viznomics is a blog by Byta founder Marc Brown

Pay to Play

Pay to Play

I hinted that I think the tech world doesn’t get the music ecosystem when I wrote about decentralised tension. I also highlighted how the tech world is much better at knowledge sharing when I wrote about about our rationale behind #HowWeListen.

I continue to think music and tech comparisons are effective. I have felt for a long time that while both sides actively (and rightly so) criticise each other, they have a lot more in common than they are willing to admit.

I am not unique in making music and tech comparisons. Cherie Hu is even writing a book about the parallels of music careers and tech entrepreneurship. Cherie is a smart woman with a statistics degree from Harvard. If she is going in the same direction then I must be on the right track.

VCs (venture capitalists) are often critical of the music industry’s licensing system, calling it backwards and restrictive, while tech start-ups blame labels for streaming services’ low payouts to artists. Ironically enough however, the VC model operates much in the same way. VCs offer upfront cash in exchange for a piece of future success, sometimes on very onerous terms. Antidilution provisions such as the “full ratchet” are great examples of this.

While I am sure there are many other comparisons, one specific similarity comes to mind.


There were no “music business” courses or colleges back when I started working in music. I wasn’t actually “working”, rather I dropped out of university to volunteer at murderecords, an artist owned label in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

After sorting out the mail order for a few months, my first proper task was booking tours. The mid-nineties was a lot like it is today, nearly impossible to get a booking agent until you don’t really need one anymore. I am exaggerating of course, though that adage still rings true. I expect the tour booking process is still much the same, aside from the fact that, as I write this, absolutely no one is currently touring. The process is simple, contact clubs along a routing that makes sense and hope that a booker in each town wants the artist to play. Of course a booker will generally have never heard of a completely new artist. If so there is another step, convincing the booker why the artist is worth their attention.

I remember enjoying booking shows, especially if they actually ended up happening and went well. Halifax sits on Canada’s east coast so bands always had a long drive to get to the bigger markets in Central Canada. Normally the first big gig would be Montreal, a 15-20 hour drive away. However, I realised early on that Montreal clubs worked under a very different system, Pay to Play.

Normally an artist’s first show in any new city is tough. To get the gig one needs to play for a low guarantee (fee), a percentage of the door (no fee) or no promise of anything whatsoever. Montreal was different though, club owners actually wanted artists to pay them to play gigs.

This is a long time ago but I don’t remember thinking that was a good idea, even back then. It seemed super shady to me, while also being counter productive. I was hesitant to attach a dollar value to the artist’s art, that an artist would be playing a gig as a result of paying for the privilege to do so. I felt bands should be booked by virtue of the promoter feeling they would be a good draw, be that because they liked them or that they felt the audience would, or both.

This wasn’t the system for all artists and all venues, so why was it the case in Montreal? I am still not completely sure. What I do know though is that it is rare for anyone to make money on those first few gigs. It is about relationship building. Clubs and bookers need to have confidence the artist will draw an audience while artists and their booking agents need to be sure promoters are reliable, properly supporting future shows including a decent guarantee and good promotion.

Performing Ideas

Conferences are like the tech world’s gigs, a performance of ideas instead of music. I never really liked conferences until I started doing more of them pre-Covid. I was even thinking, recently, how many interesting people I’ve ended up working with because of going to Tallinn Music Week in 2019.

Much like gigs, there are more people looking to share their ideas than can be accommodated by fireside chats, panels or workshops. Conferences also seem to book what is trendy (instead of current) and “big” names (instead of ideas) but those are natural challenges everyone is trying to overcome. Likewise, promoters don’t only book artists they like, a packed out gig is the priority. Building a successful conference is the same.

I was however surprised to read recently that one conference was offering seats on panels in exchange for advertising money. I understand, even appreciate, the idea of a sponsored panel. Getting a company’s message across in a focused way, openly and clearly sponsored, can be effective. However the idea of panelists paying to be placed on panels, either directly or indirectly, is of concern to me.

Perhaps I am being naive here, but this approach had never really even crossed my mind before. Here is yet another example of how music and tech operate in similar ways. As pay to play is both shady and counterproductive for artists, conferences charging panelists to speak is shady and counterproductive for start-ups.

At their best conferences are an exchange and evaluation of new ideas. Much like pay to play being bad for artists it is bad for panelists. It devalues their ideas by attaching a price tag to them. It is also bad for the audience because they can not objectively evaluate the context, validity and motivation behind the ideas being presented.

Another clear sign this is not a practice any artist or start-up will want to take part in is that it only happens when they are just starting out. Artists get paid more and more money for gigs the larger their audience becomes. As speakers deliver more innovative and effective ideas they too are paid higher and higher speaking fees.

Buying a place on stage or a seat at the table doesn’t fasttrack your art or your message. In fact, it does the opposite. A venue or conference’s reputation is also at risk. An audience is paying money on the expectation they are seeing and hearing what the agent or curator believes is most relevant to their audience or what should become most relevant. Pay to play destroys that trust.

The fundamental reason why I have never understood the idea of pay to play is that it pollutes art with commerce. As an artist or speaker the value of your art or ideas needs to be assessed objectively in order to be taken seriously. Bad ideas should be brought into question, challenged and dismissed. Or simply ignored, just like no one listens to bad music.