It was reported last week that Cam’ron was charging his openers $800 per show to open his tour playing rooms 500-1000 capacity. Motley Crue charged their opener $1 million for the tour. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah (of Wu-Tang Clan) charged their openers $1,100 for a 15 minute set. And I’ve been tipped off that Anberlin, Tantric, Trapt, Goldfinger along with many others (who their openers have asked me to keep their identities, along with who they supported, anonymous) have employed this pay-to-play operation.
Unfortunately, this practice is not limited to any one genre. The practice of charging openers has unfortunately become a very common practice – but that doesn’t make it right.
Charging up-and-coming artists to open your show (without providing anything other than a few minutes of performance time in front of your audience) is flat out unethical.
I get it, touring is expensive. You’re looking for any revenue generating possibilities you can find. But instead of getting creative with the myriad ways to make extra money on the road (more on this in a bit), you take the easy way out — convincing naive bands that the only way to get ahead is to pay lots of money to perform.
Don’t throw “supply and demand” at me or “no one’s putting a gun to their head to pay to play” or “it’s a great opportunity, one that any artist would pay for” or “it’s an investment in their career” or “it’s great exposure.” I’ve heard it all.
Just because someone will pay for it doesn’t make it right. That’s why they teach ethics at nearly every business school in the country. Well, except in music business programs — maybe that needs to change. Sure, you can find and convince ignorant and naive people to do pretty much anything you want, legally. But that doesn’t make it right.
Shady promoters try to get naive bands to pay to play shows all the time. And unfortunately the practice has spread to festivals around the country (like the now infamous LaconiaFest, Civil Unrest and Hold it Down). They tend to mask this in a buy/sell ticket scheme which almost never works out in the band’s favor and typically results in a disjointed evening lineup (with bands of every genre), short time slots, no sound checks, zero promotion on the part of the ‘promoter’ and a pissed off audience who ends up hating ‘live music’ because of it all.
Oh, and the bands who bought way more tickets than they were able to sell have to make up the difference and end up either paying out of pocket for unsold tickets or simply being black listed by the promoter.
+You Can Play This Music Festival… If You PAY $1,200
How tour buy-ons typically work is the headliner gets an emerging artist to pay a bulk amount up front to open the tour.
I’ve seen anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000+ for a 20 date tour or so of 500-1,500 cap venues. But here’s the big catch – the opener must also cover their own travel, food and lodging. The only thing they are paying for is simply the opportunity to get on stage before the headliner.
Oh, but sometimes it’s not even right before the headliner. Sometimes, the headliner brings a few openers. Oftentimes the openers play very short sets and are not even added to any promotion.
+ Festival Owner Charges Bands To Play, Cancels Fest, Skips Town With The Money
I was tipped off by a venue manager who manages an 800-cap venue in the Midwest that one of their touring headliners got a local band to buy-on to the show and that opener was put on 30 minutes BEFORE PUBLISHED SHOW TIME. In essence, playing for no one.
That’s the thing. If you pay to play, you will be treated like shit.
You demand zero respect from the headliner, promoter, booking agent (or venue). This venue manager contacted me and asked me to please advise bands not to do this. You look like an idiot for being so desperate and naive. You will get pushed around and will be at the mercy of whatever the headliner wants to do with you.
Remember the band that paid $1 million to open Motley Crue’s tour? Well, the band claimed that they were terrorized by Motley Crue the entire tour. One night, Motley Crue’s road crew ran on stage in monkey masks and doused the band with water guns filled with urine. Not to mention, this band was forced to play oftentimes before doors were opened and weren’t allowed to sell merch or even given dressing rooms.
Now, don’t conflate this shady tour buy-on practice with headliners asking their opening acts to pitch in for expenses up front.
Sometimes, mid-level acts need some help covering the cost of the bus/van and hotel rooms, so they ask the opener for a bulk amount up front to cover these expenses. BUT the opener is then entitled to join the headliner in the bus (with their own bunk), or is put up in hotel rooms and is paid something for every show played. This maintains a “we’re in it together” approach and is completely ethical.
Word to the wise though: don’t call this practice a “tour buy-on.” Call it covering expenses. And make sure you pay your opener something — even if it ain’t much — if that’s all you can legitimately afford. It’s the gesture. The respect.
