When I am not chained to the metaphorical typewriters at The Bygone Bureau headquarters, I am a fledgling musician. And by fledgling, I mean that I have made around $100 in the last year playing music. I attribute my lack of success primarily to the fact that I have no connections in the music industry, a work ethic that is poorly suited to the grueling nature of small-time musicianship, and lack the good looks of Andrew Bird.
Sadly, I discovered today that there are vultures hovering about, waiting to devour struggling, naive musicians like so much carrion. The following is a cautionary tale.
I checked my MySpace music account (for all you readers who are in the mood for some melancholy folk music) and discovered a message from a man named Ryan. He claimed to represent a booking agent from Big Time Entertainment. He told me he was organizing a show on May 29th, and that my minor-key, nylon-stringed ballads would suit the show. I said I would be interested in playing the gig. My stomach began to do somersaults; I felt as if there was a butterfly ballet troupe doing a rendition of “Rite of Spring” in my intestines. Little ol’ me, playing at a big club in downtown Denver!
However, I quickly realized that the entire situation smelled worse than seafood in Colorado. I checked online to see what other acts were playing that night, and discovered that it was Help the Hood night. Featured on the bill were several hip-hop artists. I’m a big proponent of musical diversity, but I can’t imagine me (skinny white kid with acoustic guitar) on a hip-hop stage. The one hip-hop song in my repertoire–a bossa nova-style cover of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”–is more of a humorous novelty than anything.
I realized that I had been scammed when I received a reply from Big Time Entertainment. The following is an imaginary conversation I had with the email, in which I slowly come to terms with the fact that I’ve been had. It turns out that Big Time Entertainment is a company that rents out venues in Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado to take advantage of local struggling musicians by having them participate in vaguely-shrouded “pay-to-play” nights. All quotes are directly from the email, except for a couple paraphrases.
Jeff: Hello there, email. So far you seem fairly innocuous. But what’s this I see about me being required to recruit an audience of at least 30 people?
Big Time: We need each act to bring in at LEAST the number of people specified below for each Venue [sic]…Acts that fail to bring their share of the crowd have not done their part to make the show a success. This is unfair to the artists who have worked hard to deliver a turnout to the show. Big Time believes that artists should not just play for everyone else’s fans without contributing at all to the turnout. Taking this into account, can you guarantee your band will bring AT LEAST 30 people to come see you play–regardless of the night of the week or other acts on the bill?
Well, I’m not so sure about that. You see, my fan base is limited to those who are obligated to listen to me out of familial and/or friendship ties. But let’s continue for curiosity’s sake. Do I get paid?
Your payment will be proportional to your draw for the night.
[Paraphrase] Well, you agree to pre-sell tickets to your fans before the show. They are priced at almost twice the going rate for any other weeknight show at this venue, so you’ll have to be a good salesman. Basically, how it works is if you sell 25 tickets, you get $25. And we get $150.
Shouldn’t I get a larger percentage if I do all the legwork to sell the tickets?
[Paraphrase] Well, I suppose you don’t have to sell tickets. Feel free to mooch off other bands’ fans. And just keep in mind that “Consistently, our lowest drawing acts are the ones that choose to not sell tickets and instead just ’hope’ that their fans pay at the door night of show. Obviously, we are not able to work with these acts anymore, and the clubs we work with also choose to avoid re-booking those acts.”
So, if I personally sell tickets to people, and then I give you $150 of the $175 that I made to you, aren’t I paying to play?
This is NOT “pay to play”; you would not have to pre-purchase the tickets. We would just give them to you to sell.
But if I have to hand over nearly 100% of the money that I made from the tickets that you “gave” me, aren’t you selling me the tickets?
[Paraphrase] Alright, the jig is up. We’re a company that specializes in taking advantage of the peonage (like yourself) of local music scenes. We scour MySpace to find pages of small artists who we know won’t have any representation and then trick them into doing all the ticket-selling for us before handing all the profits.
Big Time Entertainment is one of the more deplorable scams I have come across recently. I say that not only because my pride was hurt, but also because it takes a special kind of greed to take advantage of struggling musicians and closing other avenues of success to them. Hopefully, some poor sap trying to start to make money playing music will google Big Time Entertainment, see this article (or one of the many others), and refrain from handing hard-earned money over to these swindlers.