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In part 2 of the "The Great Gig (Not) In the Sky" series, uber musician Kevin Williams discusses the concept of paying to play - paying to get that big opening slot for a major band gig. Whether your job is to play guitar, bass drums, or hold a mic and look pretty, you'll want to read this!

Pay to play for gigs


So you just got off the phone with a promoter who loves your EPK (that’s Electronic Press-Kit for those of you kids who didn’t finish your reading assignment from last time).  Apparently you’re a great fit for a bill that’s got two major headliners but it’s going to mandate an investment to hold your spot.  It’s easy to think that this is a scam but most huge festivals are operating this way now and if you play your cards right it could end up quite fruitful for you and your music. 

First off, this isn’t some small-time club show; you’re likely going to be playing an arena or outdoor festival and there are going to be people in attendance whose main purpose is exclusively to hear music.  In fact, many of them are probably chomping at the bit for something new.  Now, it’s easy to get your hopes up here, act irrationally, and end up committing to something that does nothing more than grant you bragging rights after costing you a mortgage payment.  The lure of willing listeners can be all too seductive to a band that’s used to being nothing more than an added bonus to the booze in a bar.  Here are a few things to make sure you ask yourself before you dive in head first and don’t look back so you can still end up making some money.

One way you can get your investment back is to sell tickets to the event.  Occasionally this may require more of an investment than it will to just get on the bill but if your fans are eager (and more importantly if your offering discounted tickets to a major act) you can come out on top here. You can also consider something you should already have if you’re playing something this big and that is your merch.  Do you have enough, will there be an opportunity to sell it, and at what cost to you?  Usually there’s some kind of a fee involved like a booth rental fee or forking over 20 percent of your merch sales so be savvy here.  And remember, you don’t want your merch to end up costing you money after you hand over whatever commission the promoters are going to take so make sure you’ve calculated both the consignment costs and the cost of the CDs, t-shirts, posters, key chains, and thongs you’re selling when telling the merch gurus your asking prices. 

Don’t even consider playing one of these shows if you don’t have merch because it’s going to make it virtually impossible to make any kind of money.  Sure you’re likely to get some attention from single staff news-zines and maybe sign a few autographs but it’s a wave that no band can really keep riding without funds and you want to be able to do this again.  Don’t blow all the gig money you’ve made playing rockstar for one day. 

Remember, there’s a time and a place and if the opportunity presented itself to you once it’s likely to come up again and the timing might be more favorable to your bank account the next time.  Acting prematurely can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth for future experiences and possibly inhibit your ability to invest in some things that may prove a bit more lucrative for your outfit like quality recording, merch, etc.  You want to be ready when you take the spotlight, not have to prepare to take it.   


Kevin Williams is a film composer and performing musician in the Providence, RI area. Checkout Kevin's music and what he is up to at SoundClick