#131: Ari Herstand – Should You Pay to Play?

Ari_Herstand_lb_10_bigAri Herstand is a singer/songwriter and blogger based in Los AngelesCalifornia. Ari has played over 600 shows and writes about being an independent musician on his blog, Ari’s Take. He also regularly contributes to popular indie music news and advice sites, including our very own DIY Musician Blog.

In this episode, Ari sits down with CD Baby’s Kevin Breuner to talk about the phenomenon of “pay to play” gigs for bands. Ari recently penned an article on the subject and it garnered quite a bit of attention, not to mention a lot of interesting responses. Before you consider paying for a gig, listen to Ari’s take on this controversial practice and learn how to look out for the pitfalls and scams that can leave an unwitting band in the lurch.

Get more info about Ari and his music at http://ariherstand.com

Check out his new album Brave Enough HERE.


  • PhilipClark

    Great episode!

  • Adam_B_Harris

    Great song Ari.

  • kbreuner

    Thanks! I’m sure we’ll have Ari back in the future.

  • Lisa Tagaloa

    I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard Ari speak lol. Awesome info! Some thought provoking stuff in there 🙂

  • Number

    Are you kidding us? Business is business. What happens when no one shows up to your performances? What happens when none of your fans cannot buy a drink at a club? What happens when your guitar string pops? Should you pay to play?

  • In my experience anyone that can bring out a minimum of 50 people to any venue has tremendous power in the nightlife in any city, NY, Miami, ATL, (In Vegas your female ratio has to be higher than males) Some venues depending on how slow they are you can get the full door and up to 30% of the bar.

  • Chris

    Unfortunately these are the kind of deals the guys at the Whiskey and the Key Club used to pull all of the time. It’s an even worse deal when you are a band from out of town.

  • What happens when a venue doesn’t believe in the art and entertainment that they allow on their stage. Instead of grabbing a few measly dollars off of whatever band they can scrounge up and expect people to show, they should really research the entertainment they are presenting and expect people to pay for. If your establishment has a reputation of letting any moron with a “band” into the venue to pass as legitimate entertainment, it’s no wonder no one will show up and buy a drink. YOU are responsible for what you present in your venue!!! Good venue + good bands = more people and $$$ for everyone.

  • musicSUBMIT

    Hi Ari,

    How do you feel about Buy-Ons? This is sortof like Pay-to-Play on steroids. Bands come out of their pockets for thousands of dollars to get one of multiple opening slots for a handful of dates on a “name” band’s tour. Want to open for Taking Back Sunday? Sure, just pay us $10k for 5 shows. *

    You get to play in front of 1000s of a popular band’s fans, but it will cost you. There are plenty of bands willing to do this.….is it really such a bad deal?


    mike c.

    *not a real example

  • Your music is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. If you play for FREE or for nothing, that is exactly what you music is worth, nothing.

  • Glade Swope

    Perhaps this is just a sign that the novelty of the local rock band wore off a long time ago.

  • sabineheusler

    Ari is so awesome! I love that he’ll say stuff not many have the guts to say! thank you!!! He’s become my go to for information!!! Thanks for making an audio! Hey Ari – you should do an audio book!! 😉

  • sabineheusler

    right on!

  • Glade Swope

    I would do a payola show “just for exposure” for a good nonprofit organization or struggling coffee club – and have audience that isn’t there to get intoxicated, and
    are actually interested in the content – but I would absolutely not do it for a typical megabar. I believe it’s also wrong that people old enough to join the army can’t visit a show.

  • kbreuner

    I’ve heard many stories about people “getting a gig” at the Whiskey only to find out it’s a pay to play venue. I know some in LA do it anyway just to have “we played the Whiskey” on their bio.

  • Randy Hansen

    George, I TOTALLY agree. Time and time again I hear musicians gripe about being ripped off by club owners. How many people do they bring to a show? Inevitably between none and 5. They think the club owners have no bills to pay or something. I have a band and though we would never pay to play (nothing against those who do mind you) we nearly always play for free, tips, etc. We consistently bring between 10 to 15 people to a show. To me that translates into playing for tips or a small amount. If we brought in a bigger audience, then I could demand more. We just love to play (we play originals) and appreciate clubs that provide us the opportunity to play in front of an audience. If we get a few bucks in the process, nice. Too many people think they should be able to make a living as a musician, when in reality most of them need to realize that that’s the exception, not the rule. Have fun and be thankful if you can take the stage anywhere.

  • Chris

    The sad thing is that a lot of bands out of Fresno will drive the 3 to 4 hours south to play it for the same reason. Also if I remember correctly they would charge you to sell your own merch in the venue. It just amazes me that so many promoters and venues have gotten so bad.

