Pay-to-Play: Why Indie Artists Shouldn’t Look Away


Getting paid to do what we love is a core desire of many creatives that I know, being myself included. Thanks to technology and today’s music business ecosystem, there are numerous income streams at the disposal of emerging artists. I won’t fully delve into the ranging possibilities but think sync placements, live performances, songwriting and merchandising. These seem to be the most sought after frameworks by creatives, year in and year out. As the old coinage goes, ‘it takes money to make money‘.

This Art Ain’t Free!

In 2010 when I initiated my creative journey, I recall boasting the fact that I gave no fucks about the money or financial appeal associated with the entertainment business. Even til this day, for the the most part that remains oh-so-true. In contrast however, making noise in the game takes much investment of time, energy and finances. I won’t disclose how much I’ve invested into Audible Hustle but to date, the profit isn’t closely a match. The comparisons are hideous in actuality! With that said, it’s only reasonable to have hopes in recouping those funds, partially if not fully. Every penny does counts.

Anderson .Paak and Knxledge Drop Collab Album
Art for Sale.

Shiidd, This Stage Ain’t Either!

Indie artists should have outlined goals to reach their target demographic. The best interaction between an artist and a music fan is undoubtedly the live performance. Not only does it allow you to exhibit your craft but it also provides an opportunity to expand your audience, network with similar artists, sell merchandise (perpetual passive promotion) and in a perfect world – gets you paid. Typically, before funds are paid to a performing artist, a promoter must satisfy the following:

$$ Booking the Venue
$$ Securing A DJ
$$ Funding Promotion
$ Getting Artwork Done
$ Hiring Door Attendee
*Feel free to include unmeasureable levels of stress.

Considering the effort and finances required for these tasks, its amazing how many creatives neglect to understand this business relationship. As an artist, I totally agree with the sentiment that art is valuable within itself. Spending hours listening over beats, writing, reciting, studying – its really a meticulous process. Unfortunately for most indies, value is determined by an audience’s demand for a product or idea. It takes time to build awareness and desire around a brand but hopefully this is a fact you’ve already accepted. Rarely will a promoter book an artist who has no draw (people that come to see an artist’s perform live). That’s simply a bad business decision.

Midtown Atlanta Nightlife
An Early Night on Edgewood Avenue.

Life: One Huge Pay-to-Play Scenario

Tech advances within the music industry has made becoming a performing artist easier than ever. As the demand for exposure has increased, the schematics of artist development and event curation has taken a shift as well. Playing the role of artist and event promoter has allowed me to take on both experiences firsthand.

Securing paid shows is a huge accomplishment for any creative. It’s also very much possible with the correct mindset however, processes take time. You have to hone your craft. You have to perform live and you have to network. If you’re a rapper at an Acoustic Open Mic in Athens, GA – you’re likely doing yourself a disservice. You must also be strategic when investing. Find your target demographic, perform your best work and say hello to everyone you see. Build connections with tastemakers and like-minded creatives who you envision yourself working with in the future. These things will gradually propel you closer to becoming an artist that has draw in your city and/or region.

Paying to perform has gotten a bad rap over the years because it’s primarily been a one-sided affair. Generally, the only beneficiary of pay-to-play showcases is the promoter. Aside from an artist performing a 3-minute song and generically being promoted on social media – there’s is no real value provided. Often times a mainstream artist or DJ may have his photo appended to the flyer, but this is usually for promotional purposes only. [Them muhfuckas really don’t be wanting to talk – at all.] Lucky for us; all promoters are not created equal.

How To Get Paid to Perform

Your dream is your responsibility and you’re left with 3 options when it comes to paid performances:

1) Create your own event > you MIGHT make a profit depending on turnout and alcohol sales.
2) Pay someone to be a partner on their event > second cheapest option; should be considered an investment towards goals.
3) Build your fanbase. Increase your draw ($) > this should be a goal regardless but it could take a long time. Becoming a partnered artist on a genre specific event will help merge you and your target demographic quicker. From there the ball is in your court.

*Worth noting:  you’re eligible to receive compensation for live performances of registered music through your PRO (Performance Rights Organization). There are variables that determine the amount of compensation received but remember – every penny counts. Find more information on getting paid to perform via BMI Live here.

Don’t be afraid to invest in your career. After-all, life is one huge pay-to-play stage. Weight out your options and make the best move.