Pay-To-Play Tours

Many companies have mentioned touring as part of their intended "services" to new up-and-coming bands. This is the first one I've actually encountered but I think it's important to list it. Remember that while one show can feel like a rip-off, when you are miles away from home and things go bad, it can be much worse.

This story was origially posted on the Stay Away from Pay to Play blog. There was a complaint (gee, I wonder from who!?) and it got deleted. But I'm standing by it. I think it's important to know how a tour can go wrong, especially one that costs way too much money. The four bands in this story helped me write it. I will give the follow-up, including the write up from Levi at XiL, and a brief rebutal from me. As always, it's up to every band to make the call on whether this type of service is a benefit to them. I want to thank Gebular in particular and also Sickamore, Listen Louder and Season of Vision for the story and Listen Louder for letting us share a few of their personal photos. The original blog follows...


In the “Now I’ve Heard Everything” department, comes this story of a pay-to-play tour gone terribly wrong. There are a few companies that have been threatening to go beyond the regular pay-to-play and book actual tours. I hadn’t actually heard of anyone who’d been on one...until last week.

The Aberdeen, Washington band Gebular emailed the “Stay Away” myspace site with a quick comment on how XiL Records (notorious local pay-to-play company) had booked them the worst tour ever, for $1500. If you’ve read the MISC pay-to-play section on this website you already know about this company and how they were even trying to talk my band into selling tickets for their pathetic shows. Dogger and Brandon from Gebular were happy to answer all my tons of endless questions. In an attempt to warn other bands who might be contemplating one of these tours they’ve allowed me to share their story. This one is a dilly.

The Seattle/Las Vegas company, XiL Records (motto: It’s more than a label, it’s a movement) appears to be co-owned by Levi Lyon and Shane Lemco. Gebular had already sold hundreds of dollars worth of tickets to be on other XiL shows in Washington and were already working with this company when the tour idea was presented to them. They’d been out once on their own with pretty fair results but felt that a big company with lots of connections would be worth the money.

While we’ve watched how the Seattle operations work, the XiL Las Vegas branch seems more mysterious. This is probably one of the reasons that Gebular and three other Washington state bands (Sickamore, Listen Louder and Season of Vision) were convinced that a six show tour to include Las Vegas and Lake Havasu City would be great. Called the Lake Havasu Party Bus - Oil Wrestling Tour, XiL charged each band $1500 - $6000 total.

The official XiL Party Bus Tour Poster / Gebular rocks at the show they booked in Lake Havasu, Nevada

Instead of traveling in small vans, XiL rented a massive coach charter bus including a professional driver! for six shows! Twenty-nine people made the trip (the four bands, a few friends and the XiL staff). Here’s a little hint right from the start: At the point the White Stripes needed a bus that size (I knew their tour manager) “Fell In Love With a Girl” was in massive rotation on MTV, their album was climbing up the Billboard charts, and they were selling out 1000 -1500 seat theaters in every city they played. That’s when you need a giant tour bus and NOT before. And of course The White Stripes had sleeping quarters! Maybe XiL saw themselves as the new Dick Clark Caravan of Stars and no offense to the bands but they weren’t exactly driving Tom Jones and the Turtles around. Maybe XiL was thinking of Brett Michaels and his Rock of Love tour bus. Unfortunately, this bus was more like one of those Senior Adventure Tours you see trundling along the highways during the summer.

One thing that Levi and many others like him excel at is convincing musicians that he knows what he’s doing and they don’t. Even when the bands are thinking something doesn’t seem right, some promoters can charm the rattles from a rattlesnake. All of the owners of pay-to-play companies are long on the big buildup but usually fall way short when reality sets in. And wow, did this tour fall short!

Unfortunately reality started setting in about 10 minutes outside of Portland when Levi (who rode on the tour bus but seemed to be missing during most of the shows) informed the bands that the Portland show had been moved to Sheridan, Oregon, 46 miles away. This town of 6,000 is not exactly the metropolitan hub that Portland is. It is also about an hour and a half drive Southwest. If the right promo had been done, this might have been a problem. Luckily little promo was done so it barely mattered, accept to the friends of the bands who’d planned to see them in Portland that night! Sheridan was also the city where the trailer hitch broke forcing them to skip hauling the equipment trailer. The equipment was stored in the underneath baggage compartment and all the baggage rode with the 29 people inside the bus.

All the gear being transferred from the broken trailer into the baggage compartment / Everybody rides with their luggage

The next show in Reno went well. Why? Because the guys from Gebular booked that one! They’d made a connection from the first tour they took and everybody played at Davidson’s Distillery. And that’s the way it’s supposed to work!

