“What’s the deal with me having to sell all these tickets to play a show?”
I think “pay to play” is a controversial topic these days. In some parts of the county it’s pretty much unheard of. However here in northeast it is pretty much the only way to play some of the bigger rock clubs. I’ve been on both sides of the issue and I hope to give you (the band, artist, manager, etc) some insight on the practice.
Running a venue is so insanely expensive I can’t believe people actually still open them. I have been part of two separate groups who have tried to open venues and neither of them went very far. Everything about running a venue is costly; bartenders, security, sound guy, light guy, stage manager. All of these people get paid at the end of each night and they don’t come cheap. Insurance for a venue is astronomical, if you even can qualify for it. Now, before we start to feel too bad for the poor downtrodden venues owners, know that these guys can make all of their money back from five bad nights with one really good one.
When I was young band manager, I was often in the position where I’ve had to call friends and family begging to buy tickets. The first few times people either felt bad or had to (i.e. my parents) but then after a few months it became nearly impossible to sell any tickets. When we called up the venue to book a show we were told its simple, sell 150 tickets and you’re guaranteed to open for a “major act.” Being young and stupid we fell for it. We never managed to hit the magic 150, but we came close a few times and over the next few weeks we were able to bring out 100+ crowds to the monthly showcase. The final straw came when we were asked to play yet another Sunday showcase, but this time the promoter swore up and down if we could 100 people he would finally give us an opening slot. We didn’t realize that we were up against a major NFL playoff game. Needless to say, it was a disaster. We even made the big mistake of buying our own tickets to try and hit the magic 100 number. We fell into the trap that a lot of booking managers do to young bands and in the end it destroyed the band.
In the end we made them around $4,000 and we got to play a lot of Sunday matinee shows with 10 other bands also trying to get the big opening slot. Playing these types of shows month after month destroys your fan base, kills your merch sales and holds your band back. What most bands don’t know and I didn’t really learn until I started working at bigger rock venues, is that even if you are lucky enough to get that opening slot, you’re more than likely there to fix a mistake made by a talent buyer. From time to time buyers tend to over reach on shows. It’s up to booking managers to help fix these mistakes. A typical conversation I had while booking local bands on shows went something like this:
Buyer: Hey did you see the numbers on the show on the 24th?
Me: No, haven’t really seen them. How is it doing?
Buyer: It looks like someone is going to lose their job if the numbers don’t get better. What do you have?
Me: For the Meundo reunion tour….ummmm well I know these guys the JimJam Crew.
Buyer: How are they?
Buyer: How many can they do?
Me: 50 tickets easy
Buyer: Book them!
When you play a show at one of the bigger rock clubs, people take notes. In fact I have a book of band notes on just about every band I’ve booked. I have notes on tickets sold, how well the bar did, how you behaved and how your band played. Anything I thought would help me down the line, I wrote down. Information is worth money and I wasn’t about to take a risk on my job not knowing as much about each band as possible.
So what should you do if you’re faced with selling tickets for a show? Ultimately, the decision is up to you, the artist/band. If you call up a venue and they tell you they want 100 tickets for a showcase show, I would advise you to tell them to go jump off a bridge. I always felt an appropriate number of tickets to sell for a showcase is anywhere from 25-50. If you really can’t do at least 15 people, you might just want to keep playing in the basement. Hopefully this at least provides some insight into “pay for play” and I’m sure as we move along in this blog we’ll touch on it again.