them our guarantee and he subsequently offered us a ticket deal. We obviously turned it down and what followed can only be described as a long and tedious exchange of emails. I did feel the need to explain the issue though – education is surely the best way to tackle pay-to-play. He told us that we should try and make a reserve pile of money through our local gigs, to fund our out of town ventures. My band plays 70+ gigs a year all over the UK and mainland Europe. We limit local gigs to 4 or 5 a year to ensure we don’t overplay and deplete our audience and also make sure a couple of those are benefit gigs as we have no travel costs. How could we possibly fund a year of gigging off three gigs? How can any band who is not from that city afford to play there under that system? As a promoter myself, I also want to use some of the door money to pay exciting out of town bands. You can’t do this if you take all the cash yourselves. This promoter was complaining that his venue was struggling to get crowds in and that the gig shouldn’t all be his risk (even though he approached us). I imagine he will go under if he keeps operating like this and it’s a shame to lose venues. But how is any sort of community where local people feel they are part of what the venue does going to evolve under this system? It actively stops the development of a community spirit at a venue, slows down the building of a ‘scene’ that people feel they are part of and makes it nearly impossible for small bands to tour.
I moved to Manchester in the early 2000s, excited about playing at the city’s famous venues. To my dismay, the vast majority of these venues ran the same system, which was incredibly disheartening. So we just started putting on our own gigs as we had done in Stafford. We didn’t know loads about DIY punk at that point; it just seemed like the obvious thing to do. So that’s how TNS started. The rest is history.
For any bands who are contemplating doing pay-to-play gigs, I’d really encourage you not to. The damage they cause is huge. There are alternatives. If you can sell 25 tickets, find 3 more local bands that can do the same, work together and you’ve got the basis of a banging local DIY gig. If you are struggling to get decent gigs in new cities (and it can be hard as many good promoters have limited slots), start doing gig swaps. Build up your own night, find bands that you like in other cities and get them on in return for them helping you with a gig. I won’t pretend it isn’t a lot of work to begin with, but ultimately it’s far more rewarding. It’s so exciting seeing bands you love from other towns and cities building a following in your own area and it’s so much fun playing in new places, meeting new people and seeing new bands. It’s an amazing thing to do.
I can only speak from personal experience, but these strategies have worked for us and bands we know. In 2003, the first ever TNS gig had about 20 people attending (and some subsequent ones even less). Last year’s TNS 10 year birthday party had 386 people paying in. This year we are doing Manchester Punk Festival, which will hopefully pull over 500 people in. It is hard work, but boycotting pay-to-play can work. There is always another way.