Photo by Travis Schuster.
There may be no greater feeling for a young musician than sharing the stage with a favorite band. It’s an opportunity to get your music into the ears of hundreds who may have never had the opportunity to hear it otherwise; you may even have the chance to share it directly with artists you respect, perhaps even idolize. Moments like these are a common, yet crucial step for bands early in their musical careers, finally escaping the world of beer-soaked basements and deserted dives, even if only for a night. It’s these simple instances that can impart a world of inspiration and drive to take the next step, to reach that “high” again, to finally become the primary draw or direct support. It’s a valuable feeling; actually, it has become so valuable, that it now has a physical price.
“Pay-to-play” is a phrase you will rarely hear uttered by the individuals who put it to practice. They often operate under the guise of a “promoter” or “music group,” but in reality they are salesmen, powerful peddlers of “opportunity” and we’re all potential clients. The pitch is simple: a popular band is coming to town and your band can open if you agree to sell a certain number of tickets. In truth, it doesn’t sound like such an awful idea—sell a few tickets in exchange for playing with a larger touring act, and while it may seem harmless at face value, the consequences impact the local music scene in a serious way.
The local scene lives, breathes, and flourishes in new talent. With shows being held almost daily in the same basements and dives mentioned above, as well as a number of community centers, coffee shops, small clubs, and so forth, new local artists are a vital part of an ever-moving musical community. While a DIY-organized event for a touring band on a weeknight may not seem like a stand-out experience–small crowd, no pay, cramped space—shows like these are special. Smaller events are the lifeblood of any local scene; they build relationships, they keep us close, and they introduce us to new music in an environment that we have to work for, whether that work is upholding the space itself or being the person who steps out of his or her comfort zone to spend their evening sweating with fifty strangers in someone’s basement. While playing to hundreds of people in front of a favorite artist is memorable in its own right, you may be surprised how long the kids in the basement will continue to talk about “the night they bought your demo in a basement and couldn’t believe you were from the same city and they’d never heard you until now.” Sometimes letting art exist and evolve in its rawest form is more impactful than trying to present it on a silver plate from the beginning.
Things change when your passion slowly morphs into a business. This is not to say that there is no room for business in music—when playing music can take as much time, effort, and money as it does, “getting down to business” can be a necessity, but this is a direction an artist can and should elect to take on his or her own terms. Let it be known, the “pay-to-play” model does not promote business for the sake of music, rather, it propagates the concept of music for the sake of business. Promoters engaging in this way of booking are singlehandedly pulling talented artists from a scene of respect and excitement into a realm of deals and agreements; not just for a night, but perhaps into a relationship that sucks an artist into a long-term adhesion to the rock star ideals that newer, younger artists are a quick pool for profit. It can be seen as bands that began as the “ticket sellers” take over the role of the agents, offering a spot on their bill to other acts, once again, in exchange for a number of ticket sales. These methods are not confined to Greensboro; this is a nationwide problem, a plague sweeping in and infecting the very people it claims to support.
As a musician and someone who has witnessed and fallen victim to the “pay-to-play” scheme, I can state with confidence that while the operation may act as a vehicle to promote music, it also promotes a sincere level of disrespect for the musicians themselves. We must recall our own worth in this scene—though the stage may sit higher for some, we engage our drives with similar goals and a love for what we create. With that in mind, we have to put that respect for ourselves into practice and know that we deserve and have earned the right to show our relevance through our craft, not our status or our wallets. All we need is exactly what we should be asked for—ourselves and the art we create.