In this tutorial, I’ll explain to you the concept of pay-to-play and give you ideas and techniques that you can use to turn the concept to your advantage, organise gigs and be profitable.
Pay-to-Play: Making it Pay
Pay-to-Play is a trend in live music promotions that is getting more popular especially in larger cities that are known for their live music venues.
This promotional concept is not new and in fact is essentially the same model as large-scale concert promotions businesses that rent out a stadium and then sell tickets to recoup the fees.
Many bands are afraid of approaching this set up and with good reason, as the sum of money a band must come up with to purchase tickets to sell to their fans is often more than the amount the band has saved.
In Los Angeles the average Pay-to-Play gig promoter provides 50 tickets that are to be sold at $10 apiece. This means the band must front $500 to the promoter to get on the bill.
While this sounds like an unfair scheme on the surface, the problem is that most bands don’t realize that Pay-to-Play isn’t much different than being a billboard-charting band booking a concert at a major stadium.
In fact, with a little business knowhow, a band can make Pay-to-Play a profitable venture rather than a struggle.
While Pay-to-Play may not be the most optimal choice for a brand-new band starting out financially, if an experienced band has hopes to play on a regional or national level then this is a good test to see if the band is ready to tour.
Regardless of whether you’re booking a hole-in-the-wall club in a small town, or all 18,200 seats at Madison Square Garden, the process for show promotions is the same. All venues owners want a venue usage guarantee and will require the promoter to pay this fee upfront.
Smaller venues may allow a promoter or band to share the door fee in the case they can be convinced that there will be enough of a draw. If, however, the band or promoter don’t bring in enough fans then they may still owe the venue money at the end of the night.
Clubs and promoters like the Pay-to-Play business model because it guarantees they make the money they want upfront and without any hold ups. If the band has no audience, the venue isn’t put out financially. Pay-to-Play is essentially scaled down concert promotions when you get to the heart of the matter.
If Metallica, Britney Spears or Keith Urban wants to have a concert at the Sprint stadium in downtown LA, they must pay a fee to rent the venue.
These bands aren’t going to pay out of their bank accounts, they’re going to find free money in the form of sponsorship dollars to pay the fees as well as use other marketing avenues.
The same principle can be applied to your band and, in fact, once you have a successful night with Pay-to-Play you can begin to book clubs out yourself, or apply the principles to your regular gigs and really come out in the green.
Make Money With Pay-to-Play
Your band can make money with Pay-to-Play the same way that the big name bands do, through sponsorship dollars, merchandise sales, and creative marketing techniques.
Sponsors are advertisers that want to get their brand name or product in front of a specific demographic. Some sponsors that might want to advertise to your fan base include:
- Musical instrument and pro audio manufacturers
- Music schools
- Beverage companies
- Clothing retailers
Most bands already know that selling merchandise can bring in cash, though I’m not thinking of standard tired run-of-the-mill t-shirts.
There are so many more options to make money, you don’t have to limit yourself to the expected merchandise. Here’s a few cheap—less then three dollars—items that resell like hotcakes:
- Guitar-shaped thumb drives
- Baby-doll tank tops for ladies
- LED jewelry
- Custom temporary tattoos with the band logo
In Nashville it is not at all uncommon to see a tip girl circle the club trying to gather donations for the artist on stage in a tip jar.
Since most clubs don’t pay artist in this town, this is how a band makes money for performing. The same concept can be used in any club, and doing this at a Pay-to-Play gig is a perfect way to offset the booking fee.
Skills to Making Pay-to-Play Gigs Profitable
Managing a Pay-to-Play booking will not necessarily be a cakewalk, it will require specific skills, planning time and dedication to make this model a success.
These tasks are labor intensive and while a band might consider finding a manager to perform these duties, it is possible to do this if the band takes enough time to plan the event.
If your band is serious enough about success you might even find this process to be enjoyable.
This is the most important aspect of making a Pay-to-Play situation work.
Most show promoters give themselves at four to six months to plan an event, and so should your band when it comes to making an investment to perform.
The more time you plan, the more time you have to find sponsorship money to pay the gig fee.
In order to sell to sponsors you must have something to sell that benefits them.
You need to provide quality designed materials. Additionally you want to provide ad size options to your sponsors. Quality materials will allow your potential sponsors to perceive a value in paying to place their logo or trademark on your material.
Standard materials promoted by bands include:
- Print & web flyers
- Vinyl banners (hung at the show)
- Your band’s email blasts to subscribers
Next you will need to be able to present other marketing factors including:
- Determine Your Reach – How many people will see your material, including online and offline
- Determine Distribution Channels—Online, Street team flyers, Posters, Mailing list blast, other
- Determine Distribution Amounts—Consider the number of items to be made and distributed
- Determine Ad Sizes—Consider the space be for the sponsors logo. Consider offering different sizes for different prices
Potential sponsors aren’t going to show up to your gigs or your practice, so you or your band manager must develop the skills to find sponsors.
There are many resources ranging from industry trade shows like NAMM and SWSX to local businesses in your own neighborhood.
Start shaking hands and making connections now that you can contact later to offer sponsorship opportunities when your band is ready to book with a Pay-to-Play venue.
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