Talk Tuesday / Elias Mohr / Pay To Play - Exploit or Necessity?

It’s ten o’clock in the evening, and you’ve just arrived outside the club you contacted earlier in the week about booking a gig. Yourself, and your fellow bandmates emerge from your car. Perhaps not a car, maybe your drummers’ shitty van. Everyone proceeds to extract his or her instrument from the cargo hold, with the upmost caution of a young mother gracefully scooping her infant into her arms. You with your $1,200 Fender Telecaster, your equally valuable Fender tube amp, and the $400 worth of effects pedals you must lug around to execute your art properly. Your drummer, with his $5,000 kit, your bassist with her equipment equal in value to your own, and your singer, with his… well, his “precious and powerful pipes.”

You all walk briskly against the wind, hands clamming with cold sweat, adrenaline pumping through your system, mind in gear with intent of setting up your equipment and putting on the best show of your thus far short career as professional musicians. Your lead singer enters the club first, and as the front man of the band has assumingly taken on the role as temporary manger, if you will. The club is smoky, shrieks and shrills attack your eardrums as you fervently set up and prepare for a routine sound check. Several moments have passed without the usual triumphant return of your singer. Concerned, you make your way around a corner into a dimly lit back office, where stands your now furious lead singer and presumably the clubs’ owner. “600 for a half-hour set?! You’re fucking joking! Your sound guy, who set us up with you, said it was on 300!” states your lead singer, veins bulging from his neck, eyes red with anger, nearly protruding from his sockets from strain. “What can I tell you? Miscommunication’s all it was.” replies the owner, with a disturbingly calm demeanor, situation considered. “You can hand me $600, or you can walk out the door. I’ve got two other sets that payed. I’m covered regardless, bud.”

An extremely unsettling course of events, wouldn’t you say? Now, although that situation emerged from the top of my head, thousands of bands have experienced nearly identical situations. Is it just for a nurse or doctor to pay a hospital daily simply because they perform their practice in the building? What about a teacher or lawyer facing the same situation? After all, they’re all respective professions. I, for one, find the concept of pay to play mostly outrageous. However, with my intuition (and Google) guiding me through intrepid research, I’ve discovered a few just situations. An answer to the question: “Why pay to play?”

Let us first consider why no one should pay to play, or rather what situations where paying to play is definitively exploitation. If you as an artist are asked to pay an outrageous fee to a venue to perform even a half hour set, consider what type of venue you’re playing in. Is it a club, a bar, a nationally recognized venue? Generally, if a venue asks for payment for exposure… you’re not getting exposure, my friend, you’re getting played yourself. If a venue cannot profit off simply having you play, or at minimum cover their expenses for the extra seating, food, alcohol, etc., being purchased that day, they’re not worth the little money in your possession. And it’s not necessarily just about exploitation, it’s just as much about a venue undervaluing your profession. Lessons and equipment are expensive, and to add more unnecessary fees to your expenses should simply never be considered in such a situation.

However, let us say, hypothetically, a hot club, bar, or theater had some openings for bands willing to cough up the money. Will you or your band profit overall? Is this fee worth the amount of exposure you’ll receive? If the positives of the risk outweigh the negatives, I’d risk it for the biscuit. Who knows? A band could pivot off this/these shows successfully and reach heights they’d never imagine! I guess it all depends on your situation. Is pay to play a necessary part of growth as a band/artist or is it exploitation all around? You decide!

Elias Mohr