By Morgan Davis
Recently, a seemingly innocuous post was made on the Facebook group I Support ATX Hip-hop, Do You? It was simply an image, telling artists to “book your slot now for Z-Ro!” with a link to a TicketFly page for the upcoming Infest show where they could buy an “artist’s pass” for $400, guaranteeing them a performance slot. For many of the artists and promoters involved in the Austin hip-hop scene, it was a particularly audacious example of pay-to-play, a legal but morally questionable booking tactic that has become especially widespread in Austin hip-hop.
Pay-to-play is exactly what it sounds like, a tactic utilized by some promoters that has the artists paying all the costs associated with a show. It comes in many forms, from selling off opening slots on shows featuring high profile headliners to getting bands to pay to put together their own bill, usually through complicated ticketing schemes. Many bands are likely already familiar with the latter example, which has been perfected by an organization called Afton.
Afton first appeared as Big Time Entertainment, and made waves due to its embrace of social media, specifically the messages its representatives would send to new or inexperienced acts, often before they had even posted any music online. Though its name probably doesn’t ring any bells for fans, it’s well-known amongst experienced bands, many of whom have banded together to create an entire website dedicated to educating younger, less experienced acts on the dangers of working with Afton and similar organizations like Gorilla Productions, both of which have already infiltrated Austin with shows at HeadHunters and Kick Butt Coffee, amongst others.
But the variety of pay-to-play that has taken off with some Austin hip-hop promoters is a lot less complicated than Afton’s approach, and a lot less subtle. The TicketFly page for the Z-Ro event has since been changed, but a screengrab of its initial appearance is below:
The ticket page includes the standard general admission ticket for $20, but it also has a less traditional “artist’s pass,” which costs $400. What does that $400 get you? Well, it gets you 10 GA tickets, but it also guarantees you a performance on the bill. The event’s promoter, Red Rooster, confirmed on Facebook that he was selling artists the chance to open for Z-Ro with a 12-minute set, and there were 10 of these artist passes available. For fans, this means you’re spending $20 for a show with one notable touring act, and two hours’ worth of artists who have been selected not for their quality or how they fit in with Z-Ro, but for the depth of their pockets.
This was by no means the first time a pay-to-play event had popped up in the Facebook group, but it was unusually blatant, and before Red Rooster removed the thread, it netted more than a hundred comments while only receiving a handful of likes. Red Rooster and his defenders argued that it was an “investment” by the artist, a guarantee of exposure for the price of a “pair of Jordans” as artist and promoter Eric White put it. Their defense was essentially that this was the cost of getting a break, but others in the community don’t quite see it that way.
Tee-Double is in some ways the godfather of the Austin hip-hop scene, both because of his long history and his involvement in everything from the Grammy’s, where Tee is a governing board member, to his recently launched Urban Artist Alliance, a non-profit organization devoted to artist education. “I feel that once someone approaches you for a show, it should be how much they want to pay you, not ‘Hey, I love your stuff will you pay me $400 to perform,’ that’s crazy,” Tee said over e-mail. Active since the ’80s, Tee attributes his success to paying his dues by working up from high school talent shows and smaller local shows until he was ready, while also always remaining professional. “I got attention because I was consistent when I performed and always showed up on time,” he said, “I gave it my all and negotiated and built strong relationships with bookers.”
Tee-Double Photo by Amanda Garcia
Beerland booker Maximillian Meehan agrees with Tee, arguing that if you want to be a successful artist, “it requires discipline.” “A lot of bands think that if they just get onto a bill or get noticed that their job is done,” Meehan said, “A venue will always promote itself, but a show is a collaborative effort between the venue AND the bands. Besides, no one is going to know your audience better than you.” That’s part of why Meehan is adamant that Beerland and most other Austin venues don’t host pay-to-play shows. “Stuff like this makes OUR job much harder,” Meehan argued, adding that “club promoters already have a pretty seedy reputation and stuff like this plays into it.” Meehan’s reasoning against pay-to-play is also in part merit based. “Some might say it’s a good opportunity and a good move,” stated Meehan, “In a way, though, these people paying to play? They aren’t really paying their dues. It’s sort of a cheat, don’t you think? What about the integrity of the bands? Did they really earn that spot?”
