Joe Dobraszczyk of Will Tun & the Wasters tells us how it is when it comes to alternatives against pay-to-play gigs. As well as being accordion player for Will Tun & the Wasters, Joe also plays in Viva Zapata, Jake & the Jellyfish and Ash Victim. Putting on his first DIY show around 5 years ago he is now also involved in such festivals such as Gearfest and Green Gathering.
Mutual Aid vs Pay to Play
I’ll get straight to the point; pay-to-play promoters are glorified scam-artists, leeching off the fruits of hard-working bands’ labour.
In how many other jobs could you send out a chain e-mail to receive a night’s worth of free, highly skilled labour that results in you making profit? You don’t even need to turn up on the night if you don’t want to… I’m talking about the work of pay-to-play promoters of course, as where this model still exists too many artists are still having to deal with this exploitative gig-booking system.
For anyone unfamiliar with the scam it goes something like this; promoter hires a venue, most likely for free; sends a template (spam) message to every band online, with little to no regard for their musical style, message or audience. The message reads something along the lines of “Amazing opportunity to play legendary London venue. Bands such as The Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs and Muse began their career here!” The band is then expected to sell at least 10-20 tickets to show they’re worthy of such an honour, to cover the costs of the night, or some other similar bullshit.
When I started playing in bands 10 years ago, I knew knowing nothing of the “scene” at large, I didn’t know which venues were good or bad, which other bands played a similar style to us, which promoters were decent or not. All I had was loads of enthusiasm to play live and an e-mail saying “legendary venue wants YOU to play.” Call us naïve, call us stupid, but we took these offers because we just wanted to play our music. The normal result of this booking system (especially in London) is that there will be four or five bands on a bill with completely ill-fitting styles, where friends of the band might show up to watch their mates, then piss-off to another night just after they’ve played, leaving little sense of community within the gig or between bands.
Once you’ve been through the wringer of these shit gigs a few times, you quickly learn and avoid them like the plague, but the sad fact is that this culture still exists to continue scamming hard-working artists every day, focussing so much positive energy and excitement from young bands into the pockets of individuals, when bands between themselves could sort quality local gigs anyway.
Taken as a model, it perpetuates more of the modern pitfalls we increasingly face in our jobs and daily lives: target-meeting, standardisation, commodification of expression, enforced competition, and the monetisation of almost everything, lacking any personal or social interaction in the process. Imagine a world where pay-to-play gigs are the only option, it’s George Orwell’s 1984 for musicians; “So you’ve sold 50 tickets, getting to keep a rate of £1 extra per over 25 sales, double-plus good eh comrade?” So we’ve got an idea what and who the problem is now, but the real question is what are we going to do about it?
“Pay-to-play is stoppable, another scene is possible”
The alternative might go a little something like this… Imagine a community of musicians that mutually support each other through an established network of friends and band acquaintances, accessible and open to all with the right intentions (i.e. not seeking to exploit the network for personal gain).
One element of this includes like-minded bands gig-swapping regularly. Each act gets to play to a new crowd and city every time, and because each artist is being booked on the basis of a similar style/message/vibe, people coming to shows are more likely to stay and care about the line-up and wider community/scene, rather than just coming to watch a mate’s band on a random bill. One barrier to this option working successfully is DIY artists having a lack of experience organising gigs, but in reality it’s all basic stuff (find a venue, message bands, source equipment, promote online). It’s something that a mutual network of friendly faces could easily support someone with the energy to pull off, through skill-sharing and conversations. One thing that keeps pay-to-play promoters in business is a mystique around organising gigs, the perception of an exclusively held knowledge or skill set.
Although it might seem scary at first or like a lot of work, the knock-on benefits of DIY organising are countless. Once gained, the skills and experience of event organising can be easily passed on to anyone looking to support their own musical style or personal cause, creating much greater diversity in the scene. I was recently involved in organising a community festival with 5 or 6 others, everyone with their own creative interest (mine was gig organising, others included spray-painting, puppet-making, face-painting, photography). We learnt from each other, had a wicked time and couldn’t have pulled off what we did without the interests of everyone involved.
Of course as a promoter you want a good outcome from your efforts (i.e. good turnout), but let’s not undervalue the process of organising together in terms of learning new skills, forging relationships and sharing of ideas. This isn’t to say that it’s not often a financial risk to organise events, yet with a bit of blagging and shameless hype of your event (i.e. extra profit at the bar) many pubs will agree at least £100 for bands. The trick is to go for pubs that haven’t traditionally done gigs, rather than existing venues that would charge for hire. Make no mistake, as a promoter you are the one doing landlords a favour (on a busy night they’re likely to be making at least £1,000 extra at the bar).
Another benefit of DIY gig organising is that it’s often founded on ethical principles opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and not being a dick in all its various forms. If you look closely at the UK punk scene it’s far from perfect in addressing these prejudices, but the beauty of DIY culture is that the potential for change always exists; it just takes someone to do it. Where pay-to-play promoters are much less likely to hold regard for the “personal as political” (whether artists are dicks or not) all the DIY promoters I know wouldn’t continue booking artists who were rude, aggressive or discriminatory. The end goal here is a much more principled scene/community that can actively live out the values it proclaims, ourselves as DIY organisers being the main agents in creating what we feel an accessible or “safe-space” at a gig really means, where people might feel excluded or marginalised in another gig context (overly-physical punk/hardcore gigs, for example).
One thing we should always expect from gigs organised by bands and DIY promoters is an opportunity to play given to inexperienced bands. By all means book established, well-known bands, but let it be publicly known that these bands rarely come fully-formed and slick but rather go through years of being in slightly-sloppy musicians stumbling through creative expression. Riot Grrrl bands such as Bratmobile proclaimed the importance of seeing bands on stage who were far from the finished product, to show that anyone could do this, just pick up an instrument and bash it out.
All of this might be more familiar to some, less familiar to others, but the point is that almost anything is technically possible in a music scene and creative community. Starting out in bands all I knew was the select few well-known venues and a majority of pay-to-play style promoters offering gigs. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of playing co-operative squats and autonomous social spaces, with amazing people working hard to organise gigs for all of their own personal reasons. Pay-to-play isn’t just a stupid way of organising gigs, it’s an embodiment of the values we could all do without. The alternative is there, with just a bit of work and a whole lot of mutual support we’ll be well on our way to killing off pay-to-play culture for good.