Opening acts: the real cost of paying to play

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • September 23, 2015

When Andrew W.K. comes to town, he always brings the party. The performer’s stop in Boston last month was supposed to be a night of his punk party anthems and signature floppy-haired head banging. 

W.K.’s party, however, was interrupted by a major controversy, and it wasn’t caused by his goofy antics. There was an uproar when the local music scene realized that Keynote Company, a promoter known for using pay-to-play tactics, had booked the gig. 

Pay-to-play is a business strategy that some concert promoters use, claiming it as a foolproof way to get an audience to a show. It can work a couple of ways. When someone books a big name like Andrew W.K., who will definitely sell out the venue, an unknown band can pay a lot of money upfront to be put on the bill as the opening act. The hope is that by playing for such a large audience, the opener will make up the difference in new fans. 

The other type of pay-to-play is when the promoter will only let a band onto a bill if they can sell a quota of tickets. In the past, Keynote Company has required openers to sell up to $300 worth of tickets for a show, cutting them only $50 if they are successful. This can be extremely detrimental for newer artists, who inevitably end up paying for the unsold passes out of pocket. We all know most novice musicians’ pockets are pretty empty to start with, so it is a high-risk scenario either way.

When the Andrew W.K. show was announced, many Boston musicians spoke out against it on Facebook and Twitter. Local punk band Fleabite warned that Keynote Company had taken an enormous cut of their ticket earnings, and in return provided only a flyer written in Papyrus font as the promotional material. 

Always engaged with fans, Andrew W.K. took note of the outrage and reached out to the company to ensure that the opening acts had not paid to play. The promoter said that, while he often uses this tactic, he wouldn’t for W.K.’s show, so the concert proceeded. Keynote company also replied to the local backlash, arguing via Facebook that show booking is the promoter’s sole source of income. 

It’s hard to argue that a local music scene is the right place to make a living. Most musicians, artists, and organizers in Boston either pinch pennies or supplement their income with other jobs. When the average cost of living in the city is about $1,500 a month, according to Jumpshell, a hundred or so dollars made on a weekly show is not a sustainable salary. 

There are many booking collectives in Boston with less financially-driven motives. One of the best is Illegally Blind, who explicitly states that their mission is for creating a more connected music scene in Boston. They pair bigger touring artists, like Mac DeMarco or Girlpool, with local favorites like Vundabar and IAN. This way, the show sells itself and nobody loses money. 

When there are show bookers in Boston working purely for their love of music, it is probably best for all bands and concertgoers to avoid promoters with iffy ethics. Even though the allure of opening for a big-name artist is strong, I encourage musicians to not buy into the pay-to-play scam. I’ve gone to countless shows where openers perform for an almost empty venue, with the few early audience members drifting around uninterested. When 80 percent of the crowd only arrives 10 minutes before the headliner goes on, that opening spot isn’t worth much. It is also the promoter's job to make sure that tickets get sold, so no band should feel the need to take on that responsibility. 

Pay-to-play also creates an ethical dilemma for concertgoers who don’t want to pay for shows where the promoter is going to rob the band—especially when every successful concert enables the booker to take on more popular artists. 

The best way to rid the music scene of these schemes is to support DIY shows. Let the big players like Bowery Boston and Crossroads Presents be corporations, and let small independent bookers do what they do best—putting acts in smaller venues, basements, and living rooms as a stepping-stone for young bands without emptying their piggy banks. Get out to these shows, stick a $5 bill in the Mason jar by the door, and enjoy some live music with morals.