In 2006 a company called Big Time Entertainment (now called Afton Shows) had come to Tacoma. They were spam emailing all the young bands in my city, including The Freakouts, a band that my 15 year old nephew had formed. When I got word of what this was all about, I knew in a minute Big Time was practicing an old well-known rip-off for musicians called pay-to-play. This practice would never have taken root back in the Pacific Northwest grunge days, when my band started out. Everything was DIY back then.
But this was a new generation of musicians. They were young and eager to play. They had no idea P2P was a ripoff for bands. The more I found out about Big Time, and so many other “booking” companies, the more I felt the need to voice my opposition. I love the internet for many reasons, like discovering cool new bands, but the downside is how easy it makes pay-to-play. National companies can run their events from remote locations without setting foot in the city where the show is taking place. It’s a slick deal...for them.
For me, at the time, this was just a local problem. I didn’t have any idea how widespread it had all become but I couldn’t bear to see this company prey on Tacoma kids. It pissed me off! This was the start of posting my arguments against this practice. I’ve always felt that I was waging an educational campaign. I’ve played all kinds of shows and had some success without ever paying to play. I’ve known and played with musicians who got very famous without having to sell tickets and turn the collected money into promoters. That’s where I got the idea to put on my own show. It was an experiment to show Tacoma kids they didn’t need Big Time Entertainment.
I want to share with you how I went about it. I have no special skills and even though my band has hosted some shows ourselves, I personally had never taken on this responsibility alone. If you read on, you may get some ideas on how to put on a show yourself.
MY BIG IDEA
I wanted to prove to the bands in my city that a real show could be done without making the bands sell tickets. It was my opinion that a company like Big Time Entertainment (Afton) was not necessary for a successful show. In fact, it was counterproductive. I wanted to host a rock show the right way; one price at the door, a good lineup of bands who people wanted to see, and hopefully a few dollars at the end of the night to pay back my club rental fee and divide the rest between the bands. This was exactly what the pay-to-play companies will tell you is too tough to pull off. Some of them imply it’s practically impossible.
PICKING THE BANDS
Since my nephew Sam’s band, The Freakouts, knew the local kids I enlisted his help. I’d already made an effort to see some of the new bands (some who’d actually played Big Time Entertainment shows) too. Together we came up with five bands, including the Freakouts, who would fit well together. This was the typical number of bands who played all-ages shows and a few less than Big Time. Other than helping behind the scenes I wanted to keep my band out of it. This was a show for the kids. I contacted all the bands and they agreed to play. I explained my plan to them and they all thought it was a good idea. C-B Militia, The Freakouts, The Grenerds, The Gnostics and Toxic Peanuts: They were ready to give it their best effort.
After asking the bands I contacted Flash (who we’ve known for years) the owner/booker at Hell’s Kitchen. BTE had actually rented Hell’s Kitchen for a few shows so we wanted to rent the same club. Hell’s Kitchen was the hot spot for all-ages shows. Flash gave me some dates and rates. I decided to rent a Sunday (just like Big Time) for $400. I thought this was a really great deal. For the $400 we got a super-pro soundman to run the show, door/security staff and bar staff for the beer garden. In addition to that we got a prominent spot on the Hell’s Kitchen calendar in the local music paper and a listing on the HK website naming all the bands. What a deal! Please note that unlike the lie that P2P promoters spread, I did not pay individually for sound, lights, security, etc.
I got together with all the bands. We picked, Sunday September 24th and decided on the order/lineup. I sent my check to reserve the day.
I explained to the bands how our band did shows and how we would never agree to sell tickets and hand in collected money to a promoter. I told them that with this show we were not going to be in competition for ticket sales, and that all five bands would be working together to promote. In fact we weren’t even going to worry about tickets. Like all those shows my band used to play with Soundgarden, Nirvana, Green River, The Melvins and every other band - people would pay at the door. We learned back then, that if you promote a show with good bands, people will show up. So we set a reasonable door fee of $6 (which was $4 less than Big Time shows) and didn’t offer advance tickets. Advance tickets can be nice for national touring or established acts (when they are offered on-line or through the venue or limited outlets) but I just don’t believe they are necessary for local club shows.
