Editor’s note: This article was originally published February 5, 2014
When local music leaders met on Monday for the regularly scheduled Austin Music Commission meeting at City Hall a hot button issue on the agenda was pay-to-play, the practice of music promoters charging artists to perform on an event bill. Of the 120 people who RSVP’d to the event on Facebook roughly 20 attended the meeting. Some in attendance wore green ribbons in protest of pay-to-play.
Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People, an advocacy organization for musicians that has been investigating the issue for almost a year, led an emotional presentation to the commission. Houlihan described two common pay-to-play scenarios. In the first, artists are asked to pay a promoter a flat fee for a set time on a bill, frequently appearing as one of many local opening acts for a touring musician who is not paying to play. In the second, artists are required to sell a certain number of tickets, either to secure a place on the bill or to participate in a "battle of the bands" type of event. Houlihan, who referred to promoters who engage in these practices as "bad actors," urged the music commission to make a statement condemning the practice.The commission, which serves as an advisory board to the city on music-related issues, was quick to acknowledge its limited options.
"While we might find the practice unethical, disgusting and ugly, it’s not illegal," said commission member Rich Garza, founder of the Pachanga Latino Music Festival.
Read more about pay to play and how it’s affecting the Austin music scene and the 2014 SXSW Music Festival here. (Paywall, ironic, I know)
Several speakers at the meeting addressed a series of pay-to-play hip-hop shows that took place at Infest Austin, which moved into the high-profile downtown space vacated by revered club Antone’s in April. Although Infest had ambitions of becoming a local counter-culture hub, it closed its doors suddenly last week the night Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame was supposed to perform. Local music blogger Morgan Davis told the commission that the show unfolded as a "comedy of errors." According to Davis, the show moved across the street to Republic Live where patrons — who paid $30-$1,000 for tickets and VIP passes — were presented with a long string of performances by local rappers who paid to get on the bill, but they never got to see Waka Flocka himself.
Houlihan considers the practice of pay-to-play in hip-hop particularly egregious.
"The thing is, hip hop has a lower barrier to entry - no need to read music, no need to master an instrument, just your voice and your mind," she said via messaging earlier this week. To Houlihan, this makes hip-hop artists particularly vulnerable to predatory practices.
It’s like singing into your hairbrush and then getting pulled onto American Idol - how could you possibly be expected to know what you’re getting into?" she said.
Within Austin’s hip-hop community the take on pay to play is significantly more nuanced.
"In the hood, that style of having opening acts pay to get on shows has been going on forever," said Matt Sonzala a veteran promoter and writer who jokes that his own company Pushermania is "a hip-hop non-profit." Sonzala suspects the practice would have continued largely under the radar in Austin had it not moved into Infest, a space with a celebrated history and a vaunted live music tradition.
Earlier in the month promotion company Red Rooster set off a firestorm by posting a $400 ticket option for a show featuring Houston rapper Z-Ro that was originally scheduled for Thursday at the Infest (the show has since been moved to Republic Live). The option included 10 tickets plus an artist performance pass.
Mikee Griffith, the rapper and promoter who runs Red Rooster said that the Ticketfly listing was a misprint and that the $400 option was really supposed to include 20 pre-sale tickets that any opening artist was required to sell to secure a place on the bill. Griffith, who said the money for Thursday’s show was handled by Lil Sicc, another local rapper who is co-promoting the show, said that no artist’s passes were sold online and presale tickets were instead handed off in person to rappers who asked to perform on the bill. Lil Sicc did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Griffith contends he supports the local hip-hop scene through open mics and an emerging artist series called ATX We Next. He says this is the first "so-called pay-to-play" show he’s done. His other shows require a more modest artist fee of $5-$20.
"I just moved back from Florida about a year ago I noticed that (pre-sale tickets) seemed to be norm. I mean, Scoremore and some of the other bigger promoters were doing it already," Griffith said.
Sascha Guttfreund the 24-year-old owner of the wildly successful local promotion company ScoreMore takes issue with that analysis. Guttfreund, who Sonzala describes as "revolutionizing the (expletive) city," was profiled by the New York Times in a January 2013 article that lauded his innovative approach to ticket sales which includes the use of street teams to move tickets hand to hand across college campuses.
Guttfreund does not deny that he has asked local artists to sell tickets to appear on his shows.
"Hip-hop artists, you gonna really have to hustle. You gonna really have to work," he said, noting that artists earn a $5 commission on ticket sales which usually amounts to about 20 percent of the ticket price. Guttfreund, who thinks of his model as a "farm system," insists that it’s advantageous for a local artist to seed a crowd with fans who are familiar with his or her material. He also cites examples of local artists he’s put on Texas tours with no ticket sale requirements including locals Kydd and Phranchyze and Houston artist Doughbeezy.
Guttfreund says he often has to fight with booking agents to add single local artist to the national tours his company specializes in. He is also very focused on audience experience, which seems to be one of the big points of contention with many pay to play hip-hop events which front load shows with local artists who buy their slots to cover a promoter’s expenses.
"It kills the quality of the show," says Charles Byrd a local hip-hop artist who raps under the name Nook. Byrd rose to prominence as a youth and cemented his place in the local scene with his Jump On It summertime concert series that took place in Rosewood Park throughout the late nineties and early 2000s.
He identifies oversaturation as a problem in hip-hop.
"You could walk into Walmart and say ‘Are you a rapper? Raise your hand.’ and more than half of the people in Walmart raise their hand," Byrd said. "Everyone is a rapper now. With that being the case when promoters are getting ready to do shows all these rappers hit them up."
When Z-Ro played the Infest in July of 2013 a multitude of local acts opened and Z-Ro didn’t take the stage until 2:45 in the morning, after the house lights in the club went on and the bar closed down. For Thursday’s Z-Ro show Griffith says he thinks there are eight openers on the bill.
"When people pay to see a headliner they hate to sit through 2-3 hours of local artists that they never heard of before," said Byrd who describes artists who pay to play as "unproven artists."
The phenomenon results in crowds turning out late for shows which in turn hurts bar sales. Although Infest owner Ben Riseman wouldn’t comment on why he closed the club, the bar’s reported liquor sales totals fell short when compared with those of other live music venues. Infest, with a capacity of 750, logged $14,082 for December. By comparison, Red 7, a venue with a 350-capacity indoor room and a 500-person outdoor patio, logged $61,147 in December. Holy Mountain, a club with a capacity of 233, had $21,489 in December.
At the meeting on Monday Garza speculated pay to play might be self-correcting. In any case, the music commission concluded that the best way to combat promoters taking advantage of artists is education.
LeRoy Minor who raps under the name Greezo Veli in the Austin supercrew the League of Extraordinary Gz agrees that education for urban artists is important. To that end his crew has partnered with hip-hop production company Keep It Local to produce Game Session a free networking and education event for local urban artists at Empire Control Room and Garage scheduled for Saturday, February 15 from six to nine p.m.
But he doesn’t accept the narrative of artists as victims.
"Maybe you needed to be taken advantage of one time to realize this is a business and it’s a cutthroat business and you need to be sure you’re dealing with people who have good reputations," Minor said.
"(Paying to play) is a shortcut and you have to deal with the things that happen when you try to take a shortcut," he said.
(Staff writer Gary Dinges contributed to this report.)