  • kbreuner

    This is pretty much how all major tours work.The record labels (or bands themselves) contribute “tour support” to be added to the bill. I’ve been on several tours like this both as the headliner and the opening act. It can be good, but you MUST read the contract carefully. Especially as it pertains to sound/lights, start time, set length, and all the details that are easy to assume. It should be stated what kind of sound support you’re going to get. It should state how many lines and monitor mixes you’ll get. Even the db level. The opening band (who paid tour support) can get screwed royally if they’re not careful to get specifics. I know one opening band on a major tour that was told to start playing as doors were opening. Didn’t matter that the headliner packed in 5,000 people if the fans are all still outside.

  • Blackwaterdraw

    I’m not so sure about the whole “pay to play” concept. I guess the band would need to take into consideration how much money/exposure they would get in return. If it seems like a good deal I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

    In our small hometown we have found some success. We have played three different nightclubs and each night we play we pack in between 200 and 300 people, some of whom come in wearing our tee shirts. It’s usually butt cheek to butt cheek, standing room only. One night after a show the manager told me that the building was at legal capacity. Being our third year together as a working band we are expanding into Texas, hoping that we find the same success there.

    I guess for a major opportunity I would be open to a payola show.

  • t0hierry

    Let’s go back to the good old racketeering days. What’s next? Pay to breathe?

  • flash001USA .

    Be careful, you’re revealing your age… I totally agree with your statement. I’ve watched it all go down hill with the clubs too. There are a few exceptions but very few.

  • flash001USA .

    George I too totally agree. Something else to remember too. Sticks, strings and gas ain’t free. Neither is a timing schedule where someone might have to shuffle their job or even lose a few hours off of work just to be able to practice too.

  • flash001USA .

    Randy I’m curious where you are located. Here where I am the clubs are healthy and on average a decent trio band or even a 4 piece band will walk away with anywhere in the range of $100 to $150 per person each night and these clubs have damned good crowds. It’s our job to keep them having a good time and sticking around spending money and when the band is on top of their game, the people stay until closing time. The bands I’ve played in always had the regular followers be it 5 or 6 or even 10 or 15 people. It’s usually the young 20 something bands that bring larger crowds even if they aren’t a good band because it’s just high school and collage buddies but then the regulars (those with the real money) leave and the club loses out. I’ve seen it happen many times over.

  • Thom D. RoadDawg

    Amen,Amen,Amen,,,not only has disco and kareoki taken our way of life (I earned a comfortable living for 40 years) in nightclubs but I’ve personally watched the pressure from organizations such as MADD & SADD on the local law enforcement. DWIs/DUIs are given out like candy for a .08 B.A.L. By the way, I VERY SELDOM drink, but in my younger days, I’ve “had a few” and we all know a can of beer or such (.08) doesn’t really impair your judgment. I believe they just found another way to increase revenue, like the red light cameras.

  • Kev

    pay to play..hmmmmm… never never never… my guitar don’t come out of my case for less than a minimum let alone play for tips or percentage of the door… when a club owner says, “well such and such band will play for this amount ” …thats when you approach them with…you get what you pay for… how many can we bring or pull in? dear club owner, we are laying new ground new territory… think field of dreams club owner… promote it they will come…we are not nor should we be expected to bring regular followers over 50 miles to fill your club. if yiou are going to be a “live venue” then get good live music if you want the register to ring. because a good band will bring YOUR local people back!!!

  • T-Flo Teddy Flores

    I am a local musician/producer/songwriter and just had this discussion with one of the club owners I do business with. In an attempt to help him bring in quality bands, I asked him “what kind of bands makes you money and bring crowds?”. His replay, “Bands that care about themselves.”

    Please explain.

    Bands that are actively trying to build a following by promoting their shows every week. Handing out flyers or business cards to new fans. Posting up signage during there show so people don’t have to ask the name of the band and where find them online and having an actual prepared show that people want to see. They make enough money to give each person at least $100. Bands forget that just for them to perform we have to cover the expense of a soundman, door person, bartender, rent and electricity.

    I just thought I would share this perspective of the business. I am a musician myself and know the challenges of making money at it on a nightly basis. My band does make $100 per person but we do actively get fans info to follow up with them to let them know about future shows. It works. You just have to be willing to do the work.

  • kbreuner

    That’s why it’s always good to negotiate if you truly do have a guarantee of 50 fans showing up. Too often artists just take the offer from the booker and assume they can’t negotiate.

  • Busta Speeker

    Well said Kev. I see far too much do-nothing on the part of bar owners/managers, also. Expecting the band to do all its own promo is not only unfair, it is “the 3 Zeez”: lazy, sleazy, and cheezy.
    And by the way, the pay to play thing is nothing new; its roots are in the 80’s Hollyweird/Sunset Strip S.&H.M.S.: Spandex & Hair Metal Scene.

