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There is a local open-mic where I live that charges its musicians to play on stage for 10 minutes. The amount of money is trivial ($2), but I have the gnawing sense that, no matter how you coat it, paying to play isn't right, even under the conditions that by buying in you will be entered in the night's prize drawing.

Should a performer play at a pay-to-play gig? What are the benefits/drawbacks? Especially considering the pay-to-play is an open mic.

  • I've reworded the question to make it more clear. – jason328 Sep 17 '14 at 2:35
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    I thought they were paying you to play, and I was considering if the trivial amount of money was enough. I struggled to understand it. – o0'. Sep 17 '14 at 10:28
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    How does this open mic night bill itself? Some open mic nights bill themselves as like gigs, showcasing quality, professional-standard local talent. Some are more like fun 'anything goes' nights out for amateur musicians and their friends - a step up from karaoke but comparable. – user568458 Sep 17 '14 at 11:51
  • There's a prize drawing? Ask if you can play for free without being entered. – Kyle Strand Sep 17 '14 at 22:35
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    Wait, does this mean that if I show up with a $20, I can get 100 minutes of blissful silence? – Codeswitcher Sep 19 '14 at 0:30

12 Answers 12

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Musician's representatives, including the Musician's Union in the UK are diametrically opposed to the entire concept of pay to play. As they point out, somebody is making money from these gigs, and it is wrong for the performers themselves not to make money from them.

The Musician's Union Fair Play Guide says that co-promotion deals can work:

The MU’s stance in relation to what constitutes an unfair or bad co-promotion deal is: An arrangement whereby artists agree to play a part in the promotion or financing of a gig, but aren’t appropriately or proportionately rewarded for their efforts.

That paper also discusses some of the benefits of schemes such as Get Me On Stage, which may provide opportunities a band may not otherwise see.

Personally, I feel Pay to Play devalues the effort musicians put in. I'd always want to walk away from any venue that demands this, and encourage other bands to do the same. I may cut our asking price for a particular venue or gig, depending on a number of factors, but keeping your baseline fee is valuable.

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    Yeah, but if it's an open-mic nite, you're likely to get people who wouldn't make the first-round cut of America'sGotTalent. If you are good enough to get paid, then go somewhere that will pay you. (where, of course, they won't even let you in the door unless you actually have some decent chops) – Carl Witthoft Sep 17 '14 at 11:55
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    Admittedly $2 isn't much, and perhaps is needed to cover costs on full open mic nights. – Doktor Mayhem Sep 17 '14 at 12:20
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    Also, open mics are sometimes held at non-profit arts centers or churches, and may in fact be costing the venue money, rather than making a profit. – Karen Sep 17 '14 at 15:13
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    Would it be accurate to say that "performers" could in principle pay to play, but not in any capacity they might have as professional musicians? I'm not sure your answer speaks to amateur "performers" one way or the other. Or are you so strongly against the concept that you're basically saying if a venue charges for karaoke you'll boycott it forever? ;-) – Steve Jessop Sep 17 '14 at 21:48
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    @SteveJessop: In a sense--when a performer is being paid, the performer is expected to act in the interest of the person who is paying. A professional performer might regard paying for an open mic as part of his professional career if e.g. he views it as a means of advertising himself. If $2 would buy the right to say "If you'd like a CD, see me after the show or visit my web site at example.com", that could generate as much value as a print or radio ad, but at a fraction of the price. – supercat Sep 18 '14 at 18:12
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$2 for 10 minutes of stage time is nothing. If you include the changeover between acts the hourly rate is about what the waitresses earn before tips. If you get a free beer out of the gig you are ahead. If each of you get a free beer you are way ahead.

You are not paying to cover costs, it will barely cover the power bill for the stage systems. It's 'honest money' - only the (slightly more) serious will sign up, and probably appear when scheduled.

If you feel you are good enough to get paid, have your agent contact the club manager for a proper billed performance. If you are not good enough to have an agent, pay the $2 and maybe an agent will notice. It will cost you $2 in gas & parking to go see an agent, and he won't offer you a free beer.

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    +1 good analysis of costs. One pedantic comment: the term "earnest money" means paying something in advance in order to show that the payer has an interest in showing up. "Honest money" is a ill-defined term in economics contrary to "fiat money". – msw Sep 17 '14 at 16:51
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I used to do a lot of regular gigs as a musician for about 4 years.

What usually justifies getting paid for live performances as a musician:

There is a paying audience that you are entertaining, and they are getting value out of the performance. In some way, on some level, the audience is there to hear you, whether actively on a stage or passively in the background.

