Never pay to play.
In our city, we pride ourselves on our artistic community. You might be surprised at the amount of music to come out of the industrial neighborhoods and the suburbs and the basements across this town. There are too many bands to count, and a lot of them practice in basements and rooms they rent out once a week. The practice spots may smell like sewer water, or have 15-year-old dust on the floors, or have PAs that sound like garbage, but these spaces are where the young and the inexperienced turn into real musicians. These spaces are a place for dreaming and writing and working and playing music. Those of us who have a practice spot like this are lucky to have a place where time stops and all that matters is the music.
That DIY, garage band, rock and roll, underdog kind of mentality is an awesome mindset to possess. It’s also a kind of mentality that is really easy to manipulate.
Really, how many of us are going to make it? We’re all trying really hard to have something that makes us different. We might not all want to be celebrities—but we do all want to be able to play music. Ultimately, we want to pay our bills by playing music. The big question is, how the hell are we supposed to get to that point?
Well, you start by playing shows, of course—but that’s a trick in itself. And then it happens. Your band’s myspace page gets a personalized message from a production company, telling you they love your band, and are looking for some great local acts to open for a great concert at a venue downtown. Or maybe they want you to participate in a Battle of the Bands.
You’re just a local act and no one knows you, so that kind of offer is almost irresistible. You agree to play a Battle of the Bands on a Wednesday night at Venue X. Sure, it’s not the weekend, but you have no audience and you don’t have any other offers, so you consider this your first step towards success.
Pretty soon you’re informed that you need to sell tickets. The production company—we’ll call them Y Productions—set up the show and rented the space. There’s a minimum you need to sell, but if you sell less than the other bands on the show, you have to play earlier. In order to insure a good time slot—some time where there may be people wandering in the venue, who have the chance to hear your music—you must sell more tickets. But Venue X won’t give you more tickets, you have to buy them yourself. Y Productions promises they are not a pay-to-play service, and their website looks legitimate, so you agree to fork over some cash with the promise that you will get it back if you sell the tickets.
Problem is, no one promotes these shows. You’re an inexperienced band on a list with other inexperienced bands and often times, your bands don’t even sound similar or have any kind of cohesive qualities. There might be eight other bands also playing that night, so you only get a fifteen-minute set. Worst of all, hardly anyone even shows up to see you play.
Guess what? You just paid a big chunk of your time and money to Y Productions and Venue X to play your music for nobody. You may realize it, and you probably have a sour feeling about it, but you do it again and again. Why? Simple. You are passionate about your music. You want to be successful, and you are working hard to be a better musician, and you just figure you have to start somewhere, because how else are you supposed to make it?
It takes a long time and a lot of work, but there is a better way.
I’m in a band. I’ve been a musician almost my entire life. I know what it is like to want success, so I understand where you are coming from. The difference is, I would never set foot in a place like Venue X, and if Y Productions messaged my bandcamp page, I would have a few choice words to say to them, over and over, until certain letters on my keyboard stopped working.
I am enjoying success in Cleveland right now with my band, and we’re rapidly increasing our fan base after every single show we play. People I don’t even know have come up to me and told me they love my band. We have over 500 “likes” on Facebook and we are unsigned. We play almost every weekend, with other local bands as well as touring bands, and often have to turn down shows. The formula for our success goes a little bit like this:
1) Practice a lot and get good. Seriously, this is important to mention. Please do not write seven songs, record them with the built-in microphone on your laptop, and figure you’re ready to rock. You need to spend time rehearsing and playing and writing. If you’re not good, chances are people are not going to care.
2) Be unique. Have something that sets you apart from the multitude of other four-piece indie rock bands that are taking over this city. I’m not going to tell you what that something should be, just do something.
3) Set up a few online profiles for your band. Facebook, SoundCloud, and bandcamp are all good choices. My personal favorite is bandcamp, because it allows you to upload tracks and artwork, and gives the option for people to download your product. You can allow free downloads, but you can also set a price for the songs or albums, sync it up to a PayPal account, and start collecting a couple of bucks here and there.
4) Whenever you can, put metatags on your online profiles. Bandcamp offers this option. In case you don’t know, a metatag is a word or phrase that links your profile, so that if people search that word or phrase, your band shows up on the search results. For instance, my band’s metatags are words like “rock,” “punk,” “distorted,” “electromagnetic,” and “Cleveland.” I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been offered shows from touring bands who just typed in “Cleveland rock band” into bandcamp’s search bar and came up with our page.
