Bigger Than Hip-hop: The Rise of Pay-to-play in Austin

Published on January 20th, 2014


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.”

terrany-johnson-photo-amanda-garciaTee-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?”

Leah Manners

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.

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  1. Posted by Malissa Long on January 20th, 2014, 18:35 [Reply]

    We need this kind of publicity in the fashion community in Austin. They do this exact same thing and call it “Fashion Week”. Then you have to cover the cost of purchasing fabric, make or pay someone to make your garments,and higher your own models. I guess promoters have been taking lessons from the fashion industry.

  2. Posted by E Ledesma on January 20th, 2014, 21:03 [Reply]

    I’ve learned a lot working with live music and venues in the last several years. There’s a difference in the “rap game” and the hip hop community. Rap is about hustling and making that money and appearances, hip hop is a culture that embodies life experiences and trials and tribulations along with the good times. Unfortunately in the ATX rap scene it’s normal for acts to “pay to play” you can’t condemn a venue for having promoters who do operate their shows like that. We’re all trying to pay the bills to keep our doors open especially when it comes to grassroots and diy venues that arent associated with Transmission or C3 in town. There are few promoters who want topjt in work, having acts pay to play and sell tickets to get your guaranteed slot is all to normal, a local hip hop vet put it best as saying “there are no real hip hop promters in Austin, just hip hop Facebook event hosts.” How did I hear all this, I work at Infest.

    • Posted by Sunni on January 21st, 2014, 21:17 [Reply]

      My reply to you is under your post. The link to reply directly to you wasn’t showing on my phone.

  3. Posted by Antonio on January 21st, 2014, 11:33 [Reply]

    I believe this is happening in every crevice of the creative culture in Austin. Pay To Play could everything that makes Austin grand.

    At the same time, I agree that each artist on a bill should take full responsibility to help make the best show possible. We need to promote out art and help support others. We need to ask our audience to stay and support others on the bill. Austin as a whole is great about collaboration, we need to maintain that mindset!

  4. Posted by Sunni on January 21st, 2014, 12:49 [Reply]

    First off, rap is an element of Hip Hop culture, to try to separate them is disingenuous at best. Second, this reads as damage control riddled with justifications for past behavior and nothing more. A better strategy would be to denounce the practice and cease operations with promoters who work in this fashion. It is disrespectful to the artists you rely on as a live music venue. Work with promoters who do put in work and dedicate their time to putting together quality shows, instead of a bill flush with those who have the money to buy a slot, and you will see a rise in attendance. Fans don’t want haphazard shows with inexperienced talent. Word of mouth is platinum in this town. If you take care of artists, they will take care of you.

  5. Posted by Sunni on January 21st, 2014, 13:10 [Reply]

    First off, rap is an element of hip-hop and to try to separate the two is disingenuous at best, but offers insight into how little you understand the culture and why you think it’s okay to continue to prey on hip-hop artists. Second, your reply reads as damage control and nothing more. A better strategy would be to denounce the promoters who operate in this fashion and work with promoters who do put in the time at dedicate themselves to putting on quality shows earned by talent, experience and professionalism instead of predatory bills flush with artists who just had the money in their bank account. Fans don’t want to see unprofessional, inexperienced artists. You would benefit more from taking care of artists and becoming an advocate for them instead of fighting against the changing of the guard. Word of mouth is gold in this town. If you take care of artists, they will take care of you.

  6. Posted by Steve on January 21st, 2014, 13:27 [Reply]

    It seems as though the club and promoters you were calling out in this article should have been contacted for comments and information instead of speculation and interviews with third party bookers. Was there an attempt to reach the venue or promoters involved? It would be useful and responsible to get all sides of the story to allow readers the opportunity to make informed opinions on the matter, and have their own perception instead of going off of opinion of competing markets.

  7. Posted by Joe Flavor Raid on January 21st, 2014, 14:18 [Reply]

    This is a very well written article.

    The first show I played when I moved to Austin was through Afton. I knew it was shady when I had to charge people $10 to go to Headhunters on a week night. Not happening.

  8. Posted by Bearclaw on January 23rd, 2014, 01:30 [Reply]

    we’ve been dealing with this in Washington. A band even got sued for trying to warn people about this kind of crap.

  9. Posted by Rob Hicks on January 30th, 2014, 22:53 [Reply]

    Hello, I just wanted to reach out and let you know that the information posted regarding Dirty Fest 2014 and Dirty Dog Bar is not factual. We are an official sxsw venue and will be holding official sxsw showcases as we always do and have been for years. We do hold an annual festival called Dirty Fest where artists submit their information for the opportunity to play. We do have a $20 signup fee to cover the room, backline and staffing costs for the event. At no point do we require an artist to sign up for the $300 guaranteed selection. That is the choice of the artists and in our experience has primarily been paid by small record labels looking for a place to showcase their bands. Again, this is an option. Bands will be selected, regardless. I ask politely that you issue an immediate retraction of your article before we are forced to pursue legal options.

  10. Posted by Sugarboo on February 1st, 2014, 08:53 [Reply]

    “At no point do we require an artist to sign up for the $300 guaranteed selection.” Really? You may want to talk to your webmaster about this page:

    Because it says:

    Guaranteed Selection
    (7 available)

    This purchase ensures your act a minimum 45 minute preferred set time (where available) with provided back-line, house sound and lighting engineer at Dirty Fest 2014. Performance slots will be between Sunday March 9th thru Wednesday March 12th. You will be contacted by March 2nd to solidify details
    $300.00 each

    Doesn’t matter who writes the check. The artist still has to come up with the money, personally or through a sponsor like a small record label.

