So, you have a band. You guys rock. You've played the Cobalt Café, or maybe the Hideout. You're ready to play somewhere bigger, where people you don't already know might show up. You want to play somewhere on the storied Sunset Strip. You call up a club, and so begins the process.
Bands harbor a lot of hostility toward venues on the Strip, claiming they cost a lot and offer little in return. There are endless stories about losing two weeks' pay (or more) on a "pay-to-play" gig while being treated like crap by remiss bar staff, having sets cut in half by lazy sound guys and getting screwed by management that can't be found.
This is a widely held view among artists. "Pay-to-play is a construct created by unscrupulous promoters (and condoned by club owners) to pad their pockets at the expense of the artists, and it ensures that the talented bands come in last," says singer Lynda Kay. "It is also the reason why the Strip is struggling, because it is the talent that keeps audiences' attention."
But what exactly is this pay-to-play? And why does it keep coming up when people discuss a few clubs along the Sunset Strip?
Most people would understand pay-to-play quite literally: A band wants to play a specific venue, the venue (and/or a third party, a promoter) asks for a certain amount of money, the band pays it, then the band plays.
Clubs and promoters insist that this admittedly tacky practice is nowhere to be found on the Strip. Nic Adler, owner of the Roxy theater and Sunset Strip rock-club royalty (his father, Lou Adler, is an L.A. nightlife institution), says, "You don't end up with quality when you do pay-to-play. If a band paid $800 and that curtain comes up and there's nobody there, I don't want that $800."
Some clubs on the Strip, however, would readily admit that for certain untried bands, they institute a policy called "presales." Where presales differs from pay-to-play is that the club gives those bands, usually bands without a confirmed fan base or commercial track record, a certain number of tickets to sell to their fans at a reduced rate. The bands pay for those tickets, then are responsible for recouping their money by selling the tickets; then they play.
Sean Healy, a third-party promoter who handles local shows at the Key Club, says when bands complain about the Strip being pay-to-play, what they really mean is that "a band was issued tickets and did not sell the amount they agreed to. They in turn 'paid to play.' We have been using advance ticket sales for more than 10 years. Our contracts state clearly, 'We are strongly against pay-to-play: If you cannot sell the tickets, then don't take the gig.' "
When you're a kid in Little League and need new uniforms, you go door-to-door selling frozen pretzels. So if nobody minded selling pretzels, why is selling tickets to your gig suddenly such a universal source of musician bellyaching?
The answer may rest in the context of the presale system: Sometimes the money that needs to be gathered through these "presales" is $1,000 or $2,000 just to play for 30 minutes at 9 p.m.
"Keep in mind you are not the only local band on the bill selling tickets," warns Loana dP Valencia (vocalist with Dia De Los Muertos and Dreams of Damnation). "It becomes a second job with little in return, so bands get frustrated and give up on that side of town."
Another major problem with presale dates is that the lineup becomes an incoherent mash-up of whatever acts could come up with the money through presales, rather than bands regular fans might enjoy seeing.
More and more, people are giving up on these hodgepodge bills with a dozen mismatched fledgling bands in a night. As musician and engineer Josh Newell points out, "You don't go to a club anymore because you know they're going to have good music on a Friday night. You go specifically because your friends are playing a 20-minute set that they're paying $1,200 to do. And you show up just to see their set and then leave because the other bands are on the bill because they were willing to fork out the cash to play as well."
But other clubs, particularly venues with high operating costs and the competitive advantage of a certain historical mystique, point out that the presales system is a kind of insurance against empty rooms. For Celina Denkins, senior booking agent at the Whisky A Go-Go, presales help ensure that bands actually do bring in a crowd. "No matter how great a musician is, when the rooms are empty, this can be costly to a venue — be it big or small — and also costly to the morale of a band," she says. "It really sucks when a band performs to an empty venue because they have no fan base and then blame us for it."
