The New Face of Pay-To-Play In NYC

For a long time thse of us in bands in NYC laughed at our Los Angeles counterparts for having to pay to play in bars and clubs. Well, it’s time to stop laughing. Pay-to-play is alive and well, and thriving, in NYC and in the surrounding suburbs. Despite what people are saying about NYC there are plenty of places to play, and it seems like there is a new bar or club opening every week that has live entertainment. Even 3 new high-capacity venues, the Blender Theatre, Terminal 5 and Highline Ballroom opened in the last year. There are so many places now that the clubs and bars are stacking bands 6 or more per night, and charging them $100 or more to play, which guarentees them $600 before they even open the doors. And yes, like, L.A., these are places where you have to buy tickets from the club in order to play, which is something you used to only have to do to get on a bill with a famous band at a big venue.

But now pay-to-play in NYC has a new face in the form of “minimum draw.” Sure, almost all venues have had a minimum draw requirement, but that minumum used to be about 10 people. Now because NYC is so saturated with bands that have relocated here to “make it”, and the audiences are smaller and smaller, the minimum draw requirements in many places have gone as high as 40 people, with the bands typically getting only 1-2 bucks a head. Sure, some places are more generous, going as high as $5, but the catch is that some places pay starting from person 41 that’s a $400 pay-to-play fee! Per band! That’s a lot of money, but only if the bands can draw that many people. And right now in NYC, there are very few bands that are able to draw enough to cross the payment threshold.

How are the clubs and bars getting away with it? And why are we paying to play instead of being paid to entertain?

There are 2 reasons. First, like I said earlier, NYC has reached its saturation point with bands. NYC, like Los Angeles has been a place where people go to ive out their dreams to be a star. But, since so many bands have “made it” out of Brooklyn the past few years (Yeah,Yeah,Yeahs!, Vampire Weekend, Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, We Are Scientists, etc…) bands from all over the world — each one either sounding more derivative and boring than the next, or trying to be as “clever” and “artistic” as possible — are moving as close to Brooklyn as they can so they can be the next Brooklyn band to be discovered. Look at the entertainment ads in the Village Voice. On a Monday or Tuesday night in Manhattan you can find close to 100 bands playing. Add Brooklyn and Queens, you get close to 200. On a Friday or Saturday more than 200 bands between the 3 boroughs. With all this competition bands are undercutting each other, to get the gig. Which, of course is the real reason there is no music scene in NYC anymore. But that’s a subject for another time.

The second reason is astounding. The clubs and “promoters” say that it its to make sure the bands promote the show, making sure that bands can bring a crowd, protecting themselves if there is poor turnout or slow sales. So, not only are we the entertainers (sorry… artists. I don’t want to offend the folks from Brooklyn or the singer-songwriters) paying them to play on their stage, we pay them to be their promoters (saving them money on posters and fliers and advertising that we pay for), and to find people to drink their cocktails. All this and we only to get $1-2 a head?

As result of this oh-so-clever thinking, the quality of bands performing in NYC has gone down the tubes. It used to be that you had to audition to play places like CBGBs (closed), Arlene’s Grocery, the Continental (now a cocktail lounge); you didn’t have to have to have a following to play, you had to be talented and creative and they would groom you and put you in front of an audience, and let you build a following. Now, anyone can play anywhere (including Arlene’s Grocery) as long as they have a few bucks and can bring a bunch of friends to drink beers. In my opinion this lack of talent is one of the biggest contributors to the lack of people going to shows, and death of the NYC music scene.

What can we do about this? Probably not a lot as long as there are bands that are willing to play for free, the bars and clubs are going to keep on getting away with this. We could go on strike. We could band together (I hate that cliche, but it fits), stage a walkout for even just one night, and boycott playing in clubs and bars that do this. Maybe all of them, just to prove a point. Imagine, a Friday or Saturday night in New York City (including Brooklyn and Queens) with not a single band playing. The day the music died in NYC. Maybe even a national band walkout day. Hmmm… interesting idea. Something to think about.