Recently, while talking shop with a fellow DJ, I was told of a promoter in the Midwest asking a group of DJs to pre-sale tickets for their residency. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It’s a well-known fact that many venues around the US do this to young new bands, but DJs? That’s unheard of. The DJ/Club relationship has always been “I play, you pay”. As I expressed the ridiculousness of the promoters proposition to the DJ I was conversing with, he said, “Well, I have a gig on the west coast and they make DJs pay to play just like they do the bands. I’ve never spun in L.A. so I am paying to play”. So there you have it: for every DJ that refuses to pay to play there will be three or more DJs standing behind him with cash and headphones in hand.
The club DJ business is one of many factions of the music industry that has been crippled by technology. With the advent of DJ software (some of which practically spins and beat matches the music for you) hack DJs have been popping out of the woodwork like roaches in a low rent apartment. Some smaller clubs have even completely given up on human DJs and replaced them with the more manageable iPods and online music streaming sites. Technology has made it easier to be a DJ and so now there are too many DJs. As a result, securing a residency has become less about DJ skills and more about promotional skills. The club owner’s stance becomes, “Yeah, yeah, everyone is a DJ, but how many people can you bring through the door that will buy alcohol?”
When asked how I felt about the idea of club owners trying to get DJs to pay to play like bands, I just produced a shoulder shrug. I think it’s crappy, but it doesn’t pertain to me. I don’t pay to play and that’s pretty much the jest of it. There are certain wrong turns that you can take in the music industry that will prolong your trip to the next level. Paying to play is one of them. In my opinion, it’s as bad as playing in a Battle of the Bands (which is another big aspiring professional no-no).
Who’s The Bad Guy?
The club owner is not the bad guy. Another word that begins with “b” is “business”. He’s a business guy. His job is to make money. Unfortunately, if a smart guy can make a quick buck off a dumb guy there is no crime in that. If a guy gets on TV and tells you that God is telling him to tell you to send him a check for $100.00 and your life will improve…and you do it…he has committed no crime. He’s an asshole, but he’s innocent. Innocent assholes and insults aside, let’s talk about alternatives to pay-to-play.
Unlike band competitions, DJ competitions can actually help your career. Winning is nice, but even if you don’t win you get heard and you give yourself the opportunity to do the most important thing in any area of the entertainment industry which is…
Meet other working DJs. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Good, working DJs always have more work than they could possibly do. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why hanging out with a DJ that has more work than he can handle would benefit you. Notice that I said “working” DJs and not DJs in general. Bedroom DJs that are “doing it for the love of the music” and “not selling out” are as valuable to you as Monopoly money. They don’t think about getting paid to DJ because they have day jobs or rich parents…or both. These are the guys that gave our friend the club owner the idea to charge DJs to play. He thinks, ”If they are dumb enough to perform a lucrative service for free, maybe they are dumb enough to pay instead of get paid”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying be a DJ snob and not be friends with non-professional bedroom DJs. I’m saying spend a bulk of your time around people that have qualities you want to rub off on you: like earning money as a DJ.
Other people you should network with are club owners and promoters whom, surprisingly, you will also see at DJ competitions often. Obviously a club owner would be a better connect than a promoter because anyone can say they are a promoter and be full of it…and besides that, at the end of the business day a promoter is just a middleman cutting into your profits. Although, if you meet a really good promoter you can focus your time and energy on honing your craft while they put your name out. Then and only then is a promoter worth his/her weight in gold.
Do I think pay-to-pay is completely ludicrous? Depends. If you have a new CD, DVD and/or merchandise to sell and could possible make your money back or a profit from the gig then maybe it’s a good idea. In that same vein, it could also be considered like a promotional expense if you are unknown and the venue is high profile enough to warrant the expenditure. If you are playing a hole in the wall that doesn’t run print ads (so you can at least have your name in the local paper-which produces a press clipping for your bio) and you have no merch to sell, then it’s probably a bad idea.