Yesterday I logged onto Facebook and a new page had sprung up, titled “PUT A STOP TO THE MONTO CULTURE. STOP RIPPING BANDS OFF!!!!”. The page had received over 1000 likes in 3 days and was receiving a healthy stream of posts, mainly from musicians who at some point had been stung by some of the more exploitative practices of certain music promoters.
For those not familiar with them, Monto is a London live music company whose preferred deal when booking bands is that the bands buy 60 tickets at £3 each, which they then sell on for £6. It’s one variant of the pay-to-play system, whereby bands must put down money in advance in order to play the gig. So what, you may ask? Once the tickets are sold, promoter and band take £180 each and everybody is happy. Except that selling 60 advance tickets is a tough call for most unsigned bands in London. And they have to be advance tickets – a clause in the Monto contract specifically bans tickets from changing hands in the vicinity of the venue on the gig date. So if you decide to turn up on the day to support your mate’s band you have to buy tickets at the door (now for £8 rather than £6). And what percentage does the band get from door sales? 0%. Nothing. So if the bands sell less than half their tickets, they make a loss, while Monto are guaranteed their £180 plus ‘on the door’ sales.
Now, with their money guaranteed and paid in advance, it’s hard to see an incentive for the ‘promoter’ to actually promote the gig, ensure that it’s well run, put together a line-up of bands that complement each other or otherwise take an interest beyond doing the bare minimum to make sure that the gig actually takes place. Virtually all the promotion is done by the bands desperately trying to make back their £180 downpayment on the tickets. And ‘promotion’ in this case is probably best translated as ‘flogging tickets to your mates’ because, lets be honest, a band that’s able to guarantee 60 advance sales from a genuine fanbase should be able to negotiate a better deal than the one I’ve just described.
Live music is a social thing and works best when everybody in the room is there with a common goal – to enjoy the music. But bands desperately flogging tickets to their mates doesn’t result in that. Musos might not want to hear this, but just because your mates like you it doesn’t mean they like your band. And they almost certainly will be pretty ambivalent about the four other bands on the bill who are in a completely different genre to you (and each other). A group of people hanging around out of loyalty, listening to music that they’re not really into makes for a crap atmosphere and a bad night for all. If bands want to keep on selling tickets they need to develop a reputation for giving their audiences a good time, not press gang everyone they know into coming to their gigs.
Monto isn’t the only promoter running pay-to-play gigs and the kind of deal I’ve described above isn’t the only form of pay-to-play. If you’re in a band and you’re approached by any promoter with any deal that requires you to put down money before the gig, turn it down flat. You’ll be doing all the work, for a lot less than all the pay, even if you do manage to turn a profit.
If you don’t mind taking a risk and putting some money into a live gig try this instead – find a few bands that you like, who are on the same scene as you and who you know are reliable. Invite them all to chip in to hire a venue and put on a night together. Since you know and like all the bands on the bill you can genuinely get out there and tell people about this great night of music you’re putting on. Your audience may even have heard of some of the other bands on the bill! How good does that sound? Since you’ve got a coherent programme of bands in the same genre you could go even further with some targeted advertising to people who are into your style of music but who don’t know you – yet.
Of course, there’s work involved in organising a gig like that and if you just want to get out there and play there are plenty of promoters offering much fairer deals. You may or may not be looking to make money from a gig; often there’s more value and enjoyment to be had from playing in front of a new audience. As an unsigned band with limited resources and public profile, working with promoters can be a good way to find that new audience. But when a promoter sends you a deal with no financial risk to themselves it’s a sure sign that they don’t really intend to do any promotion and you’re only going to be playing to the people you brought down yourself.
So how’s that Facebook group doing now? Well, a couple of hours after I logged on it mysteriously disappeared. There were quite a few posts naming & shaming particular promoters, so I guess one of them got uppity and complained. What it showed in the short time it lasted was the depth of feeling in the music community against pay-to-play and other exploitative deals. If you’re in a band and you’re considering a pay-to-play deal, do a favour to yourself, your fans, friends and the wider music community; say no.
If this didn’t convince you, here’s some further reading on pay-to-play: