The pay-to-play model has to go
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.
E.L.E. Fest 2013
Still Native killing it at the inaugural E.L.E. Fest in Ottawa.
On Friday September 20th I ventured to the lawn in front of Tabaret Hall at Ottawa U to check out the latest festival addition to our dear city, E.L.E. Festival.
E.L.E. stands for “Everyone Love Everyone,” and let me tell you there was certainly positive energy in the air and people of all ages enjoying the vibe.
Setting the tone for the evening was AkoufèN, a French Alternative Pop Metal band. First of all, major props for having a French band play, more festivals around town should start doing the same. The band had great energy and a great message. For example, their song ”#nomorebullies ” is all about raising awareness of the bullying epidemic that is running rampant through high schools nowadays. Bon job gang!
Many other great local acts took the stage, and not your usual suspects. Tickling our ears were The Lionyls, Monday I Retire, Erich Mrak, 13eaudry Muzik, Neegus, Garden of Weeds, Arrows & Anchors and Still Native. This was a very diverse group of artists, and all the bands were great. I had to leave early due to other commitments and did not get to see every band. The highlight for me was Still Native though.
They began as a two-piece, guitar and drums, rocking with the energy of the Black Keys, whom they covered. Once the third member joined, the set was taken to the next level, with songs such as ”Private Eye.” But what really set them apart was inviting my favourite Ottawa MC, none other than Atherton, on stage with them for a killer piece. There is something so awesome about some slick rap over blues rock.
The festival’s goal is to create opportunities in the Ottawa music scene and support local. One of its major commitments is to engage youth and get them more involved in the blossoming arts community in Ottawa. If that wasn’t enough, they also teamed up with The Candelighters Childhood Cancer Support Programs of Ottawa, which helps children and families in the region cope with cancer in a variety of ways.
So it was for a good cause, it was free with donations encouraged, it was outside and had a lineup chock full of Ottawa talent… yup it was as good as it sounds.
A sweet bonus of the festival was free Vitamin Water which really hit the spot. All in all I thought Sean Callaghan and his crew put together a good time and I truly hope to see E.L.E. become a regular amongst the plethora of festival in the nation’s capital.
Read Ottawa Showbox’s interview with E.L.E. co-organizer Sean Callaghan here.
ELE Fest’s Sean Callaghan opens up about Ottawa’s newest addition
Once in a while, an event comes along that offers up something a little different. Here at Showbox, we fulfill our obsession with music by being shameless geeks who enjoy dabbling in all corners of Ottawa’s music scene. There’s hip hop festivals, indie boutique festivals, large-scale music festivals, and just about anything else you can think of. The newest addition in Ottawa as far as festivals go certainly caught our attention. The organizers of ELE Fest (short for ‘Everybody Love Everybody’) have big goals, all of which seem to be coming to fruition quite successfully. Not only is ELE aiming to create opportunities in the Ottawa music scene and support local, one of its commitments is to engage youth and get them more involved in the blossoming arts community in Ottawa. If that wasn’t enough, they’re also teaming up with The Candelighters Childhood Cancer Support Programs of Ottawa, which helps children and families in the region cope with cancer in a variety of ways. With such a large undertaking in its inaugural event coming up Friday, September 20, I spoke with ELE co-organizer Sean Callaghan to gain a better understanding of what ELE is all about. One thing is for sure – this festival will be a welcome addition to a growing arts community in Ottawa who are craving new ways to express and consume their work. For festival info, see below or visit the E.L.E. website.
With so many festivals in Ottawa, what is it that makes ELE Festival unique amongst the rest?
E.L.E Fest is unique because it focuses on youth and local musicians. It is created, and organized by Ottawa youths, under the age of 25 and will showcase talented individuals from the same age group. We are therefore not competing with larger music festivals in Ottawa because we have set our sights on a different demographic. Also, ‘E.L.E.’ is an acronym for ‘everybody love everybody’ and reflects the positive, communal atmosphere we are working to create at the festival. Through the festival we hope demonstrate the positive impact music can have on a community at large. In order to do so, we have partnered with the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Support programs of Ottawa. We are raising money at the event through food and t-shirt sales, as well as at the after party through ticket sales.
How did the festival come to be? Where did the idea come from?
E.L.E Fest began as a result of two things. The first being the necessity for a stepping stone event between local bar gigs and some of the city’s larger music festivals. And secondly the prominence of competitive live music events for young musicians, such as battle-of-the-bands. Unlike these events E.L.E. Festival will encourage artists of different styles to take the stage together in one-of-a-kind collaborative performances. Thanks to the University of Ottawa’s generous sponsorship, tickets to the festival are free. The performers aren’t required to push expensive tickets on their friends and family. Alternatively, they’re working together to help promote each other and the Ottawa music scene as a whole.
From your standpoint, how would you characterize the Ottawa music scene?
To me, the Ottawa music scene is a beautiful, budding flower. Our city is rich in talent – untapped potential. Like a flower needs water to grow, so too does our music scene need hard work and perseverance. As budding professionals here in Ottawa, we have to think outside the box, and pursue a career in music with relentless creativity, developing new avenues as we carry the music scene to the next level. We intend to do our part with The E.L.E. Festival. If we can all work together we have the potential to do something very special here in Ottawa. We hope that through our efforts, other young people will be inspired to make a change of their own.
Why is it so important to get youth involved in this kind of event?
Youth are the future. In order to inspire change we have to lead by example and be the change so that’s why it’s so important for the young people of the city to get involved with the festival. We are trying to spearhead a movement. We’re putting the love back in music. With our sights set on the future, what better way to inspire the younger generations than by setting an example for them.
Is ELE going to become a yearly festival? How do you envision the festival a few years down the road?
Yes, our plan is to become an annual event. We will also expand into a full weekend and, further down the road, into a full week event. Ideally we would like to bring in large acts from all over the world to mentor the young performers and show them what it takes to make it in the music industry. Also in future years, we would like to introduce a mandatory collaborative component between artists. Each performer will be paired with another performer from a totally different genre and they will be required to create a one-of-a-kind collaborative piece. In our first year we’re encouraging artists of various genres to collaborate and expand their musical horizons, as we hope to prove this concept to be effective.
E.L.E. Festival Information
WHEN: Friday, September 20th, 2013 from 5:00pm – 11:00pm.
WHERE: Tabaret Lawn, University of Ottawa Campus. Located at the corner of Laurier and Cumberland.
FREE ADMISSION: $5 donations are encouraged in support of the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Support Programs.
WHO: We are very pleased to present our lineup of talented young musicians.
The Lionyls | Rock & Soul
Monday I Retire | Rock Blues Alternative
Erich Mrak | New School Hip Hop
StillNative | Raw Beat Rock
13eaudry Muzik | Hip Hop, Beat Box
Go Long (!) | Acoustic Folk Trio
Neegus | Rap, Poetry
Garden of Weeds | Rock and Roll
AkoufèN | French Alternative Pop Metal
Presented by The University of Ottawa Community Life Services.