+Want To Open For Wu-Tang? It’s Just $1,100 for 15 Minutes
What is not ethical is charging bands for the opportunity to open your show and giving them nothing more than a merch table (if that).
Being the opening act for an established artist is not typically a money-making venture (even when paid). And many artists will say that they pretty much break even on these tours – if that. But the career building potential is huge. Ethical headliners will pay their openers something, but oftentimes it’s not very much. That’s fine. Openers can typically make up the lower guarantees in merch sales, a bump in streaming and radio plays, and follow up tours.
If it’s a small DIY club tour and the opener has no draw whatsoever, discuss a fair deal like 25% of net show revenue (after tour expenses). Expenses may work out that the opener doesn’t end up ever receiving the 25%, but at least the deal is transparent and there is mutual respect all around.
Headliners should not look at their openers as money-making opportunities.
They should look at openers as warm up acts. Setting the mood right for your show. Don’t give the slot to the highest bidder, but rather the most qualified act for the job (or just someone you really dig). Sure, ask them to pitch in for expenses. But be transparent about it. If you’re asking them for $5,000 up front, explain where all that money goes. Break down the cost of the bus, gas, hotels, food, etc etc. That shows you’re not just trying to shake them down.
And promoters out there reading this, put in your contracts that you do not allow acts on the bill who paid to be there. I’m assuming you’re not too thrilled to learn that the guarantee you broke your back to fill for your headliner was only supplementary to the openers’ payment.
And fans definitely don’t want to hear that their favorite band forced their openers to pay to be there.
This practice will remain secret and elusive no longer. If you’re not ashamed or embarrassed by charging your openers, then by all means, justify this shit to your fans. Proudly tweet and post about it. Say on the mic at the show “We’d like to thank our 3 openers who all paid us handsomely to perform for you. Oh and thank you for buying tickets, which also went to us.”
Hey lazy-ass managers and acts charging bands to open your tour: here are some tips to earn more money at your shows (because you clearly can’t figure this out on your own, or worse, are just plain greedy):
This is a biggy. A 2013 Nielsen study revealed that music fans would pay up to $2.6 BILLION more a year if they “had the opportunity to snag behind-the-scenes access to the artists along with exclusive content.” You don’t need to turn this into a creepy “meet and greet” like Justin Bieber does it. Artists top to bottom are offering backstage hangs before or after the show (some are structured like “challenge me to a game of ping pong pre-show” or “I’ll play you a couple new acoustic songs and you can partake in some green room beer.”) Actually, Wild Child, who in 2014 was averaging just a few hundred people a show, doubled their net touring revenue offering experiences like this.
This is obvious. But, the thing is, most artists don’t offer the right kind of merch for their fans or sell it in a way they want to buy. You’d be surprised how many artists touring 500-1,500 cap venues don’t have friendly merch sellers positioned at the table the entire duration of the show. If a fan has to leave early and they glance at the merch table and no one is there, they will take off. That’s a missed sale. And, of course, you have to take credit cards. That’s a no brainer. Square, PayPal and Amazon have free swipers. No excuses. Make sure your merch display is big, bright and attractive. A suitcase thrown in the corner of a dark room ain’t gonna get a second look. Spend time and energy designing a brilliant merch display and you will double your merch sales.
The merch revenue and inventory tracking platform AtVenu states that for 500-1,000 cap venues, the average dollar per head is $3.65.
If you aren’t averaging that merch revenue for your shows, you’re underperforming and should reevaluate your merch operation. What high price, exclusive items are you offering? Your super fans will buy if you offer. Instead of charging your opener $500 to open that show, offer 3 exclusive $200 signed items. You’ll sell out every night. And you’ll sleep better.
That’s enough tips for now. If you want more, buy my book and stop swindling emerging artists. They don’t know any better.
This is not an acceptable practice just because it happens so often. We at Digital Music News will call out any act, manager, promoter or agent we find out is employing this practice.
That being said, if you have bought on a tour (or know of bands charging bands to open their tours) post your stories in the comments.
Ari Herstand is the author of How To Make It in the New Music Business, a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of the music biz advice blog, Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake