This is both a rant and a response to Derek Sivers recent blog, Not happy with existing venues? Make a new one. In short, the blog suggests to do exactly as the title says. Make it a point to read it and don’t forget to leave him a comment as well. The following relates to my own personal experiences regarding this subject.
Straight up, I loathe ‘Pay To Play’! Furthermore, I don’t have a lot of respect for bands who continue to let it exist. No matter what excuse you may have for doing so, Pay To Play Is NOT A Necessary Evil. No, more exposure is not an excuse. I don’t care if you are buying your way to play on the same bill as Metallica or AC/DC, the return on your investment will not pay off! I can almost guarantee that very few of the thousands in attendance will remember who you are the next day, even fewer will have even thought about purchasing any of your merch.
Here’s an idea! Concentrate on smaller, paying crowds who really give a damn about your music. Personally, I would rather play a small bar in front of 10 or 20 people who have payed just to see me play or who have all bought a CD and/or T-Shirt, as opposed to playing in front of 1000′s of people who have no clue who I am. You just may walk out a couple hundred dollars ahead, instead of in the hole with no guarantee on your return.
Moving on to my response to Derek’s blog, I have some success stories I would like to share. Hopefully, this will help you in your quest to end Pay To Play!
Back in the early to mid 90s I was in an old school Heavy Metal band called Wicked Rage. We made our rounds through the Houston area club circuit, but like everyone else, we were lucky to make ends meet. Houston is a huge, spread out city with no central music district. Over 600 square miles, making it nearly twice as big as New York City, and almost as massive as Los Angeles and Chicago combined! Playing Houston was almost a tour within itself. A tour that rarely left much of a profit. And that was bypassing Pay To Play clubs.
Getting to the point, our jam room was located in the center of a warehouse compound, secluded on all sides, except for a driveway. There were always loose pallets lying around, so one day we had a crazy idea. The owner of the compound gave us permission to build a stage with the pallets. We layered it with some plywood and carpet from the jam room. Checking with the local officials, we learned as long as we didn’t publicly advertise, we didn’t need a permit for an outdoor performance. Basically, it was going to be a word of mouth, back yard party, of sorts.
We asked a few friends to kick in for a couple of kegs and to spread the word to friends, family & co-workers about a ‘Donation Only’ Wicked Rage concert. What happened next was truly amazing!
The initial turnout of people we personally knew was staggering in itself, but as the night went on, it was clear we were onto something huge. Word of mouth had worked better than we could have ever imagined. That and the fact the music traveled beyond the compound, attracting more metalheads who found their way in. I would periodically announce from the stage that this was a donation concert and to please consider dropping a few dollars into the bucket that was located next to the sexy babes serving up the brew. We took a break after about 10 songs so we could mingle with the crowd. I even took over keg duty for awhile, thanking everyone that came withing 10 feet of me.
During the second set, the police showed up, asking us to tone it down, since it was after 10PM. They were really cool about it, hanging out to hear the last few songs of the night. Afterward, we thanked them. They even stuck around to help direct traffic out of the compound. As far as the success of the self made gig? We cleared over $600! Future compound gigs featured a ‘Merch Sale Cover Charge’. Basically, we set up a merch booth at the driveway entrance. Worked like a charm. Creating our own gig netted the band an extra $800 – $1000 per month. And that was before implementing a series of ‘taking over the bar’ ideas, similar to the one in Derek’s blog.
Be creative, be bold, but most of all, don’t be afraid to say NO to Pay To Play!