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Pay to play DJ sets – a curse on club land

By on 26/03/2014

I’ve been a DJ now for about 12 years and in that time I have played at many of the major London clubs. Before and during I was a promoter so I feel like I’m pretty experienced in the ins-and-outs of London club land and many of the difficulties involved. The art of DJing is currently a hot topic right now – we’ve all heard about the skills being watered down by technology making it easy for anyone who knows how to press a sync button to become a DJ, but now there seems to be a further threat to the integrity of the art form. Just last week I was exposed to a strange trend dodgy promoters seem to be practicing which I think will further destroy the art by potentially exposing the paying public to some not so great DJs. This worrying trend is the emerging culture of ‘pay-to-play’ DJ sets.

I thought ‘pay-to-play’ DJ sets were an urban myth in London. In the 14 odd years I’ve been a DJ/promoter I’d never really come across them personally until now. I had heard about them from friends who were in bands, where this sort of thing is quite prevalent, but never in DJing. For those that don’t know, ‘pay-to-play’ is when the artist – whether it be a DJ, musician, etc.- pays the promoter to appear on the lineup for the gig. This payment is either a one off cash sum paid out in advance to appear on the lineup, or by selling a certain amount of tickets before being allowed to perform at the gig.

Sounds crazy huh?

This method of booking talent exploits new and inexperienced musicians who don’t realise they are being taken advantage of. In such a competitive arena, new DJs will do anything to get their names out there, and whether they are directly giving money or being asked to sell a set amount of tickets in order to get a set they are being forced to pay-to-play at the venue. In the case of having to sell tickets, a place on the lineup isn’t even guaranteed- which means people are having to convince their friends to spend out and potentially not even see them play.

In the world of DJing I had occasionally heard about this sort of thing happening on DJ forums in the states but never in the UK until a week or so ago when I received a direct message on Twitter from this promoter (I’m not adding promoter / venue names since it’s an independent promoter that is using the venue and this post is not a naming and shaming exercise, but an information piece on the sorts of things that are happening at the moment in the music scene). The promoter said they were interested in booking me for a gig at a pretty large London venue and gave an email through which to contact them. Sounded pretty good so I fired them an email. They responded pretty quickly with information on what turned out to be a pretty successful night that fills out the venue week in week out. I also did some background research and it looked like they had been doing good things. All sounding very tempting so far. They stated in the email that they wanted to book me for the VIP room and gave a date of the gig, which was just 4 days away. But there was a lack of information about the exact genres they wanted me to play and the set times as well as the payment, so I sent them another email to which I received this response… Which in the words of the mighty Joe Rogan “sent my bullshit meter way off”! (please click the image to see it full size)


So essentially I would have to pay to play at their event! Not only would I have to fork out £35 quid in advance of the gig, but to see that returned I would have to get at least 10 people to come to the gig on my paying guestlist (which looking at the ticket prices would possibly be between £6 and £10), of which I would earn £2 from every person I brought in. So lets say I got 20 people to come to the gig it would only net me £40, for essentially being DJ and promoter for the night. Not only that, but if only nine of the people I put on the list came down and paid, then I would actually lose money as the £35 “deposit” I would have to pay in advance would not be returned!!! It’s essentially like when you rent a bar for the evening and you have to reach a minimum bar spend before your deposit is returned to you – except you are actually there to work and paying to do so. I have friends who work with promoters on street teams to get people to attend clubs and they get paid more than that for each person they bring into club – it’s crazy. At the bottom of the email was a statement that this is how they book the DJs for the first night that they play at their events, and if it goes well they would book me at some of their other events.

I don’t know what their definition is of “goes well”, but to me it sounds just like a hook line to get hungry and inexperienced DJs to essentially do the promoters work for them for little or negative return. It seems as if the promoter is searching out London DJs on Twitter and sending them all messages in an attempt to get DJs that are gullible enough to do their work for them… and get paid less than a street team would for their trouble. On top of that they are giving the indication that they care more about getting numbers through the door than bringing quality DJs to the venue which, in the long term, is short sighted in terms of providing the best music to what would be your regular returning customers.

My experience prompted me to search out the pay-to-play phenomenon on the internet, and it is way more prevalent than I first thought. The internet is awash with pay-to-play horror stories.