  • Christopher Reeve

    I live in a tough market small city. We work hard and do well enough. But our nearest major market Dallas TX is 3 hrs and the worlds worst about pay to play. If band keep putting up with it I will never stop.

  • Albert Solorio

    This pay to play has been happening since 80’s & 90’s. I’m in LA and Whiskey and other Hollywood, NoHo and Silverlake clubs only care about making money. They love you if you bring $$. If nobody shows up to your gig they won’t take your call or they will book you because a band dropped off last minute and you are available at 12 or 1 AM…:(

  • kikojones

    Actually, water is next–they already got people to pay for it in bottles…but I digress.

  • kikojones

    I find interesting that a venue would give up a percentage of the bar seeing as how that profit margin is what keeps ’em in business.

  • These days everyone owns a club, a lounge or a bar. Competition is tough, The Golden Rule for most Club Owners is to never give up the bar, but when the rent is due and the venue itself is not bringing in the numbers a lot of venues have to cut these type of deals. I myself have taken advantage of this situation coming in as a Promoter/DJ in Miami Beach as well as New York and in Atlanta now.The Most obvious situation in the nightlife business is a Club Owner who doesn’t understand the business. Most of these guys are Real Estate type guys that were never really into partying or throwing parties. These guys acquired these venues through various deals and always jump on the buildings with a liquor license attached. Somewhere down the line either a friend or the person closing the deal talked them into opening the place as a Club or a Bar and that’s where it all begins for an inexperience individual. I’ve seen it so many times, from Clubs who open with the idea of being that Vegas Million Dollar club in towns that will never produced 1000 party-goers a night. The Best Way to Spot these venues is all in their marketing, or lack of. These Clubs open all the time and most last 6 Months, the stubborn owners maybe 2 years. The scenario is the same, Beautiful Spot, Great Bar, Nice VIP Sections decent sound system but not one dime spent on Promotional Ideas, Marketing for the Venue or Entertainment. They think because they opened a Club people are just gonna run in by the thousands. Listen, this is a public forum and I’d hate to point fingers but if we met in person I can point you in the right direction. Tons of Venues, Tons!

  • Exactly! A good business savvy individual should know when they have the upper-hand in any deal.

  • Sleuth 4 Health

    When I started playing music in the mid-eighties, I made from $50 – $200 a night. I toured, AND had a steady house band gig for a year. That is pretty much unheard of these days. The worst gigs back then paid $50. Casuals paid $100-200 a night. It’s sad that all these years, even decades later, musicians really aren’t making much more than that, and likely less. I feel that if a club or venue thinks highly enough of your music, they’ll pay for it. If you want to give it away for free, do that. It really depends on how you market and present yourself, and what you want.

  • kikojones

    I think there’s a marked difference btwn small bars/rock clubs with live music and the type of venues you mention. I have little to no knowledge as to how the latter function, but I’ve got a decent amount of info about the former’s workings. And the former, very rarely, regardless of the circumstances, give up a percentage of the bar. But I’m talking specifically about NYC and a certain type of place.

  • I can see where you’re coming from. I lived in NY and I promoted clubs in the Chelsea and Meatpacking Districts and also the West Village. Some venues you can find right now on craigslist looking for bands/promoters with a following (the key is “a following”) If you can really bring the people out “consistently” venues will break you off a deal,(from the door, the bar, even the coat rack) If you don’t have a solid fan base or traffic there’s no reason for them to give up anything. In today’s world is all about what you can do for me – for instance if you’ve run into a stubborn “know it all” type of owner who won’t work out or consider any deals well my friend I can’t see that person in business too long. Another thing I might point out, you might have the following and you rock your crowd, but the owner or promoter don’t like your music. In rare instances I’ve seen venues turn down revenue generating bands because they didn’t want to portray a certain image or want their crowd. One thing is for sure, if you have a following and can bring people out whether you’re singing folk music or playing soft rock and you have 45-50 people you can make lots of money in NYC. Honestly, If a person just has 50 friends that will come out to any venue, even once a month one can become a regular socialite in NYC (and you don’t even have to be a musician) from Gallery showings, Lounges, Bars, Pool Halls, to comedy clubs, they will all take you and your patrons in and pay you money. You just gotta know how to hustle and be confident in your delivery, never over promise, the amount, always under promise and shock them when more show up.

  • No. I respect myself too much. When I “give it away” to people, it is as a gift, as in a benefit, or as a growth experience for myself. So I am very, very choosy about the gigs I play these days, and typically get paid when I do play. If you hold true to this, you will earn a living. (But you’ll probably have to work as hard at it as I did.)

