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Rock Bands' Dilemma: to Play, They Must Pay : Nightclub Operators Use a Ploy Known as 'Pre-Sale Ticketing' to Shift Risk

June 18, 1989|RANDY LEWIS

In journalism school they taught us that a "Dog Bites Man" story is not news. The "Man Bites Dog" story is news.

By that standard, you would think that a "Musicians Pay to Play in Nightclubs" story would be news.

Sadly, it is not. For several years now, operators of numerous Southland clubs have been requiring aspiring rock bands to pay for the privilege of bringing in customers who are willing to cough up admission at the club owner's door and buy $3 beers at the club owner's bar.

The practice, known as "pay to play" or "pre-sale ticketing," is most common in hard rock and heavy metal clubs, perhaps because there are so many leather-bound dudes out there hoping to bang their way to being the next Bon Jovi or Metallica.

According to one talent agent who works for a firm that represents dozens of Southland rock bands, these clubs typically require musicians to buy 75 to 150 tickets before they can secure a booking. Tickets cost anywhere from $6 to $10 each, so that's an up-front outlay of $450 to $1,500. "It depends on the night, the venue, the capacity and what band you are (sharing the bill) with," said Shelley Berggren of Tapestry Artists. "I deal with it every day."

The band then does its best to recoup the investment by selling all those pre-sale tickets, but more often than not they come up short. If, however, they manage to sell more tickets than they bought ahead of time, they might actually go home ahead of the game.

Locally, Goodies in Fullerton and Jezebel's in Anaheim are among the pay-to-players. In Los Angeles, Sunset Strip clubs such as the Roxy, the Whisky and Gazzarri's, the Troubadour in West Hollywood and the Country Club in Reseda all insist that bands buy their way in.

The way it usually works is that once a band proves it can draw a substantial crowd, the clubs won't require them to buy any (or at least as many) tickets in advance.

Still, Berggren asks: "From the band side, why should they have to pay $1,300 to play a club? A band's job is to be musicians, to work on the show and their musical performance. If they have to spend two to three weeks before a show selling tickets, making and distributing flyers, it can make it very difficult to concentrate on their music.

"But there are two sides. The owners say that (pre-sale ticketing) will make the band go out and work and sell the show. That increases their draw and guarantees that they have people in front of the stage to see them."

Still, the real reason most bands excuse the policy or explain it away is that pay to play is a cold reality. They are stuck with it.

At least one club promoter, though, says the whole thing "sounds like a rip-off to me." According to Randy Noteboom, who is the manager, booking agent and promoter for the Marquee in Westminster, "the honest way to say it is that it's easy money. . . . (Pay to play) is great for the owner of the club because he's getting a band to pay to come in and bring more revenue at his bar. But a band that's bringing you money shouldn't have to pay also."

The Marquee is one hard-rock club that is going against the tide and actually hiring bands rather than sticking them up.

OK, maybe that's a little dramatic. No one is holding a gun to these bangers' heads--those who are adamantly opposed to paying to play can sit home in the garage and continue playing for their neighbors.

If it's so nefarious, why do so many go along with it? Why don't all the bands band together and boycott these clubs?

"That's totally unrealistic," says musician Joel Mislang, who moved to Orange County last year from Wisconsin and has formed a trio called Badger, which plays many of the pay-to-play venues.

"The fact is that there are bands with money and there are bands without," Mislang said. "It will get to the point that only the bands who have money get to play."

It's bad enough that the local club scene often seems likes it is dead--what makes it a crime is that the bands are being asked to pay for the funeral.

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