What you are describing sounds like:

The venue is promoting an event and providing an audience and the performers are getting value out of the experience of performing to a crowd.

This is an open mic night, let's be realistic. If you are good enough to get a paid gig, you can organise that very easily. You did nothing to organise the open mic night, the venue did that for you for a bit of fun. It's essentially glorified karaoke. Would you expect to get paid to sing karaoke to your friends? If you ran a karaoke bar with a stage, would you expect to pay your patrons? It sounds to me like the entry fee is barely enough to cover the prize and I don't see anything that could be an unethical profit motive here.

The problem with this question is that it's dressing up open mic as a "gig", whereas I'd argue it is not a "gig" at all. In order to have a "gig" you (or your representative) either organises it yourself by contacting the venue, or someone representing the venue contacts you explicitly, ahead of time and requests that you perform on their behalf on a set date, for a negotiable fee. The other questions referencing formal documents from Unions and working musicians are missing that key point.

So, because open mic is not really a "gig", it is simply a fun community event with a fun community funded prize and while performing you have no responsibilities and there is no expectation for you to perform well or otherwise do "a good job (beyond your own ego)" in any way, I would say jump off your high horse and pay the $2 and have fun like everybody else is.

Edit: Even if you are awesome, touring and selling out huge venues nightly, it doesn't change the fact that the premise of open night is intentionally newbie/amateur friendly. If you are selling millions of tracks on iTunes, you could probably talk to the owner of the venue and get them to pay you $2 to perform, I recommend you give them a call to find out.

8

On one hand, I don't think pay to play is morally wrong. I don't feel I get to tell anybody how to run their open mike. And for that matter, I've paid large amounts of money to attend residential workshops, which had performing as part of point of the exercise, and to which the local community was invited and charged admission.

On the other hand, the fine editors at the Making Light blog have an aphorism for aspiring writers, to help them detect scams (there are apparently quite a lot of such scams), called "Yog's Law": MONEY FLOWS TOWARDS THE WRITER. The implication being, that's how legitimate publishing works, and if the money is ever trying to flow away from the writer, Something Is Very Wrong. When I learned this, it spoke powerfully to me as a musician. If I play in at a sessiun down at the local pub, somebody (I learned) will hand me two complimentary drink tickets and offer me a plate of sandwiches. It's not earning a living, but it is a show of respect and appreciation. It's not cash, but the cash-equivalent is flowing the right direction; I appreciate that as the right order of things. At the very least, you can provide me a drink and a sandwich. I think it's legit to decide that that you want to follow Yog's Law in your musical activity.

6

When you consider the open-mic aspect of it, I assume this is just like the $15 co-pay I had on my insurance that otherwise covered 100% of everything with 0 deductible: it's a deterrent from those who waste a valuable resource. Just the fact that you're paying something will keep those with literally zero serious ambition from going up on the stage and wasting everyone's time. If they're charging this $2, it's just to make sure you're confident enough in your abilities to go on a stage that you're willing to pay $2 for it. But if you're the type that perhaps isn't so musically inclined, you're likely to take that $2 and put it toward another beer instead of using it to go up on the stage.

A policy like this only exists because of a problem the venue has had in the past. If it ever got something stupid (more than what they charge for a beer) you would want to start asking why it exists and what alternatives there are.

  • 1
    That's certainly the idea at least behind that particular $2 fee. I don't find the application of this argument very convincing though – in fact, a daresay the fee is more effective at keeping away people who have some ambition (because they'll feel that gnawing sense that it's just not right). – leftaroundabout Sep 17 '14 at 15:39
  • There's bound to be some false negatives, musicians that get turned away. But at 10 minutes a piece, you only need 15 musicians per open-mic night to fill 3 hours (assume 5 acts an hour). For a decently advertised night, considering there's bound to be some regulars, that probably isn't hard for them to fill. Are they missing out on the next big star? Maybe. But their objective is to get 15 people on stage that will generally entertain the crowd, which this accomplishes. – corsiKa Sep 17 '14 at 17:04
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    If the number of people willing to pay $2 is sufficient to keep the mic full, the odds of the next big star having been willing to go through the trouble of driving to the venue but unwilling to pay $2 would seem far less than the likelihood that--in the absence of a fee--the venue would miss out on the next big star because the mic was constantly given to people with no talent. Allocation of resources by people's willingness to pay isn't perfect, but most of the time it will be more efficient than any fair and practical alternative. – supercat Sep 17 '14 at 21:23
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It's a matter of supply and demand. If a venue gets lots of people who want to play it can charge to bring down the number.