At this point you might be wondering about the accommodations. There were none. The plan was to ride at night and sleep (and those coach seats are so great for that!) on the bus. Unfortunately, no one could get onto the bus before 3 am. That’s because the driver was sleeping in his hotel room. (In the Hesselgrave Bus contract it reads: It is up to the customer to arrange and pay for the bus driver's lodging. The driver must have a room with a bathroom, bed, and TV.). Too bad that couldn't have been arranged for the rest of the tour group. This caused much stress as people had to wait hours to get “to sleep”, sometimes resulting in sleeping on pavement! And showers? Those were provided by campgrounds and the YMCA and were not part of the $1500 charge. In other words the Oil Wrestling Tour was more reminiscent of 29 homeless people living on a giant tour bus.

Levi had given everyone such a big pep-talk about how huge a record company XiL was in Nevada, they knew the recent hardships would be worth it. The next stop was Foxy Girls strip club. They were told Las Vegas would be one of the biggest shows on the tour. Not so fast, XiL stable of artists! You’ll play in the parking lot before the joint opens up, in the middle of the afternoon to each other. There wasn’t even any foot traffic. As Brandon from Gebular put it: “We played for crickets in an empty parking lot at the city’s trashiest strip club.”

It’s hard to fathom how somebody could rent a charter bus, take $1500 each from four bands, drive them 1200 miles and then not have a show set up. But that’s exactly what happened. Photos are better than words. The guys from Listen Louder have allowed me to share a few of theirs. This is the Las Vegas show...

Big Las Vegas show at the Foxy Girls Strip Club - in the parking lot - in the afternoon.

Lake Havasu City was the next show and Levi bragged about this one to the Gebular boys. He told them it would be HUGE. Jeez, the damn poster claimed it was “The Lake Havasu City Party Bus” so it’s got to be better than the last one! To their shock no show had been booked here either. Apparently everybody was just supposed to “party”. Dogger felt that they hadn’t driven all that way to just hang out. He checked around and quickly booked a show at a small burger joint on the beach. Pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. As he told me, “Better than nothing”. The Sandbar extended their normal 7 PM closing time so the bands could all play. Lake Havasu City was 102 degrees that day. It cooled off to 90 by 10 PM but they all had to wait until 3 am to get back on the bus.

Dogger from Gebular quickly books a show at the Sandbar in Lake Havasu, NV / Listen Louder rocks the beach

Finally it was on to San Diego.

On Memorial Day the spot where they’d been promised showers was closed for the holidays. A couple of the Listen Louder guys decided to go busking on the beach and made $30. There’s nothing like musicians making the best of a bad situation. The San Diego show at the Boiler Room was an afternoon show.

Apparently by Eureka, Levi was doing damage control with some of the disgruntled band members and spent the ride home trying to sell bands tour shirts for $20 a pop. These guys have an incredible amount of self-control in a difficult situation. They did scribble on him with a sharpie while he was passed out but that hardly seems payment enough for booking a tour like that. The last show in Eureka was acceptable, probably because of the camaraderie of the bands. Going through hell brings people together.

The famous Levi sharpie session / The tour bus makes a pit stop

Gebular is warning others and I agree. This isn’t how it’s done. Many pay-to-play promoters are so full of themselves, so immersed in their own hype, so ready to charm you, so lacking in reality, they actually believe they can pull something like this off. Stay away from any tour situation where you are asked to pay money up front.

It's my opinion that if anybody deserves a full refund it’s these four bands. What did they pay all that money for? So shows could be moved at the last minute or not booked at all? So they could play to each other in the parking lot of a Las Vegas strip club? So they could pay for showers at the YMCA? So they could wait until 3 am to get on the bus they paid for while the drivers slept in their motel room and the promoter was nowhere to be found?

BUT HERE’S THE TOPPER...XiL has another one of these stinker tours booked for July, August, etc! They’ve conned another group of bands into playing shows in Portland, Lake Tahoe, Reno, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and Northern California from July 15th through the 21st. All venues are TBA.


WELL ACTUALLY , NOT THE END...So after I wrote this, and during the weekend when I was not near a computer, I get this friend request before myspace canned the whole thing...

A "friend request" saying he'll seek damages? Are we really going to be friends? Well, fine. I'm all for posting this guy's side of the whole thing, and of course I wouldn't want to "defecate" anybody's character, even though I don't think that's the correct use of the word defecate...however, I've got a little to add at the end. Levi writes (and this is EXACTLY as he wrote it):

Well its nice to see we are still getting press on the tour, just not as positive as i was hoping. it sucks when bands are non-appreciative of all the hard work that goes into a tour such as this, and try'in to keep 29 passengers happy all the time also is a drag ( i feel for all you school teachers out there) . I'd like to give everyone reading this a little insite and then challenge you to do one step better. Lets see if we can tip the scales here in Seattle once again, or where ever you are from. I'd like to read a great success story. So i'm just going to elaborate a little on this article.