5) Go to shows at venues that you want to play. If you start making friends with other local bands who are similar to your style of music, I guarantee you will start getting show offers. If you rap, don’t hang out at rock shows—instead, go see other rap artists or groups. If you’re an electronic musician, go see other electronic bands. Hanging out at the venue makes you a familiar face. Often times in Cleveland venues, the bartenders double as the sound engineers or the booking agents. Talk to them, get to know them.
6) Promote your shows, mostly online. If you are walking around town handing out your demo to strangers or baristas or bartenders or bands, THEY ARE GOING TO THROW IT OUT. I am sorry to yell at you, but you have to know this. I’ve thrown out CDs more than I care to admit. It just really bugs me when people I don’t know shove their music in my face, and it really bugs a lot of other musicians too. Start by making your own flyer. All it takes is a Google images search and Microsoft Paint. Market yourselves to the right people, not just anybody. You have to know who you want your audience to be, and target them specifically. Don’t print out two hundred flyers and just post them anywhere. Save your money, print out 10, and take them to places you hang out… then put the flyer up everywhere you can on the internet. Use as many online resources as you can, because it’s free and it’s public. Using social networking creates a word-of-mouth chain between friends, and your potential audience will tend to pay attention a lot more to their friends’ recommendations than a flyer on a telephone pole.
7) Don’t do it for the money. If that’s why you’re in this business, please quit now. Remember how I told you that my band is enjoying some success here in town? We are broke. We don’t always get paid. Sometimes we get a total of $20 to play a show. But honestly, it’s not about that at all. We’re meeting people and musicians from all over the country, and we’re building a fan base. We’ve got a group of awesome people standing behind us, telling their friends about us, buying our CDs, and showing up to our gigs. They are going to help us gain success outside of our city.
8) Speaking of success outside of our city, go on tour. Yeah, you have to leave town. You need a vehicle, a couple of loaves of bread and some peanut butter, and a good chunk of money to do this, but it is so worth it. I love Cleveland, but I highly doubt someone important is going to see me play here and sign me and show me to the world. If you are going to spend money on anything, spend money to tour. My band’s next plan is to take our beat up 200,000 mile Ford Envoy and hit the road. We’re counting on the touring bands we played with here in town to help us book shows in their towns, because that’s how this whole relationship thing works.
9) Be nice. If you’re a conceited jerk, no one will want to help you. One time after a show, my band got a rude message from some guy who thought he had the formula for success. In the message, he said we should “play and bail.” He thought bands were supposed to act high and mighty, and not mingle with the audience after their shows. Well that is total crap. What kind of fan wants their favorite local band to ignore them all night? It is just really rude to act like a superstar, because you never know what kind of connections you might make. And also, karma.
10) Find the people who like you, who contact you for shows, and who want to have YOU on their stage. If you’re getting a generic plea for a show, don’t do it. This, again, is where the “forming relationships with people” thing works. We know tons of bands, owners of bars, venue owners, booking agents, sound engineers, artists, graphic designers, radio producers, and music journalists, and we met them all in person just by hanging out in the local music scene. At some point for all of these individuals, we played a good show, and we brought our friends and some new listeners, and now they all want to work with us again. They have us on their radio shows, they write about us in their publications, they design flyers for us for little to no cost, and they are awesome. We try to pay them back however and whenever we can, and it works out for everyone. Every artist is trying to find a way to promote themselves, so why not help each other out?
I hope this advice helps you figure out how to get your music out in the world. It takes a lot of work, and sometimes free shows, to gain success. Keep your band money separate from your personal money, and only pay for goods or services that you directly benefit from (like buying CDs, printing t-shirts, or paying for gas). Don’t ever forget the most important thing—you are an artist. You’re one of the luckiest people in the world. Respect your value, not just as a musician but also as a businessperson. And please don’t forget to have fun.”
Well, there you have it. Two completely different perspectives on the exact same music scene. I know Latimer is also working his response to this rant so we’ll be sure to publish it as soon as he has it ready.
So what are your opinions on the “pay-to-play” debate? I’d love to hear from you.