It’s just my personal preference, but I always think having a theme can add to the value of a show. It also helps when you are promoting. I’ve seen it work many times. Our show would be a Tacoma anti pay-to-play show. Together we would prove that kids could put on a show the right way. We would promote the idea that bands didn’t need BTE to play a show. We would prove that people really would come to see good bands without being individually pressured to buy tickets. The bands picked the title, “Tacoma’s Night of Punk”.
I have to admit that I sometimes take on a “cheerleading” role. I don’t think it hurts to get the juices flowing with some positive pep talks. I tried not to be corny, just excited for what we were attempting. These bands were eager to make this show work. It was easy to get them motivated and they actually kept me motivated too. Unlike the pay-to-play situation, when you know the bands personally you already know that you’ll be able to count on them. We formed a solid team. Teamwork. You won’t find that with pay-to-play shows! In fact, Gorilla Music even frowns on it!
It was time to go to work on promotion. We had about a month. One of the band members came up with a great poster idea. Justin from the Gnostics drew a cool takeoff on the Bad Brains’ first album, with Tacoma’s Union Station replacing the US Capitol. I incorporated that into a computer image that we could spread around. A friend, John Fisher, offered to print them up as a way to support our cause. The local papers including Matt Driscoll who worked at The Weekly Volcano and Ernest Jasmin The Tacoma News Tribune columnist gave us coverage.
So cool to have some press from the local music columnists!
SEE THE ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE.
This is a no pay-to-play show sponsored by Girl Trouble. No band on this bill will pre-sell expensive tickets in order to play. No band on this bill will hand over money to anyone before they get on stage. The door fee is set, the line-up is set. After the rent is paid, all the money goes to the bands. We hope you will join us in supporting the REAL TACOMA MUSIC SCENE!
The bands were making extra posters and handbills and passing them out everywhere. Our friend and Funhouse owner/booker, Brian Foss helped out by giving me his email list of contacts. This list included all the free concert listings for papers and radio stations. I sent out email press releases from this list. Bulletins on myspace (before the facebook days!) were posted constantly by the bands and all their friends. One band member even had a running counter posted, to count down the weeks, days, hours to the show. Together our work started to create a huge “buzz” about the all-ages anti-pay-to-play show. Hell’s Kitchen listed the show on their website, but also gave us a prominent place on their paid calendar ad for that week.
GIRL TROUBLE HELPS OUT
I specifically wanted to keep my band out of playing the show. This night was for the new bands. But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t drag the rest my group (KP Kendall, Dale Phillips and Kahuna) into helping me out. We love the idea of “putting on a show”. It’s worked well for us over the years and I felt this could add something extra to the night. I asked our singer, K.P. Kendall, a natural showman, to be the official announcer/MC. There’s just something about introductions that makes a show more cohesive and entertaining. Since the five band schedule was going to be tight the guys offered to act as stage hands so we could get equipment on and off quickly. I also stressed the importance of keeping to the schedule so everyone would have a equal chance to play without being cut off at the end of the night. I gave them the set times weeks before the show.
WE’D DONE OUR HOMEWORK
We’d contacted the press, told our friends, put up fliers, and got the word out to as many people as possible. I made anti pay-to-play buttons to pass out. I was in contact with all the bands and they knew when to show up and what to expect. It’s this point when you have to cross your fingers and hope all the people who say they’ll show up, will. It’s scary and exciting.
The big day had arrived. It calmed everybody down a bit to see all five bands arrive right on time to the back door at Hell’s Kitchen. All the band members were joking around, loading in and ready for the big show to begin. Any of my concerns about how well this would be attended disappeared when I saw the line out front forming down the street.
