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This one’s easy. No, no, no, no, no (yes, occasionally) and no.

By and large, venues, festival organisers and promoters who insist that musicians bring a certain number of ticket-buying punters to their gigs should pretty much have their licences revoked in my book.

The argument goes something like this: playing at our venue / performing as part of our festival / taking part in our Battle of the Bands competition will be good for your profile – and you may even get a record deal out of it. Or something.

Promoters know it’s shonky, which is why they often go to some lengths to make it something of a secret that this even goes on. One recent local example is the rather shambolic PR disaster that is the Surface Unsigned festival.

The story goes that the ‘festival’ (actually a sort of multi-layered, episodic battle of the bands) requires that artists bring 25 paying guests at £6 a head (that’s twelve of your American dollars) to see them perform for 20 minutes.

Apparently, you can still play if you only contribute (let’s say) £144 through your network of contacts, rather than the requisite £150 – but you won’t make a cent and you can’t progress to the next round, even if you’re the best on the night.

How do I know about this? Because the festival organisers have scored something of a public relations own goal in doing this.

Surface Unsigned have sent a pseudo-legal letter of threatening intent to local creative industries blog Created In Birmingham for ‘breach of copyright’. Happens to every good blogger sooner or later.

In a mostly positive review, Created In Birmingham reprinted a clause out of the terms and conditions of the festival that outlined the pay-for-play clause and Surface Unsigned declared that to be their intellectual property. Seems like there’s a confidentiality clause in the mix there somewhere too.

Created In Birmingham have gone on to reword the clause in LOLspeak to address the issue of copyright (clearly not what this is actually about). And Surface Unsigned are getting a fair bit of negative publicity as a result, in which this particular post is a willing participant, because I don’t happen to believe that a) charging bands to play is fair game for this sort of thing; and b) threatening blogs with spurious takedown notices is the way you conduct yourself on the internet these days.

Give your music away – don’t pay to play
The point of the story is that unlike giving your recordings away for free on the internet (almost always a good idea), actually putting yourself in a position where you may end up paying money to perform to a crowd that you’ve brought to a venue is a nonsensical proposition.

So how do promoters get away with it? Bands let them. One of the reasons this is still even remotely accepted practice is that in order to compete or just get a gig, many artists feel they have to toe the party line and play the game in the terms that have been laid out by what they consider to be ‘the music industry’.

Having said that…
A good argument could be put that venue owners have a great deal to contend with. Bands are often more trouble than they’re worth. They cost more than they earn. Bands need a place to play, and often a start like this is the leg-up they need. If they can get a crowd along, then letting the bands use your venue as a place to get a start could be seen as an act of charity.

Perhaps insisting that artists do their own marketing and get their own crowd is a valuable motivating factor that will spell the difference between their eventual success and likely obscurity.

There are also very good arguments in favour of artists contributing to appear at large showcases or covering their costs to appear at media events. I would be surprised, for instance, if chipping in to appear at PopKomm, SXSW or Midem ever turned out to be a waste of money.

There’s certainly a debate to be had here. I’m pretty sure I know what side I come down on it and it’s that generally speaking, plans to charge bands in order to play live are pretty much exploitative.

I twittered the question earlier today, and people had pretty strong feelings about it. What do you think?

By way of disclaimer, it’s worth making clear that this post was inspired by the Created In Birmingham takedown notice, which is clearly ridiculous. Linking the words Surface Unsigned to the CIB post rather than their own website is my statement of support for the CIB team, who have done no wrong and do not deserve to be bullied by people who are (in my humble opinion) acting in an exploitative manner towards musicians.