Watching a NASCAR race this past weekend, I was reminded of something known as the Richard Petty Driving Experience, a fantasy camp of sorts that allows anyone with a driver’s license to pay a fee, pass a morning instructional course, and get behind the wheel of a racecar for laps around the track- the amount of times around determined by how much the participant was willing to pay. It’s a well-run organization that offers a real chance to learn what it feels like to be behind the wheel and take the turns on the oval. Years ago, I gave such an experience to my father as a gift, and to this day, he recalls it with excitement and fondness.
As well he should, as it provided him with the opportunity to do something that the circumstances of his life and lack of professional racecar driving skill would otherwise have rendered impossible. I think about that and other fantasy camp experiences like shooting hoops with NBA legends or spring training with heroes of the diamond. Or even real adventure experiences, (after the proper release forms have been signed, money has been relinquished, and in some cases, a bet has been made as to whether one will or won’t do it), like hang-gliding, bungee jumping, or sky-diving. I think about all of these having one simple common denominator- money. Crazy as it sounds, for the right amount, you,too can go one-on-one with Michael Jordan.
‘Pay-to-play’ has become a common phrase uttered among musicians, often with vile connotation. Its basic definition is somewhat self-explanatory. If a musician or band wishes to perform at a club that employs such a policy, it must pay money up front to the club in exchange for time onstage. Simple enough, but what many musicians object to is the idea that they can lose money to a club at which they are providing entertainment to its patrons. This also runs counter to the thought process of someone attending the performance as a member of the audience. Especially if there is a cover charge or ticket cost to enter the club. If asked, my guess is that every guest of the club that night would assume that at least a portion of that expense at the door would go to the talent entertaining them. It doesn’t, unless your admission was paid directly to the band itself. Even then there’s a good chance the money is getting the band out of its debt to the club, not providing it with a profit.
Let me provide an example from my days as a working musician in the clubs of Los Angeles.
The club offers my band a Tuesday night timeslot of 45 minutes on a bill with six other groups starting at 8 pm. The cost of admission to the club that night is $5. The cost of the timeslot is $250. I pay the club owner the $250, and in return, am provided with 50 ‘tickets’ to sell at any price or, if I so desire, give away. Any money I make over $250 is profit.
Let’s assume for the sake of this example, that a person comes to the club without pre-purchasing. A doorman typically will ask which band the person is here to hear. If the person has an answer, then the admission charge goes toward paying back the $250 of that band, and again, anything over that is profit. However, if the person just wanted a night out and doesn’t know any of the acts, the money usually goes to the club.
Now back to the timeslot offered; a Tuesday night, 45 minutes, on a bill with six other groups starting at 8 pm. Maybe your band can pull 50 people to fight LA traffic, pay to park, pay $7 and more per drink, to try and stay, (if your band is unlucky enough to get the last slot), until 12:15 a.m. knowing they have to get up for work in six or seven hours, but mine rarely could. Not exactly the most attractive, enticing offer for your potential fanbase, even if they mostly are friends. Scenarios like this often left me with so much guilt from asking people to come out to hear my band, I gave away more tickets than I ever sold.
Again, even if you got the 50 people to come out, and believe me, 50 in Los Angeles for an unsigned band on a Tuesday night would be just shy of incredible, you still only have broken even. Nothing to show for your effort, your time, your promotion, your music. Nothing, but the chance to play.
The irony is, once you’ve paid, you can do just about anything. Regardless of experience, and in many cases, ability, you can live the dream, even if the dream is the audience’s nightmare. Sing off-key? No problem. Hit a bum note? Who cares? Drummer falls asleep? He’s the lucky one. You’ve paid the cost to be the boss. Your 45 minutes are your own. You don’t even have to play. You can just stand on-stage in silence. Sure, the club wouldn’t like that very much and they would probably try and give you the boot, but the point is still the same. You want to drive 55 in the turns at Talladega, Richard Petty and Co. couldn’t care less.
It would seem natural, and certainly not unusual, that many musicians may like this policy. After all, it’s an opportunity to be a rockstar, and it only costs $250. One of the most famous clubs in the world, the Roxy in West Hollywood, with a stage graced by just about everyone from Springsteen to Zappa, is pay-to-play on nights when national acts are not appearing. In fact, the entire live music industry essentially is built on the premise of paying someone for a space to perform, and then hoping enough people want to witness what is being performed in order to earn, and not lose, the money it cost to put on the show.
In other words, every concert you have ever attended in your life was a pay-to-play arrangement.
A lot of clubs across this country are not pay-to-play, and it’s a wonderful thing that they aren’t. Talent should be rewarded, or at least given a free chance. Many clubs give the artists opportunities to earn the door money, or a percentage of it, and some even give a guaranteed paycheck based on the speculation that the venue’s built-in audience or appeal of the band will attract enough to cover the cost. This is how a multitude of hard-working, dedicated musicians earn, or supplement, a living, and it’s great work if you can get it.
If every club was to become pay-to-play, I can see how this could reduce the music available in clubs to that of the highest bidder, regardless of artistic achievement. It may be disastrous and defeating to any aspiring performer trying to survive without a bankroll. Really, how many stories of rock stardom begin with the sentence, “From the very beginning, they had plenty of money,”?
Still, I can also see how much fun it would be for my bandmates and I to each scrape together $50 and commit it to the cause. We can sing in key, hit the right notes (mostly), and our drummer is a force of nature. In our minds, $250 is a small price for that magic moment under the lights of the Roxy.
I’m thrilled my Dad got to drive 120+ mph around a speedway because it’s something he always wanted to do.
I’m thrilled to play music in front of an audience because it’s something I love to do.
Isn’t why we are there more important than how we got there?
Recommended listening: Frank Zappa- Roxy and Elsewhere
Larson Sutton, 38,
is a writer/musician
living in Los Angeles.
Picture By Brian Gimmel