And what a show! Five bands played amazing sets, from the old “pros” to the first timers. The club was packed with one of the most enthusiastic young crowds I’d seen in a long time. Not only did the bands play but they all watched each other. Supporting fellow musicians is a very important aspect of a successful show. KP Kendall read prepared introductions for each group which made the crowd laugh and set the mood for the rock onslaught that was to come. With the help of my bandmates, the set changes were so smooth we actually finished a bit early. Mike, the Hell’s Kitchen soundman was a fantastic asset to the show, easygoing and ready to make everything right. I think one of my best moments was when one of the Hell’s Kitchen security staff told me that Big Time Entertainment never put on a show this good. “Not even close,” he told me.
KP Kendall introduces the bands
The Gnostics (& dancing around the HK support post!)
EXPERIMENT COMPLETED - OUR PAYOUT...
We’d done it! It was an incredible night. Together we proved that you can put on a good show without making the bands sell tickets (even though I knew it all along). At the end of the show, I got my $400 rent investment back, I was able to pay each of five bands $105, and gave Mike, the soundman, a $20 tip for making the entire night effortless. I was damn proud of each one of those bands. They promoted the show better than many older bands I know. So, pay-to-play promoters, don’t tell me that these bands are lazy. Far from it! With a little motivation promoting is easy. In fact later, a few of the parents followed our lead and invested in other all-ages shows at Hell’s Kitchen.
If this had been a Big Time Entertainment show each band would have had to pre-sell 32 $7 tickets. The total each band would have turned over to Big Time before they got on stage was $224. Big Time would have kept $192 of that money and at the end of the night given them $32. In total Big Time Entertainment would have received $960 from all five bands. They would have paid the $400 rent and kept $560 for themselves (plus Big Time would have done absolutely no promotion). And that is why I consider pay-to-play a ripoff.
And two days later, in an ironic twist, it made me laugh to receive a spam email from Big Time Entertainment inviting Girl Trouble to play one of their crapfests at Hell's Kitchen. Not in my town, assholes! In a short amount of time, Big Time packed up and left Tacoma.
TIME FLIES WHEN...
Hard to imagine that was six years ago. What normally happens happened. Things change. Due to city sprinkler laws, Hell's Kitchen was forced to move to another Tacoma location and finally shut down. And none of the bands who played that night are still together, but many of those kids went on to form other bands, really great bands. I keep in touch with many of them, see them around town, still go to their shows. Some have moved on to colleges and other pursuits, but I really felt lucky to work with them. I was proud of all of them. I feel that show helped the all-ages scene in Tacoma. That’s what the kids (although they aren’t kids anymore) have told me. Our experiment together was a total success.
AND YOU CAN DO IT TOO!
Putting on a show takes some planning and preparation, but the satisfaction is absolutely worth it. In fact, it can be a lot of fun. Here are a few tips to get you going...
KNOW THE BANDS
If you don’t know the bands in your town, you shouldn’t be even considering putting on a show yet. Go to all the shows and get to know these people. See who is popular, who’s got the buzz, who’s putting on exciting performances. Nobody needs to see how many tickets bands can sell. All you need to do is stand around, watch the show and see how the audience reacts. That will tell you more than anything. Find bands you like, as musicians and as people. You should already have a good idea (a “wish list”) of bands you want on your show. Never start out with random slots to fill and no idea what bands will fill them. You gotta know the bands!
BE REALISTIC AND CRUNCH SOME NUMBERS
Just do one show first to see how it goes. Remember: ONLY ONE SHOW. This will be a test so don’t get crazy and over extend yourself. Start out simple and small. You can work up from there. And it never fails that once the word gets out, more bands will want to “hop on” the show. Don’t make the mistake of adding more and more bands. Keep it to the number you started with. Tell others they’ll be considered if you do more.
Give it some thought before you do anything. Find out what the local club rents are and crunch some numbers. Decide who will finance this, what club/hall to rent, what bands will play. Together (with the bands help) you can decide on the lineup, how much to charge at the door, what the date should be. Keep it simple and don’t even offer advanced tickets. Local shows really don’t need advance tickets. Save that for the national acts.
Don’t believe the lies of pay-to-play company reps. Renting a club is one price. You will not be charged for different pieces, like electricity, security, sound, bar staff or whatever. If you rent a hall you will more than likely be responsible for the sound so figure that into your plan.
