Welcome to the home and birth place of pay-to-play. Everyone is already aware of how dysfunctional California so it shouldn't surprise you. After all, we are also the ground zero for the entire music industry (need I say more)!?
Los Angeles is home to some of the most famous venues in the world. Places like the Whiskey, The Roxy, The Troubadour used to be the places where bands were discovered. Bands did anything they could to get booked at these venues but this is back before these venues became pay-to-play. Now, anyone who has a slight reputation and a willingness to sell pre-sale tickets (or enough cash) can play any one of these venues as well as a plethora of less famous venues. Playing any of these venues doesn't mean that you are going to have 500 people show up to see you play. These and many other venues don't come with a built crowd (ever seen what parking is like in LA) so any band playing must realize that they will have to work extremely hard in order to get people to their show.
But what if your band really wants people to show up to see you play? Booking your band as a headliner at one of these clubs does not mean a thousand people are going to show up. Your goal as a band is to get your music heard so playing to the club employees isn't going to cut it. Now, if you could only get your band on the local show when a nationally known headliner will be playing. You know... the show that everyone who is anyone will be attending. Well, it's not hard... you just have to agree to sell 200 pre-sale tickets at a discount price of $22.00 each (remember, the day of the show the ticket price increases to $25.00). I hope you and your band mates are good salesmen. It is going to take a lot of hustling to get that many tickets sold. But what if you don't sell every one of those pre-sale tickets before the show... Well, in some cases you will have to pay the difference (or have your equipment held hostage until you pay up), or in some cases the promoter won't risk putting a band on a show without a certain guarantee which means you pay for the tickets outright.
What?!... you think I'm exaggerating... I wish I were...
Now, if you are like me, you have to ask yourself... "What is this person actually going to do for the show if my band is going to be selling tickets and running around making sure everyone is going to be at the show?" Well the answer is easy... NOTHING. Just remember, your band isn't the only band playing the show. Just like your band isn't the only band having to sell pre-sale tickets. A good promoter knows approximately how many people will be attending the show after the first week of ticket sales but then a good promoter actually knows how to do his job.
Aren't you being a little hard in your assessment of pay-to-play promoters? They just want bands to help promote the shows.
I realize that many of today's younger bands have no idea or are too lazy to promote their band. Promoters use this to their advantage. Younger bands have a tendency to practice 2 or 3 times and then immediately want to start playing shows. The same goes for their ideas about promoting their band. They feel if they post the show on Facebook then they are done. This is not going to get their band anywhere. It's the same reason you see numerous bands trying to sell tickets to their shows in the many group on Facebook. Facebook isn't the only website out there to promote shows. There are many websites dedicated to unsigned bands. The more places you post your upcoming show, the more chances you have of getting people to your shows.
This rule can also be used by promoters but then most promoters tend to have half a dozen other things going on at any given time. If the promoter also plays in a band, add a dozen more reasons as to why they don't have time to promote shows. Venues are going to let these same promotes sneak by as long as they have people showing up. Just like advertising a business, you need to spend time finding places to post your upcoming shows. Selling tickets will not get people to your show unless they know what you sound like or are just going to fill a parental obligation.
Pay-to-Play by the Numbers
I think it's about time we put this whole issue in to perspective for it to really sink in. We have a venue that is all-ages and has a capacity of 550. The venue has shows every night of the week and weekend. Every show consists of a headliner and 6 support bands. The headliner has asked the venue to guarantee them $1,000.00 the night of the show. In any other type of business, the guarantee would be considered a cost of operating a business (like buying inventory to sell). The venue then requires the remaining bands to sell 50 tickets prior to the show for $10 each in order to play the show. Now, if all 6 support bands follow through and sell all the required tickets (6 bands sell 50 tickets each for a total of 300 tickets), the venue will begin the show with $3000.00. Remember the show hasn't even started and the headliner's guarantee is covered as well as $2,000.00 for the venue. On top of all that, there are still 250 tickets still waiting to be sold. So, if the venue sells the remaining tickets 250 tickets at the door for $12 that would be an additional $3000.00 if the show sells out for a total profit of $5,000.00. That is the best case scenario for any show on any night.
Well, not all shows are going to turn out perfect by selling out. Let's say the venue sells out a total of 5 shows during the month and the remaining 26 shows only make a profit of $625.00 per show (the $625.00 profit is 1/8th of $5,000.00 after the $1,000.00 guarantee is paid to the headliner for that night). This means that the venue would make a total profit for a 31 day month of $41,250.00 (5 sold out shows making $5,000.00 per show and 26 shows making $625.00 per show). All this profit was made without the venue or promoter doing a single thing.
That is why promoters and venues like pay-to-play. They can make a show profitable without doing any work or even spending any money on promotion.
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