I have a lot of experience as both a DJ and a promoter as well as the two concurrently, and know from personal experience that in some occasions when the world of the DJ and promoter crosses over too much the only things that suffers is the music and the quality of experience you expose your paying public to. As a promoter I would fully look into a new DJ before I brought them down to a night of my own. If pay-to-play schemes continue to gain ground as a cheap and easy way to put on a night, it opens up the gates to potentially having poor talent playing at your events. Getting numbers through the doors seems to be more important than the talent on the bill in these promotion models. And although in the short term a promoter is making money irrespective of how bad the DJ is, in the long term the music and the night will lose credibility as you’ll be known for having shabby DJs at the party.

I was speaking to a DJ friend last night who was asked to do a pay-to-play gig at a festival he was attending recently. The promoters were offering up sets based on them selling at least 10 tickets for the festival (at a cost of over £100 each!!). If you didn’t sell 10 tickets then you got no set at all, and the more tickets you sold the better the set time / stage you were offered. He said the end result of the festival was that the “whole vibe of the fest was poor – headliners on at 3am flanked by ok to awful warm up DJs before and after…” and he went on “Back when it was CDs and vinyl you at least had to make an investment to be a DJ, now every man and his dog with a cracked copy of Tractor and a membership to a Russian torrent site is a house/techno/bass DJ”. He is right – I see this time and time again when I’m out at bars and the DJ is terrible, and I ask myself how could the promoter even put them on? It’s the promoters that are supposed to act as the filters for this rather than simply playing the stats game by only letting people through the door that can shift tickets rather than basing their decisions on talent. This is by no means an attack on DJs or people who pretend to be. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to DJs and admittedly dislike a lot of DJs a lot of people like. My problem is with lazy promoters who value quick cash over promoting talent and putting on a good night for paying customers.

Promoters are more interested in making money than bringing quality DJs

This whole situation implies that some promoters are more interested in making money than they are in giving the people that do attend their parties a night of quality DJs. If they had approached me and said that since they didn’t know me and hadn’t seen me play before they would only be able to give me an early set and/or pay a normal fee, then see about further bookings once they’d seen me play at the night, I would have been open to that situation. It shows a promoter that has a consideration for its paying public and to the quality of artists they’re bringing to the venue. Promoting is an extremely tough game. Back when I was a promoter there were times where I booked DJs that were terrible and I felt like shooting myself afterwards as it was a poor reflection on me, the night and the experience I was giving to the regulars that came in week and week out expecting me to provide a certain quality. Promoters should be working towards getting quality talent that the people would return to the night to see rather than constantly rotating the more gullible inexperienced DJs they have taken advantage of that are willing to pay to play at an event. In the long term people will return again and again to see quality DJs, and promoters would have the dual benefit of making money and pushing the music forward, as well as truly putting on a high quality even. I don’t know a single experienced DJ on rotation in the circuit that would agree to those sort of terms to play at an event – and for good reason.

This is not an attack on any specific promoters or venues in terms of the quality of DJs, which is why I redacted the name of the venue and the promoter from the emails they sent. It’s more to bring to light the sort of issues DJs (and the paying public) have to deal with when the worlds between the DJ and the promoter are muddied. For all I know the promoter may be vetting their DJs well enough in advance, but I’m not going to go there to find out considering the methods used to exploit DJs. To me this trend leans way more towards making money than bringing in talent. This is especially true when the public have to pay more to actually get access to the VIP room where these DJs are being booked.

Any good DJ will promote whatever night they play at through our social networks, friends, mailing lists, radios shows etc. That is part of the job and, I would be pissed as a promoter if a DJ didn’t post/talk about the night they were booked to play at. But the role of DJ and promoter should be kept mutually exclusive – especially at such low costs and when it could potentially lead to a loss of money for the DJ. These promoters need to take responsibility for their nights by building decent street teams to get people through the door, instead of shifting all the risk and responsibility onto the DJs

DJs out there please look into the details of what you’re being asked to do if any promoter talks about these sort of schemes especially when you’re getting paid lower rates than street teams to promote and DJ and could actually end up losing money to DJ which is crazy

By Tendai