Denkins and the owners of the Whisky are particularly upset at the constant buzz among musicians that the storied club, where Jim Morrison first told his mom what he really wanted to do to her, is pay-to-play: "The Whisky A Go-Go has never been a pay-to-play venue. We have never asked for any money up front from a band's pocket in order for them to perform. Even dating back to the '80s when the owner, Mario Maglieri, [started] the advance-ticket-sale requirement [and] instituted presales, his main goal was to have his venue packed with a band's friends, family and/or fans.
"As a business owner," Denkins continues, "to not ensure advance ticket sales is nearly the death of the venue and also the death of a band's morale if they don't have a confirmed number of fans coming to see their show."
The whole idea of presales is simple, she explains. "It's to ensure that a band doesn't perform to an empty venue. Not everyone comes to a venue just on the venue's name alone. Even with being the oldest and most legendary venue on the Sunset Strip and in much of the world, the Whisky doesn't always have instant fans in place for a band night after night, 365 days a year. No venue does.
"I don't have any idea of what angry band or inaccurate journalist created the misconception of 'pay-to-play,' " she adds, "but we have always been a venue who has supported local artists and encouraged local artists to reach out themselves for fan support."
Moreover, if a band were to become truly worthy of the Lizard King's old haunts, according to the system's defenders, then it wouldn't have to worry about presales. This way, the dreaded presales system becomes a kind of motivational incentive for bands to get better and more popular. "If a band has established themselves at the Whisky," Denkins explains, "we offer nights that offer little or no presale effort."
Bands like Billy Boy on Poison, Warner Drive, Vains of Jenna and Vayden all have great relationships with the Whisky, and some even get a guarantee or a cut of the door.
Still, it could easily be argued that getting a crowd is, in fact, the venue's job. If the venue consistently booked good bands, so the layperson might think, people would show up of their own volition, right? It doesn't seem to make any kind of business sense to book a band that isn't good or popular, regardless of how many tickets they can unload. And the technical difference between pay-to-play and presales, which is very clear-cut for the bottom-line-minded club owners, often gets lost in translation.
Metal and punk, the bread and butter of the Strip, are full of passionate characters who have no time for parsing two commercial practices they equally despise. "Bullshit!" scoffs Tod Junker of Die Fast when asked. "Not that I can blame [the Whisky] — what's the cost of a business over there? Just don't fucking lie about what you're doing. If I give you money before I play, that's pay-to-play, I don't care if it's tickets or drinks."
For all that footwork, money and time, what does a band get in return? According to bands, it depends on the venue. But frequently they get instability, no promotion and a bad attitude. Valencia claims some clubs "will give bands attitude and say, 'Bands should be honored to play here, since X, Y and Z have played our stage,' yet local bands get screwed on sound check, [the] guest list, and you're not even allowed to film your own show because they tape it and sell you your live set for $100."
Many bands are still just looking to be able to say they've played the Roxy, the Viper Room or the Whisky. They'll do almost anything to get that gig, even going through third-party promoters who may be far greedier than the club.
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Francesca Ranieri used to assist in making those deals happen. She laughs as she explains, "I was selling these novice bands the 'Sunset Dream' of playing the famous Hollywood venues, but any intelligent person could have made the same connections themselves."
For patrons, Sunset is a hard sell: They're going to pay for parking (either a tiny space in an awkward lot or a meter that runs all night), drinks and high door fees, just to see the one band on the mixed bill they know or like. Doing a strict cost-benefit analysis, the Sunset Strip seems way more expensive and less accessible than its cousins east of Hollywood.
"I can see the appeal to the bars on the Eastside," says Adler, referring to venues like the Echo and Spaceland. "It's expensive to run a place over here, but we try to bring quality acts to make it worth it. We want everyone happy: the business, yeah, but the patrons and the bands, too. We're working with other venues in the neighborhood now, trying to build a community again."
This sincere effort by several clubs to restore the Strip to its former glory is admirable. While reversing negative preconceptions (both true and false) among musicians and fans seems like an uphill battle, it would be rad to see Sunset become once again a place where you could show up any night of the week knowing you'd find good live music.