Survival of the Indie Artist | How to Deal with Pay to Play

pay to play

So, I have a friend that is trying to get a grant for his music. This is excellent and all artists should take their music career as seriously as he does!

He asked me to write a letter to include with his grant request that explains Pay to Play.

I thought that I should share that letter with you, in case you’re ever in a situation where you’re being asked to pay to play at a venue.

Here is the letter


My name is Crystal Amar and I am the Founder of Nevernaire Media Group. Nevernaire Media Group is comprised of several platforms, including a blog and podcast, through which we promote Indie Hip hop artists.

Over the last three years, we have helped over 250 Indie artists through promotion on the blog, podcast and social media. In turn, this promotion helps the artists to get more streams, followers and eventually more fans.

I have been asked to write about pay to play and to explain the concept based on my own experience, having helped many artists to set up their tours and shows.

The Concept of Pay to Play

The concept of pay to play is nothing new and it is quite simple. When you book a venue, there are times that the venue expects you to pay to perform there. But, how do you know when you’re entering into a pay to play deal versus a get paid to play one? This is not as easy to determine. That is why you want to be clear on the terms of the deal before making it and you want to make sure that you ask the right questions.

So, what are the right questions to ask when you’re setting up a gig at a venue?

  1. Are there any age restrictions
  2. Will we be able to set up a merch table?
  3. Can we sell tickets?
  4. Can we charge at the door?
  5. And finally, how much will we be paid for our performance

You want to ask how much you will be paid right up front. Do not ask if you have to pay the venue. Why would they say no to this question if they think that you’re already thinking that you have to pay them? This is a mutually beneficial deal. They will make money off of your fans buying drinks and food, etc. and you make money off the tickets and merch sales.

Who deals with pay to play?

This is up to the venue. So is how much they expect you to pay and when they want the payment. If a venue asks you to pay to play, then it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to make enough money off your ticket and merch sales to pay the venue fee. The more popular the venue is, the more likely they are going to charge you to play there. But, if the venue is popular, there is a bigger chance that you will make more money at the door from people that just want to visit the venue.

The risk of pay to play

If you are not careful and you don’t make a clear cut deal up front, some venues will attempt to charge you to play after you get there. This is a risk that can be avoided by taking the necessary precautions. Should you make a deal with a venue and then they attempt to charge you after the fact, you have a better chance of negotiating away the payment because you already had a deal. If you are unable to negotiate away the payment, don’t let your pride get the best of you. After all, you’re already there and you’ve already put in the work.

Instead, quickly huddle with all the performers to determine

  1. How much money you made off tickets
  2. How much money you think you will make off door sales
  3. How much money will you make from merch sales
  4. And finally, how much each artist can pitch in toward the venue bill

Once you have made these determinations, go back to the venue owner and tell them how much you can pay them and try to negotiate a new deal. If they refuse to budge on their price, leave. You’re not there to lose money or to perform for free.


Pay to play is something that you will encounter as an artist setting up your own shows at venues. Use the above tactics to handle the situation the best that you can and learn how to negotiate and be your own advocate.

Do you have questions about pay to play? Any similar experiences? Share with us in the comments!


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