Meehan’s last points serves as a reminder that hip-hop has long been perceived as a meritocracy, which is why the growth of pay-to-play in the Austin scene is upsetting to so many. Leah Manners, the host of KOOP’s Hip Hop Hooray and the media sponsor of the hip-hop open mic Austin Mic Exchange, recently spoke on air with Crew54 about the treatment of Austin hip-hop artists by promoters, a conversation that focused heavily on pay-to-play. Crew54’s stance on the subject was clear, as they stated that while “some folks may disagree, pay-to-play is just wrong…there’s no reason ever that an artist should have to pay-to-play.” Crew54 shared their own early experiences when they were asked to play for an act they admired, only to find out that it was a ticketing scam that had the artists doing all the work to put money in a promoter’s pockets with no risk and they also stated their dissatisfaction with promoters who don’t understand their role is to make a quality show happen. Manners spoke to me on-line and stated that her personal belief on the subject is that “forcing inexperienced and naive artists to pay money for small opening slots not only keeps those artists from using those funds to improve, it also cannibalizes the scene by not allowing truly talented people to rise to the top, only showcasing those willing to pay.” As Crew54 stated on KOOP, “you’ll always find artists who will buy into the hype…but we’ve been here and there, rocking everywhere, and we’ve never had to pay to perform.”
Austin’s difficult relationship with hip-hop hasn’t helped matters either, as many artists rightfully point out that their options are limited when it comes to getting booked. The lack of a consistent home for hip-hop events in the city has enabled predatory tactics to become not only common, but defended like a musical equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. But it’s bigger than hip-hop, with SXSW serving as a breeding ground for pay-to-play schemes, like “Dirty Fest,” an event at the allegedly official SXSW venue Dirty Dog Bar (at press time this could not be confirmed anywhere on SXSW’s site) that asks artists to
pony up $300 pay anywhere from $20 to $300 for a performance slot, or the questionably named SXSW Week, which has artists paying upwards of $2000 to perform. Both of these events target all genres.
But where rock and punk bands have basically unified against organizations like Afton and work to educate their peers about the company and other scams that pop up, the Austin hip-hop scene’s divisiveness on the issue illustrates the struggles the scene faces when it comes to unity. While Maximillian Meehan detailed Beerland’s status as “an incubator club” that tries to “integrate newer talent in with a steady rotation of bands that are more established,” he was blunt about the difficulties the venue has faced in regards to getting the hip-hop community to come out to shows at the venue. “I have done some really awful hip hop shows,” said Meehan, “Not booked or promoted really, but hosted. I always feel like that crowd just doesn’t give much of a shit.” Meehan admits that his “expertise is in reaching a different sort of audience than that,” but he said, “It’s sad how much separation there is between genres. When I was younger, the underground was just underground. It wasn’t compartmentalized and segregated.”
As the scenes have diverged, it’s becoming harder and harder to bring communities together, and many feel that pay-to-play is partially responsible for the disinterest in the scene and the lack of support between artists. “When I started pay-to-play didn’t exist…promoters booked quality talent and knew to get it you had to pay,” Tee-Double said. “Now it appears as more of a cover the cost type of situation, [they're] not really developing acts, but having acts pay for any loss profit that might happen at the end of the night. So the venue is paid, the promoter is paid by the artist fees and the artist is left with a tip jar…or merch if they happen to have any to sell to a possibly empty room.” Fans are getting treated to lackluster shows that artists are losing money on and the only people coming out on top are venues and promoters, which has served to create a cycle of disappointment that holds the scene back while other cities consistently churn out national acts.
We buy into the idea of music as hustle because it has a romantic appeal, a natural outgrowth of an industry where we say Robert Johnson gained his guitar skills through a devilish exchange. It’s entertaining, and we know it’s myth, yet consumers still view it as a kind of fact– if you’re a musician and you want to succeed, you have to be willing to pay the price. But now as an artistic community and a city of music lovers we have to ask ourselves whether the price we’re forcing our artists to pay is benefiting anyone.