  • kikojones

    My biggest complaint with smaller live music venues in NYC is that they cater to quantity and not quality: you could be the worst, least talented live act on the face of the planet, but if you can draw 50 people every time, you’re headlining on Fri. and Sat. nights. Of course, those acts never ever draw more than 50 people, b/c basically what they do is have a party with their friends at the venue. But as long as that party is worth going to the act will draw 50 people and the club will always want them back.
    The sad byproduct of this is that b/c of the above example, folks don’t take a chance on artists they don’t know. (I remember a while back sitting thru a night of 6 bands: the first two were great and the next 4 sucked. Hard. Ugh. Who wants to spend on a cover plus drinks for that?) And since no small venue has a built in crowd, YOU as a performer have to bring the audience. But how can you expand your audience if you’re invitng the folks who know you already?
    I tell young friends coming up to go DIY: put on their own shows in a rented space like a loft or something, with bands they’re friends with. Hire a DJ for between sets and an after party, sell beer and water, charge $10 and make it a party. Each bands’ followers can discover their friends’ bands and it could be a fun hang. Better than dragging your friends to _____ and getting $2 a head after the first 15 people.

  • You’re absolutely right, and it all comes down to numbers. I often tell indie artists on the come up to just invest in their overall marketing. For example the amount of energy you put into promoting a venue can go to promoting your music online. If you’re looking for a live performance take advantage of the whole situation by filming/producing a video out of it. It’s better to use live performances like Ari mention above and practice your craft. Venues are there to make money and sell liquor, they rarely care about any artists unless he’s bringing in the numbers. Example: In Miami a venue can book a Salsa Band (even a well known one) who brings in the crowd and the rest of the night the owners are complaining that they didn’t sell enough liquor with a full house. Most Salsa dancers are into drinking water and not spirits, yet with a full house the artists/band gets heat from the management in regards to the lack of drinking. One thing you can always take with you is your talent. Clubs come and go, they are not worth the hustle unless you got the upper-hand to make money from them.

  • Bob Karwin

    I think most people forget to factor in that most, yes MOST, bands are below average. If you believe in yourself enough to perform in public, you probably lack the neutrality to judge yourself against other acts. So, how do you get to become a good band? Stage time. Here is the club’s quandary. You want to encourage new acts and give bands a chance who are “not quite there yet.” But, no amount of marketing will draw an audience for an unknown band of questionable quality. If the club’s drew the line at only booking top level performing artists, then the gripe would be how six bands in every city get all the slots with no room for newcomers. Pay to Play is a way for club’s to “take a chance” on a band who promises that they are really good and all their friends will come out to see them. If you do that a couple of times and show a) that you are good and b) that people will come to see you, you don’t have to support the club anymore. In other words, once you prove yourself to either be a cash flow generator or musically worthy enough to invest in, that necessity goes away.

  • I don’t think pay to play should ever be an option. Musicians work hard to create music, and it should never be taken for granted by clubs.

  • ApathyNihilism

    It’s a mad world. People pay for water (soon air, too, surely), and obscene amounts on burnt coffee, but won’t spend a dime on music.

  • ApathyNihilism

    “I think most people forget to factor in that most, yes MOST, bands are below average.”

    That is truly a fascinating statistical anomaly.

  • ApathyNihilism

    No. You are undercutting all professional musicians by paying-to-play, and thus also hurting yourself in the long run.

  • I know I’m late to comment but I think T-Flo’s source made a good point and it’s one worth flipping. I think that most clubs don’t care about themselves enough to learn how to run a business.

    In Austin, new venues to pop-up right before SxSW, operate in a brief, concentrated burst of utter desperation and disappear by summer. Sometimes they do last a while.

    The owner of a Red River club I liked in the 00s was constantly blaming the the city smoking ban, privatization of nearby a public parking lot, rent increase and lack of love from the Austin Chronicle as reasons for his business suffering and yet, the other clubs on the same block affected by the same factors remain open today. (The owner of one of them opened a club on the site of the failed club it’s thriving.)

    All I can figure is that the owner of the failed club just wasn’t cut out to run a business. He was always complaining about something. He was outraged that he had to pay ASCAP in addition to BMI. It just seemed like he was clueless and, frankly, stoned or drunk a lot of the time.

    The venues that are run well without regard to bands playing in them are just as rare, in my opinion, as bands that know what they’re doing.

  • Has anyone experience the deal with a “bar minimum”? this is becoming more common in Austin and though it’s not pay-to-play, it often decimates whatever money is earned at the door before bands get anything.

    Recently, a club that always seemed local-friendly raised its production cost to $250 ($500 if it’s a four band bill!) with no change in quality or gear. That’s way higher than most clubs. Then they added the caveat that a $1000 bar minimum must be met or the difference will be taken from the door.

    On a Saturday night, I’m sure a club makes $1000 or more at the bar. But for a Thursday night show?