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Should Artists Pay to Play Shows?

Artists are being charged for opening slots at shows, should they pay up?

I never intended to make it a regular series, but every so often people send me with questions, and I do my best to answer them. Today, I'm going to be diving into the painful world of paying to open shows. Let's get right to it.  

Hey so I see people write in a lot with questions about the industry and so I thought I'd throw you one of my own. I'm starting out in the music scene (yup. a struggle rapper haha) and I've been trying to obtain opener spots at shows.For one of these shows the rapper I was trying to open for had us email them to learn how to be an opener. When I emailed them, they told me that I had to either pay $500 to be an opener or to sell 20 tickets at $20 with a $250 deposit. Is this a common practice in the industry or no?  Because if it is, it's going to be even harder on my wallet than I thought starting out in this music business.  Seems harsh for people trying to be openers when they're struggling more than the people performing at the shows. Thank you for your time! - Kana

First the bad news - although, fair warning, this entire thing is mostly going to be bad news. Yes, this is common practice in the industry. Let's walk through this. 

First, it is unusual for a rapper to be booking a show themselves. Normally that's done by the show promoter, and I'm realizing now that's a common misconception that should be cleared up. While a headlining artist will tour with a direct opening act, the headliner often has no idea who the two or three (or sometimes more) local openers before them are, and rarely have much direct involvement in their selection.

More often that not, you could be "opening" for a big artist, but in reality that means you're playing to the twenty people who showed up super early, your set ends before the big artist even gets to the venue and you leave that night without so much as walking by them backstage. 

Promoters could easily just have no one play during those early hours, or put on new acts for free they're genuinely excited about, but then they'd be losing out on money, and promoters love money. (I'm obviously generalizing, but in my experience, even in a shady music industry, concert promoters tend to be shadier than a flashlight in a mine tunnel). 

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Those newer "opening" acts aren't likely to sell many tickets, so enter the "Pay to Play" system. That term's generally viewed as unethical and just generally shitty, so promoters don't use it and often do what you mentioned, calling it "pre-sale" and breaking out their best used car salesman logic by claiming that they're actually giving you the "opportunity" to sell the tickets yourself - provided, of course, that you pay upfront. It's not "pay to play" in the traditional, most literal sense of an artist straight up handing over a paper bag of cash in exchange for a slot, but don't be fooled, it's pay to play. The promoter gets paid regardless, with no risk to them, and not only gets an act but someone working to sell them tickets for free. (They love to hit you with the, "Tell you what, I'll throw in an additional ten tickets for free so you can actually make money if you sell them!" Promoters are the fucking worst.)

So is it worth it? That depends on your personal financial status. If you've got a trust fund and daddy's inflating that bank account like Dee Brown about to dunk, sure, why not throw down $500 to get some live show experience? But for anyone with limited funds, it's certainly not the best use of your cash. I'd recommend spending that money on the music itself (production, mixing, videos, etc.) long before opening slots. 

What really sucks is that in some major markets, pre-sale (aka pay to play) is the only way you're getting a slot at a major venue. When I lived in L.A., Sean Healy had most of the best music venues locked down, so if you were a newer artist who wanted to play there, it was pre-sale or nothing. If that's true of where you live, there's no easy answer. It's just bad times. You might decide that playing a well-known venue for a well-known artist would be an addition to your resume that's worth the pre-sale hassle, but it's not sustainable. While you might be able to poke your friends and family into buying your pre-sale tickets once, or twice, that shit's only going to last so long. After the fourth pre-sale "show" even your Mom's going to stop answering your calls.

You need fans who don't know you personally to have a career, and that's going to happen through the music first. So my recommendation is to always invest in the music first. In 2016 you're just one viral hit away from being a headliner yourself and having the kind of fan base that allows you to actually make money playing shows - imagine that. There will be no victory sweeter than telling a promoter to go fuck themselves if they try to hit you with that pre-sale bullshit.  


By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.

Photo Credit: WildStyle DaProducer



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