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.
Spotlight Series: Ottawa beat music newsprint thrives
In 2012, Ottawa said goodbye to (x)press, its once-homey hub of alternative and independent arts journalism. Since then, a vibrant collection of music blogs, art collectives and start-up companies have scattered across the capital, but nothing truly filled the void of the weekly arts newspaper- until this past summer.
In June, Ottawa Beat, the monthly, independent, locally-created paper was born. Run by Luke Martin and edited by Adella Khan, the publication has since developed a circulation of 5000; reaching hands via indie cafes, record shops, clothing stores, and more. The paper’s articles and illustrations – all crafted by capital region artists – cover concerts, festivals, and arts events, provide commentary on music culture, and spotlight local bands. With each month that goes by, the paper develops a larger readership and covers a wider scope relating to local music; Beat’s latest issue (November 2016) featuring an interview with renowned Canadian artist Tanya Tagaq.
The paper’s beginnings are parallel to the recent changes in Ottawa’s music industry. While the past few years have seen a number of beloved venues close down, new and innovative spots have taken their place – a quite literal example is the closure of Raw Sugar and the opening of Bar Robo. While the city still struggles with accessibility, all-ages shows are on the rise thanks to inviting venues, outdoor festivals, and what seems to be a slow but prominent shift in the attitude of Ottawa’s music scene. Ottawa Beat is a near perfect embodiment of these changes – its eclectic writing spotlights underground music but is inviting to everyone. Supported by small advertisements, the paper is a thriving model of near-independent success, curated by a growing number of local artists who are bound by their appreciation of music and belief that (even within a stereotypically cold government city), local music is a gift, one that needs to be shared.
Creating a music publication was something that Luke Martin, the owner of Capital Rehearsal Studios and Gabba Hey, had thought about since the end of (x)press. A quiet but integral member of the Ottawa music scene for two decades, Martin saw the need for a new music publication, one that would better encompass the city’s young and growing industry.
In search of partners with a writing background, mutual friends led Martin to Adella Khan, a graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program. “She’s a community builder,” he says of Khan, who was previously Editor-In-Chief of The Charlatan and a contributor for CanCulture. Her writing experience, logistical knowledge, and understanding of local arts culture were the set of skills needed to materialize Martin’s idea. Khan works with a growing number of contributors to create the monthly paper; an undoubtedly difficult project, one that she’s handled gracefully.
While Capital Rehearsal Studios has recently closed its doors as a venue (known in the community as Gabby Hey), Martin continues to offer an accessible place for local independent bands to get their footing. Not limited to Gabba Hey, his business endeavours in the Ottawa arts have provided the necessary support for young and self-sufficient artists to thrive.
Supporting young artists remains Martin’s main goal in his managerial position at Ottawa Beat. In Ottawa (unlike larger, more perceptibly “artistic” cities like Toronto), there remains an anxiety around promoting one’s music and seeking a following. Martin hopes to break that barrier down, not only through promoting artists’ work, but also by providing the resources needed to grow. Gabba Hey’s rehearsal space was arguably the best example of this, and it will be difficult to replace. But with the city’s growing number of intimate venues, community music events, and independent recording projects, the future looks bright.
While the paper stays true to its catchphrase, Ottawa’s Music News, it encompasses a wide scope of issues pertaining to the local arts, with essays written from a range of perspectives. Examples include articles providing insight into entertainment law (a monthly piece in the paper’s Music Industry section, written by Byran Pascoe), the struggles of making time for music (The Art of Balancing Family, Work and Music by Adriana Ciccione), and the difficulties of establishing a band (How You Can/Why You Should Start/Join a Band by Brittany Neron and Sofia Shutenko). The paper also features a Babely Shades column, bringing awareness to inequalities in the music scene and providing a much-needed platform for local minorities to reach a wide audience when voicing their experiences.
The paper’s categories (which include Photography, Food, Comics, and Radio, among others), maintain a broad artistic scope within the context of local music, providing a unique collection of stories each month. In this sense, Ottawa Beat should be confident in their future – specialty print can be repetitive, but the paper’s versatility and scope ensures a wide readership and room for growth and change.
Ottawa Beat has also quickly established itself as a means of interconnection and communication within the local arts community. The paper features a monthly itinerary of local shows, uses original artwork for each issue’s cover, and shines light on both the developments in the local music scene as well as its pitfalls and need for improvements. Its newfound prominence in the city provides an incredibly accessible platform for artists to meet, converse, share their opinions, and promote their work; regardless of age, background, genre, or experience. Beat prides itself on its safe-space mentality, arguing for more equal and inviting opportunities for minorities in Ottawa and ensuring the paper remains an engaging platform for artists of all kinds. Providing a communicative space was important to Khan, who says many artistic hubs in Ottawa may be exclusive to a certain group or genre. With Beat, she hopes to provide a place for “interconnectivity within these scenes”.
Ottawa Beat has only been around for a few months, but its rapid growth is obvious. As each month goes by, the paper seems more cohesive, while maintaining the individuality of a local, small-scale and specialty publication. Its articles are refined, even when the paper runs a few pages longer than before. It balances lengthy, almost academic essays and interviews with shorter, informal pieces such as concert reviews and original comics. It provides an alternative, realistic and unapologetic portrayal of Ottawa’s music industry, a young scene that still struggles with exclusivity and judgment.
For the future, both Luke and Adella look forward to growth, as do Beat’s readers. The paper recently hired a Social Media Coordinator, and Khan says that employing more writers is a critical goal going forward, as is inviting more original work from visual artists and photographers. While Beat’s first growing pains may be over, it will certainly continue to evolve along with its readership and context.
Ottawa Beat is not only an example of local success, but of community. Both Martin and Khan stress the importance of variety and support in the paper’s future, promoting the work of musicians but also highlighting the behind-the-scenes work of producers, technicians, and businesspeople through the paper, its affiliates, and local programs. Just as local musicians and venues have leaned on Ottawa Beat for promotion and awareness, the paper relies on activity within the music scene in order to flourish. As more independent venues, companies and coalitions come forward, the interdependent relationship between Beat and the city’s music scene will only get stronger, and the paper will undoubtedly continue to grow. Adella Khan says it best herself when asked about the future of Ottawa Beat – “It’s only getting better”.