If your hobby is playing tennis you wouldn't think twice about paying for a tennis court to play.

3

As much as I agree in theory that it doesn't feel right to pay to play, the reality is that even when you do get paid, it'll hardly cover your expenses - transport, food, beer and not to mention the copious volumes of tea and biscuits consumed at all the band practices.

If you want to play the gig then play it and just see it as another expense.

Don't lose sight of where you're going, but also remember that as soon as you take it too seriously, all the fun disappears and then you end up wondering why you're doing it in the first place.

3

If the 2 bucks is charged to the audience as well as the players in the form of a cover charge and you are an amateur just looking for an audience and to have a little fun, go ahead and pay it. 2 bucks is not abusive. However, the quality of most of the acts is likely to be low to awful. Do not expect to see any professionals there, they would be offended by the charge. Do not expect to get a paying gig there, either, because you mark yourself as an amateur and devalue your service by paying to play.

I was once asked to pay a cover at an open jam session and as a full time performer and teacher of many years I compared it to telling a prostitute "give me three dollars and I'll let you blow me." I walked out and went to a jam that didn't charge the musicians and catered to pros and semi-pros looking to play with skilled players outside of their usual commercial acts. The skill level of the other performers at this type of open mic is enough to discourage hackers and draw a paying audience to see good musicians mixing it up and being more adventurous on their night off.

1

Is the message from the bar that you are bothering them so they need some money? Or is it a famous establishement where you can get a gig and play for good money?

I never heard of pay to play for open mic. If it is a bother they should get a DJ. Typically there is a good host band and they run the open mic to make sure there is some quality on stage.

1

I generally feel pay to play is ridiculous. I agree it can be used by establishments to filter out the ones that in the end aren't that into playing, even if it costs 2 bucks. For me though, it's an artist that not only is pouring passion and fueling creativity - then sharing it! - that ought to be paid.

Within the industry, the only place i can tolerate it is within the confines of a performance group or league, in order to get exposure to an entire group event producers, i.e. - college circuit, or festival scene.

1

My feeling is that :

  • $2 is negligable, almost irrelevant, it's the principle

  • you feel as though you're giving something by playing (though it's not work; I mean you're finding something within and delivering it to the audience, for their enjoyment and yours), so giving more in order to get to that is giving doubly, and said bar isn't returning the favour.

  • Lastly - and this is the crux of it : You're having to swallow a little pride and not just volunteer, but shell out a bit of cash to volunteer, to show people what you've got.

There's the difference. I don't think it would matter too much what the cost was, it's the notion that not only are you giving your all on stage, exposing your inner being for all to celebrate or ridicule (depending on how well you're received), but you have to pay for the privilege, implying that you're buying your way into something based on your estimation of your skill.

That doesn't sit at all well with me. I like to play because I feel like the audience wants me to (eg at a gig), not because I've paid money to stand in front of them, even if only a little bit.

Speaking as someone who runs a jam night, the notion of asking people to pay to play would be laughed at. "Hahaha .. er-no. By the way, where's your nearest competitor?"

Some Karaoke clubs ask for money to sing - that's not the same. You're MUCH more exposed at an open mic session, there's no karaoke machine to hide behind, and evrything you deliver is coming from your inner self, not a recording-plus-your-vocals, and may be your own work, not a cover.

  • Karaoke and open mic night are the same in that they are both organised and presented in such a way that it is clear that what the performers are doing could never be considered "work", it's a bit of fun and sure, open mic is more intense for the performers, but they're doing it because they know (even if it's really deep down) that the performance is primarily a learning experience for them, similar to a mock trial that might be held for budding lawyers. When you truly have a "gig", what the performer is doing could be considered "work", which is different to open mic. – David Meister Sep 20 '14 at 9:09
  • er- I didn't say anything about "work". Neither open mic or karaoke are work, except for the people running it. If you're referring to what I said about "giving", I meant you're reaching inside yourself and delivering something- not in a 'work' kind of way. – user2808054 Sep 22 '14 at 8:31
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This isn't even really pay-to-play, with such a small amount. But let's extend the discussion to the point where the payment is an appreciable amount, commensurate to the cost of providing sound, lights etc. Or even to making the promoters a profit.

Why is this even being discussed? Why not walk away, laughing? Because the performers WANT to play. They're paying for something that isn't a necessity of life, but just something they WANT to do. This is the basis of all luxury-market commerce and doesn't require regulation.

protected by Dom Sep 19 '14 at 17:48

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