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  • Writer's picturetatum van dam

is pay to play ever okay?

It seems as if every aspiring artist moves to Los Angeles in hopes of pursuing their craft and becoming a star -- a hopeful narrative painted by countless television shows and movies. While Los Angeles is, indeed, filled with great opportunities for the up-and-coming next big thing, Los Angeles is also full of industry people who seek to take advantage of naive artists by capitalizing on their eagerness.

There is a concept in the music industry known as pay to play. It works just as it sounds. An artist pays a concert promoter a certain amount of dollars to play a show. Often times, the money given from the performer to the promoter is in the form of tickets. For example, a promoter might have an artist sign a contractual agreement stating that they will sell X# of tickets by X date, and if they only sell a portion of the tickets, they owe the promoter X amount of dollars for the unsold tickets. In essence, the artist is paying a promoter so the artist can play a show. In most non-pay to play deals, the artist is the one getting paid to play the show. Several concert promoters use this tactic of selling tickets as a way to get around being labeled as “pay to play” promoters, because the artist technically is not paying if they sell the fixed amount of tickets. The issue lies in the fact that the artist is going through the labor of selling tickets -- and the ticket money is going straight to the promoter. Regardless of whether the currency is in the form of tickets or dollars, artists are being taken advantage of -- some more than others -- without realizing it.

Because some up and coming artists are not as educated on the music industry as others are, they can fail to realize when they are giving into something they shouldn’t be. This is where the whole “my label screwed me over” story derives from. While getting a record deal frames itself to be an artist’s dream, the wrong record deal can easily ruin an artist’s career. Similarly, an up and coming artist can get conned into paying to perform at a "notable" venue. This is not how the industry should work; I find it to be morally unjust.

A concert promoter’s job, simply put, is to promote a concert by working alongside the venue to ensure the best possible outcome for the artist. A concert promoter’s greatest risk comes with investing in a show that ends up having a poor turnout. Using the pay to play tactic, there is no risk involved for the promoter; either way, they are receiving a paycheck, whether or not their artist is able to sell enough tickets.

Generally, after any given concert is over, all of the profits made from the show are divided between three parties: the promoter, the artist, and the venue. The profits being split between the parties derive from the concert goers, anywhere from purchasing a concert ticket to a cocktail. In the case of pay to play, the artist’s money is getting split between the venue and the promoter -- their alleged “portion” of the pay is the fact that they got to play the show. If an artist is struggling, they should not be expected to pay (or produce) upwards of $1000 to play a show. Where are they supposed to salvage the money? They are struggling for a reason.

One might think: if someone knows they might have to pay out of pocket, then why sign a contract to do so in the first place? There is lots of deceit involved in the pay to play process. One local promotion company notorious for scamming artists is called Sean Healy Presents.

Sean Healy is a concert promoter whose method, though not labeled as ‘pay to play’, is, indeed, pay to play. Healy promotes up and coming artists under the notion that they will be opening (or closing) for a bigger act. What Healy does not reveal are the not-so-tiny details, such as the name of the bigger act, the amount of other up and coming artists listed as “openers” for the same show, and the fact that he does not assist in promoting one’s concert.

Using a bigger artist adds some legitimacy to the deal; however, sometimes, the bigger artist isn’t even aware that their name is being used by the company. When the bigger artist fails to show up, SHP often presents a showcase of many artists -- regardless of musical genres -- who have paid to be there. What this means is that artists and fans think they are paying for one experience, and in turn, they are receiving another.

An article on Digital Music News states a musician’s experience working with SHP:

I have a friend who actually did use their service and paid $1,500 cash to open for a major artist. Not only did he end up getting way less stage time than he was promised, but he was forced to perform when it was super early and most of the full audience wasn’t even there yet. Imagine why so many artists are frustrated and discouraged, because they’re paying almost 2k to perform for a damn near empty room.

SHP’s company lies on notions of false expectations and deception. Companies like these damage the cultural health of the music industry. The music industry is supposed to be a family -- not only does pay to play promotion hurt artists, but also the industry as a whole.

What do you think? In the case of 'pay to play', who should be held accountable?

82 views2 comments


Dec 07, 2019

Pay to play is a terrible deal that desperate artists get conned into falling for again and again. As long as they can get away with it, promoters will use the power they have to take advantage of those that are inexperienced. I believe it's paramount to do your research, especially if you are interested in entering a creative field. Many creatives get taken advantage of, promised 'experience and exposure' as a valid form of payment.


Dec 07, 2019

I've never heard of this term before but I am appalled that people who own venues would do such a thing to up and coming artists. How discouraging! In a world where we need more creative people making music and art and writing books, this is the kind of thing that makes me mad. It is definitely morally unjust to charge a performer to play their music. Music is something I believe should be free. Those that wish to make it big should become their own promoters, start hosting music nights at local parks and meet ups to get people interested. Also attending free open mics is another great way to network and get your music out there without having…

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