Aled from Reading’s folk punk heroes Smokey Bastard felt compelled to tell us his thoughts on pay to play after our Fishlock Fridays article, letting us know that he loves a chance to have a rant on the topic. Clearly passionate on the subject, Aled takes us through, not just the lack of morals in pay to play, but how they just don’t make entertaining gigs that make sense either…
People often ask me why Smokey Bastard don’t play in London very often and the main reason is that a lot of the venues are run on a pay to play system and it has become the norm.
Usually the line-up is about 4 bands that are all expected to sell the same number of tickets. This means the opener has to sell the same as the headliner. The incentive for bands to play these gigs is that the other 3 bands bring their fans/friends and you get exposure and cross promotion with another band’s audience. However, everyone knows that people don’t usually turn up to gigs as soon as doors open. People constantly ask “what time is your band on” and then turn up for that slot. So in reality, if you go on first, you play to your fans and no one else and if you play last, the friends of the first band have probably left to go somewhere else.
Because the headliners are chosen arbitrarily, there is no sense of progression for bands just starting out. The natural way of doing things is for a headliner to pull in most of the crowd and the support bands to bring in a few locals and get exposure to a wider audience. You start off opening shows and when your fan base grows, you climb the ladder and start getting better slots until you’re the headliner and you’re the main pull. None of this happens at pay to play gigs. Everyone has to sell the same number of tickets and none of the bands will necessarily stand out as a headliner who is worth sticking around to the end for.
The system I’ve seen most is that the bands must sell a minimum number of tickets and if they don’t, they have to pay the promoter for the ones left unsold. For most of the versions I’ve seen, the band make no money off their minimum required number and only start getting a cut when they sell more than that. That means that the promoter takes 100% of the sales of the minimum number of tickets from all the bands before they have to pay any band any money (and remember – they get this money whether the tickets are sold or not). It costs promoters money to put on gigs – venue hire, bouncers, sound engineers etc, but within the pay to play system, you can set you minimum ticket sales level so that your costs are covered and you are into profit before you have to pay any bands. All the financial risk is on the bands and none is on the promoter. However, once the bands have sold more than their required sales target they usually still only get £1 from each £5 ticket (some versions it’s been £1 for each £8 ticket), so the promoter still makes a much bigger profit than the bands even though they know before any tickets are sold that they have no financial risk in putting on the gig. The bands get very little financial reward for shouldering all the financial risk. That’s just bullshit.
In my opinion the role of a promoter is not only to promote the gig, but to plan a line-up that they think people will want to see. If you take time to think about your line up – get a headliner who people want to see and find good local bands that would get good exposure by playing to the headliner’s fans then everyone wins. The support acts get exposure and they’ll spread the word and hype up the gig so more people in the local area know it’s happening. The promotion of the gig happens organically because you’re targeting the right people on the local scene and drawing people in for further afield with a quality headliner. If you put a Metal band headlining with a Rockabilly band as main support and a jazz trio to open, you’ll still get people through the door, but it’s unlikely that the whole audience will want to stay from start to finish so the atmosphere at the gig won’t build up to a big finish, it’ll just be people coming and going. At pay-to-play gigs, they say they try to put similar bands together, but at the end of the day, if the bands pay up and say they can sell the tickets, anything goes. Certainly in my experience, pay to play gigs haven’t been particularly cohesive line ups.
It wouldn’t take much to change the format of pay to play to have headliners with higher minimum ticket requirements than opening acts, give the bands a better cut of ticket sales once the required sales are met and have cohesive line ups and I wouldn’t really have a problem with it. But that would require more thought going into finding the right bands for the right slots and if you care enough to go to that effort, you’re probably a promoter who doesn’t see the need in pay to play.