1st of all: (Girl Trouble will get a kick outta this) its # 2 under the 10 warning signals! We are not pay to play! We educate artists such as the ones on this tour that they are contributing $1500 (10% of the $15,000 tour) for marketing/promotions/cost of the trip (Its called pay for marketing). Which is probably stupid on my behalf for believing in such ungrateful artists and fronting/funding up so much upfront costs and not making the bands sign a contract or make them contribute more than just 10%. For me though its about taking these artists that we believe in or have intrest in. These bands have sold tixx for themselves (each of the tour kickoff parties the artists did for me they got to keep 100% of the ticket revenue to recoupe the $1500 or at least had the opportunity to), These bands have worked very hard undoubtably to get where they are, some not as hard as others. I Take them out on only a 6 day tour to find out if they even have what it takes to live 6 days out on the road.

Hey Labels and Promoters, From the likes of the article you should probably consider even booking or signing bands that might not be worthy of being escorted around in a air-conditioned bus with dvd/tv on board. and do i sense a little jealousy from Girl Trouble. COME ON, and i'm not putting you "Girls" down but Girl Trouble of all people with your roster of shows should have some "i had to walk ten miles in the snow to school with no shoes stories" Am i not correct. And the only reason you you wouldn't commit to 40 presale tickets with me could be maybe that you dont have 40 fans to sell them to anymore. i'm not going to spend a bunch of money on radio ads and venue costs if you cant even commit your fans into showing up. Still playing Hell's Kitchen i see.

So Let me get this straight I Fund the majority of a tour bus, i find shows last minute when venues cancel (Sheridan Oregon). You should do a follow-up story on Gebular's last tour they booked themselves, I think they cancelled it after just a couple shows. I buy full page ads in Vegas Rocks Magazine, run radio ads in 5 markets, print 5000 fliers and posters for distribution and still have to babysit when band members are tired and wanna go to sleep. I know its exhausting but i thought we were Rockstars, LOL! its still better than band members rotating overnight drives to the next city. Hell ya i wanna driver that well rested, and thats his job to get us to our next destination safely.

So yes, as Gebular and the Editor BON are saying put your own money up front ( probably 1000's+) and fund your own tour. Pay for your own Rentals, Gas, Radio, Press, Fliers and book the tour. Or work together as a team with whom ever you choose. The key word there is Team.

And I also wish all the bands from the may tour the best of luck, with these feelings of stuggle you may create some of your best work.

Levi XiLRecords

Thanks Levi. I agree about one thing. These guys got an education they'll never forget! And "Ouch", calling me out about my 25 year old band. That's gotta hurt! Yeah, I'm jealous. That's why I do this site. I could only wish our tours went this well! Here's a little "back atcha": When I book Portland I actually play in Portland! And yes, we still play Hell's Kitchen. We played over the weekend with Dick Dale to a sold-out crowd. It was a really great show. By the way, just to be clear, I AM saying DO put your own money into a tour and book it yourselves. This is a good way to start, you'll learn alot, make great friends. Do a regional tour and work up from there.

Below we'll review the typical responses of all pay-to-play promoters. See if you can spot any similarities.

My final thought: So my math is terrible but XiL claims to have spent $15,000 for a six day tour! Doesn't that mean they'd have to clear $2,500 at each show just to break even? Wow!


Justifying pay-to-play is always done in the same way. I’ve seen it over and over, on message boards, blogs and emails. I’ll give you the outline they always use to illustrate how it works.

1. THEY ARE THE EXPERTS: Pay-to-play promoters always have many years in the business, lots of experience with thousands of shows, they are musicians themselves so they obviously know more than you do. This is to diffuse the musicians who protest. “I have the experience and you don’t.” They have paid their dues, are famous or work with famous bands, boast of their enormous amount of street cred, have done thousands of shows. If you are a new band how can you argue with an EXPERT?

2. THE “BOO-HOO” APPROACH: Pay-to-play promoters spend a lot of time telling about how they are not making money or in this for themselves. They are sacrificing so much just to help you, the struggling musician. They’ll go into extremely specific details about how much everything costs and how they are losing money with every show. How can you dare criticize a person who’s helping so many?

3. SHAME: The next tactic is to shame the musician. After all they are sacrificing and doing for you (see Boo-Hoo section), how could you protest selling tickets? Your draw is nothing and you are practically a burden on them. While you have nothing to offer, they are making a special effort in your case. They are doing you a big favor. How could you not pitch in to sell their tickets? You’d better shut up and go along with the program.

4. WORK ETHIC: All pay-to-play companies complain about the work ethic of musicians. They claim that they are forcing “lazy” bands to get better shows. But to them, “work ethic” doesn’t mean practicing and working up a following with time, talent, patience and persistence. Work ethic is ticket selling. Shame plays a part here also. Your band does not work hard. Young musicians are told they will never “make it” because they won’t work at it. This is psychological intimidation at its best. It’s extremely tough for new bands not to believe this.

5. NAME CALLING: Lazy, greedy, uninformed, naive, ungrateful, cowardly, jealous, bitter...etc.