There are different ways of doing it, so give it all some thought before you jump in. The more details you have the better off you will be. This is the stage where doing your homework is crucial.
BUT...DON'T do this show if you are using your last money to do it. If this money is what you'd use for rent, utilities, or food, wait until you have saved some extra that can be absorbed if something goes wrong. If a show will break you financially, it's better to wait until it won't.
PICK THE RIGHT DATE
Sometimes a music scene will only support one or two shows. It depends on how big the city is. If you book the same night as some national act that everybody wants to see, no amount of promoting will get people through the door. So check around with other bands and clubs before you pick a date. Try to make sure there's nothing already scheduled that will deter people from attending your show. The less you are up against, the better off you'll be.
PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE - THE RIGHT WAY!
Don’t listen to pay-to-play companies who tell you fliers don’t work. Well actually I take that back. It is true, THEIR fliers don’t work. That’s because they have a laundry list of 10-15 bands nobody has ever heard of with a price that’s higher than it costs to see a really popular local band. And of course, they want you to sell tickets, not make fliers. BUT, a good-looking, artistic flier (help support local graphic artists), with great bands, posted in the right spots WILL promote your event. Many record and clothing stores, coffee shops and other local hangouts are happy to help promote live music by displaying posters. Handbills passed out is also effective (remember to pass them out at the club you are playing, not a competing club). And make on-line versions to post on social network and websites. Keep the art the same so people will immediately recognize that it’s your show. Do some homework and get on all the free local concert listings (print, on-line, radio) you can find. It never hurts to contact local music reporters. These guys are always looking for a different angle and you might be it!
A THEME HELPS
Whether you decide to do an anti pay-to-play show, all one genre, a holiday show, a show where all the bands will play a cover by a certain band, or whatever; a theme will help when it’s time to promote the show. Music papers are more likely to be interested when a cause or special theme is involved. So give them something to write about! Giving it a title also helps people know it’s not just your run of the mill lineup of bands. “This one is special.” This same tactic works when you are promoting to your friends, fans and the local music community in general. People are more likely to remember your show when there is a name attached to a great lineup of bands.
Example: There was a very influential pre-grunge band in Seattle called the U-Men. While just the mention of their name would bring everybody to their shows for miles, they also would give many of their shows a theme. For one show the drummer dressed as a nurse and they offered each person in the crowd a vomit bag with the U-Men name on them. Another time they had a wrestling themed show where they played in a ring and their manager wrestled one of the popular local characters. U-Men shows weren’t just rock performances, they were legendary social events. Hundreds of people would show up and it was always pay at the door. If you missed a U-Men show, you missed the major event of the year. That’s how they built their following.
BE A CHEERLEADER
You don’t need to be corny, you just need to be positive. Keeping everybody motivated is essential to a good show. It can be as simple as just keeping in contact, letting everybody know what you’ve done to promote, find out what they’ve done so you aren’t covering the same ground over and over. Make sure everybody knows this is a team effort and each person is vital to the success of this show. Just talking together about how much fun it will be can be an effective motivator.
Be sure to discuss the money situation with all the bands. Let them know exactly what is being invested, what the expenses are, what costs need to be covered and how rest of the money will be divided at the end of the night. Going over these details before the show will save any confusion later. This is something pay-to-play promoters never do.
IT’S A RISK, BUT A RISK WORTH TAKING
You are in the hot seat. It’s your money and you are putting it up for a show. But as long as you have done your homework (in getting the right club, the right day, and the right lineup of bands) and keep working on promotion, any risk you are taking turns out to be fairly low. So actually this would probably be considered a calculated risk since everyone is on the same team, working for the same goal. Enjoy the camaraderie that playing with friends brings. This is one of the most important elements to help build a strong music scene (unlike what P2P promoters suggest).
Here is one big warning I’ll give you. Once you have a successful show under your belt, the only problem will be fighting off all the bands who want you to do it all over again! So get ready!
All the bands hang out in back of Hell's Kitchen after the Tacoma's Night of Punk show.