The pay-to-play model has to go

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Artwork by Steve St. Pierre

In the world of live music, there are a number of ways in which artists, promoters, and venues can agree to put on a show. For a lot of independent musicians, these deals can seem mysterious and perplexing. These deals can range from very reasonable to overtly exploitative, and the exploitative ones are bad. I mean, really bad.

There are various ways in which a performance deal can be shady and keep money out the of artist’s pocket, but there are a few that I’ll talk about here which are particularly unethical. In the lexicon of the music industry, artists and concert-goers should be wary of the terms “competition” and “showcase.” These are terms that are often used to cover up a pay-to-play scheme—or should I say, scam.

Here’s how they generally work: An organizer creates a showcase festival and says its mission is to promote and support bands. I use the term “bands” because they are usually the targets, although this can also apply to solo artists. Often targeted towards naïve and younger groups, bands can submit their application to play one of several short time slots throughout the event.

In essence, it is a popularity contest where the band that sells the most tickets usually brings out the biggest, most voracious crowd and scores major points with judges.

Sometimes the application even costs money, without any guarantee of a performance or mention whatsoever. Successful applicants are forced to sell as many tickets as possible and are given a short time slot to perform—again, without any guarantee of money. The applicants who sell the most tickets are typically offered some sort of prize. There is usually some promise of leveraging oneself in the industry, or “fast lane to fame” by skipping over the hurdles that prevent artists from hitting it big.

In Ottawa, there are two examples that I would like to examine. First, Landmark Showcase Festival (LME) is a scheme which most local musicians are familiar with, mostly because the organizers encourage bands to apply by email-spamming them on a regular basis. LME takes a handful of submissions and doles out tickets for bands to sell, usually to their dedicated fanbase, family, and friends.

However, the 15 acts playing the event may have nothing in common with one another musically, and industry judges choose the top performers who get selected to win “grants” in the final round. The criteria includes tightness and professionalism, stage presence and performance, originality/creativity, songwriting/structure, and crowd engagement and reaction. There is no criteria for diversity or inclusivity, so the lineup could conceivably consist of 15 bands made up of straight white guys with goatees and bad nose piercings. This is problematic on many levels.

In essence, it is a popularity contest where the band that sells the most tickets usually brings out the biggest, most voracious crowd and scores major points with judges. While runners-up aren’t given any sort of financial award for their efforts, they are allowed to talk to the industry professionals afterward and attempt to give themselves a “leg up” or “in.”

In the case of E.L.E. Festival, which was hosted by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa in September, the organizers circulated an email to applicants which explicitly stated that the act with the top ticket sales would win the grand prize of $500. Second and third place were to also get a smaller prize, but the next 10 runners-up were only allotted a 15-minute time slot to perform. That’s it. No money, no prizes, nothing.

The festival is “designed to be a stepping stone event between bar gigs and some of the city’s larger festivals like Bluesfest, CityFolk, and Escapade.” In fairness, when it started a few years ago, the lineups were curated more fairly and it was run independently with some money going to charity. However, in its current form, it is difficult to see how larger festivals or promoters could take E.L.E. applicants seriously when its entire local lineup is based on ticket sales and not vetted by quality of music. Ultimately, E.L.E. scrapped the pay-to-play idea last minute after a harsh backlash from the music community in Ottawa.

Any deal that doesn’t guarantee performing bands some set monetary fee or percentage split of the door is unethical, exploitative, and toxic to a music community.

In both of these cases, all applicants are put to work in order to sell as many tickets as possible, yet only the top few receive a cash prize. Moreover, both events promised the runners up a chance to leverage themselves in the industry, gaining “exposure” with industry professionals larger festivals. The last time I checked, there is no official currency called “exposure,” because that isn’t a real thing.

Having bands sell tickets under the guise of “self promotion” without any guarantee of payment or returns is fundamentally unethical. This is exploiting their labour solely in the interest of driving revenue for the organizers, sometimes without a guarantee that the applicant will even be allowed to perform, let alone get paid for their work.

“Pay-to-play” doesn’t necessarily mean bands must literally pay money to have a shot at playing on stage (although forcing bands to fork out cash to apply is the absolute worst—e.g. Sonicbids). It can also mean they pay with their time and effort by being forced to sell as many tickets as possible for an obscure chance to finish at the top for some prize. Bands put a lot of effort into their music. It takes time and money to write songs, buy instruments, rent studio time, record albums, and make merchandise. Any deal that doesn’t guarantee performing bands some set monetary fee or percentage split of the door is unethical, exploitative, and toxic to a music community.

It is my belief that the best way to “make it” in the industry (for lack of a better term) is to come up through the local scene, focus on being part of the community, work hard, and pay your dues. That includes supporting other bands, meeting the people in the community who actually give a shit about music, and most importantly, about musicians. These good folks often include small venue owners and bookers, independent show promoters, community radio station personalities, record store employees, music journalists, and, of course, musicians themselves. These people are usually in the game for the same reason—because they care, and music is their life’s passion.


This article appears in the October edition of Ottawa Beat newsprint in the OSBX column.

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