    • Posted by Rob Hicks on February 1st, 2014, 13:14 [Reply]

      Once again I will explain this in lamens terms. The $300 “optional guaranteed selection button” is “OPTIONAL” (meaning not required). This OPTION is made available for artists , labels or bands who simply do not want to enter the contest and simply want a guaranteed choice slot. DIRTY FEST is an annual event and is a completely FREE festival. We do not have a cover charge during this event. Whatbthis article fails to mention is how we normally handle booking at our venue on a regular basis. Bands who play our venue outside of DIRTY FEST are taken care of to the best of our or the promoters abilities based on the attendance turnout of each show. Running or hosting a festival like DIRTY FEST requires a large number of additional expenses such as increased staffing, equipment rentals, marketing and promotional fees and more. If artists dont like our model, then they dont sign up. We dont deserve to be mentioned in the same article or category regarding this topic unless the author wants to be factual and tell the audience what is different about our festival. Words like OPTIONAL, FREE SHOW TO THE PUBLIC were left out and that makes us out to be the bad guys. Ask any one of the numerous artists that have played the festival what their thoughts are. If we are taking advantage or being unethical in any way then why would the same bands keep coming back year after year to be apart of DIRTY FEST?

  11. Posted by Sugarboo on February 3rd, 2014, 09:11 [Reply]

    I’ll explain this in layman’s terms, Rob: It’s NOT optional if they want a guaranteed spot. Paying for a guaranteed spot = pay-to-play, THE END.

    Doesn’t matter what you charge the public or what other acts you book to surround it – those 7 (max) artists are paying you to play. You even admit you need that money for “increased staffing, equipment rentals, marketing and promotional fees and more.”

    It’s great that you are legit the rest of the year, and hopefully, when you say artists “are taken care of to the best of our or the promoters abilities based on the attendance turnout of each show,” it isn’t some buzzword-filled code for “not paid, except when we do a lot at the bar.”

    The venue is not being outed as a pay-to-play venue, the way I read this piece. It’s your fest. And you’ve got 7 pay-to-play slots for sale, during SXSW, when artists are desperate for stage time. I’d say you earned the right to be in this piece.

  12. Posted by Erikhlittle on February 3rd, 2014, 16:54 [Reply]

    Charging no name acts that don’t draw money for exposure is not in ethical. It’s just free markets at work

    The promoter has the risk to bring in talent

    They are charging as much as they can

    Promoters need to make their investment back

    If you don’t like it. Don’t pay. Or sponsor your own show and put yourself on the bill

    If you don’t like it. Grow up. Take an Econ class

  13. Posted by Rob Hicks on February 4th, 2014, 11:52 [Reply]

    To: Sugarboo,

    I still dont think you are quite grasping the whole situation. Regardless of the 7 guaranteed selection spots, we still hand select 30 to 35 artists based on sheer talent, online presence and sound without knowing if the band we selected is going to bring in 2 people or 200. Bands are on a strict touring schedule 90% of the time. By purchasing a guarantee slot not only are they getting a guaranteed performance but they are also getting a choice of when based on availability. A big named band who is routing through the country knows that if they play at 10 or 11pm on a solid night they can promote because its guaranteed then they have a chance to bring a ton of fans and sale a ton of merch. Were not charging their fans to watch and we unlike many venues dont aak for a cut of merchandise sales. Im not sure what music industry you are in but alot of clubs these days may not charge a performance fee nor pay the bands, instead they make bands give upwards of 60% of their merch sales regardless of the crowd turnout. We are not in the business of screwing artists over! As others have posted on here we the club / promoters take all the risks of hiring staff, paying for marketing and promotions.

    • Posted by Rob Hicks on February 4th, 2014, 11:57 [Reply]

      I encourage you to get a quote to rent a reputable music venue during sxsw, hire a pro sound tech for multiple days, then get a quote for a full professional backline of musical equipment, then market and promote it! Oh, but remember these are free shows to the public so you habe no way of recouping all the money you spent. Now think about who is getting the better deal.

  14. Posted by Jesirae on September 28th, 2014, 13:26 [Reply]

    Mr. Hicks-I have a hard time taking an adult seriously when they are incapable of posting a three sentence comment without both misspelling commonly used words and the basic understanding of simple punctuation. Might I suggest googling “run on sentences” and implementing the use of a spellcheck before attempting to post something under the guise of being a professional adult. Or, you know, shut up.

    • Posted by Rob Hicks on September 29th, 2014, 14:10 [Reply]


      This irrelevant and one sided article is over 7 months old. Get out of the digital world and actually do something to support local music rather than trolling internet boards behind the comfort of a keyboard.

  15. Posted by D Clark on November 23rd, 2014, 18:27 [Reply]

    At first i didn’t know how to respond to this. Being that I have been on both sides of the table. Performed huge shows and put on huge shows. But reality of the matter is, It is business. If you don’t think a signed artist doesn’t have a promotional budget then your fooling yourself. This is everyday music business. From payola to djs and radios to pay for YouTube views or even worldstarhiphop views. This game ain’t free. Quit trippin and get you a promotion and marketing budget together and attack the game. Invest in yourself. Now the flip side is these janky promoters will take any bodies money to perform even if your music sucks and the promoters will put together a horrible show with sucky artists. Understand what you can do and what level of the game you are and create a plan. Then go do it.

    Remember artist this is the music BUSINESS. Read a business book and understand the concepts of product/services, promotion, sales and marketing and you have a good chance of being successful.

    Good Luck


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