Tour Buy-Ons Can Suck On My Big Fat Ethics

Goldfinger charges openers

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):

VIP Experiences

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.

Merch

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

How To Make It in the New Music Business by Ari Herstand

Photo is from Goldfinger’s Facebook Page

20 Responses

  1. Jim

    Great article. Digital Music News is really telling these stories that people should be hearing.

    Keep telling these stories about the cost of tour buy ons and the treatment of bands that buy on.

    I’d also want to hear about the money involved in getting songs on the radio. Who is paying who, and how much money, and for what?

    Reply
  2. iRSHaD

    I’m happy that you guys covered this. I’ve recently heard about this practice and it’s very disappointing.

    Reply
  3. CmonAri

    Mine is not a popular stance don’t see how this is unethical. I’m not saying that people don’t get taken advantage of – they certainly do – but I fail to see how this is any different from a paid celeb endorsement for exposure in our industry or any other industry.

    Does it matter if Brittney Spears liked Pepsi when she was endorsed by them? It would have certainly been nice for all involved but both parties got what they wanted. She got a check and they got the exposure to her fanbase and her seal of approval.

    Is it any different than influencer marketing where people are paying kids with huge social media followings for some kind of product placement?

    Is it vastly different from sponsored content?

    What about a younger artist paying an established artist to be on their track? There are heritage hip hop artists who stay alive by being paid to be on younger artists’ songs. That doesn’t happen for love – that happens for a heavy performance fee.

    “If you pay to play you will get treated like shit.” It’s possible but I’ve worked with artists who were treated quite well by their headliners after a buy on.

    If a band is naive enough to not have a contract specifying a set figure, a set number of shows and a set amount of time to perform after doors are open (yea- I’ve heard horror stories too) then yes, it’s pretty easy for them to get taken for a ride.

    But if a buy on is done in a calculated way I would argue that it does buy an opener far more than a short performance in front of the headliner’s fan base. It’s a resumé builder. The jump up in venue size is a huge learning experience as is the opportunity to play several nights in a row having to win over new crowds.

    It’s something for a band’s PR to talk about and can provide considerable currency on social media. It’s potentially part of every pitch to music supervisors, radio programmers and promoters in the markets they played in on their next trip through town. It’s something a band can do instead of driving hours and hours to play in front of bartenders and waitresses or burning out their home market by playing too much.

    Do I like it? No and nor do I like any of the things I compared it to above. Is it a viable option? It’s certainly not for everyone but I think it can work for some. It’s exposure, an association and bragging rights for an agreed upon price. I get that you don’t like it but I don’t see ethical lines being crossed.

    As for lecturing managers about work ethic and or greed? Do we work in the same business?

    Reply
    • Larry Dvoskin aka Miracle

      You are absolutely, posit-toot-ly, mahorly F**ckin right! Once upon a time insiders joked that Sony was spending $2 for every $1 they made launching Beyonce. That inventment paid off quite handsomely. See my comment below for further….

      Reply
    • ThomasH

      The example you gave about established artists guesting on young hip hop artists tracks? The established artist was paid to perform. That’s kind of the opposite of paying to play. The young artist paid someone to perform on his record. Just like an artist hiring a drummer for the record. He hired an established rapper to guest.

      Reply
      • C'monAri

        Partly they are paid for their performance but in many many cases they are paid for the exposure of the co-branding opportunity. They wouldn’t be able to command such a high price if there wasn’t value to their existing fanbase.

        Reply
  4. Danwriter

    “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.”

    This took 1.3 seconds to find. There are others:
    https://online.berklee.edu/courses/music-business-leadership-and-ethics

    Ethics notwithstanding, there’s no reason why this sort of arrangement can’t have contractual protections built in for the opening act. Performance guarantees, including time allotments for soundchecks and presence onstage, can be built into any contract. And payments should be pro rata as a tour moves along. A breach on the headliner’s part results in a reduced amount paid to them.

    Reply
  5. Larry Dvoskin aka Miracle

    Well,

    Let’s all face reality here. It costs money to make money. My band Zeno opened for Black Sabbath, Queen, many others way back in the multi-platinum prehistoric 1980’s. We spent 5K per show as an opener. It was a line item in the budget called “tour support.” In a book I am momentarily forgetting the title of- it talked of then CEO Mo Ostin of Warner Brothers records pulling gangster based radio promo payments off Pink Floyd’s #1 album the week they were to play a series of sold out stadium shows in LA. The band and manager arrived to discover their #1 Billboard album nowhere to be found on radio. The manager called Mo to say WTF? Mo explained he was worn out paying gangsters. The manager threatened to pull Pink Floyd out of the sold out stadium shows unless WB went back to paying. They did. A day later all you heard on Top40 radio in LA was guess which band? I am not saying this is fair, right, good, nor honest. I am simply saying ” if you wanna wade into the jungle,” bring a knife, water, and a budget to get your music in front the the world.

    Reply
  6. Seth Keller

    This practice isn’t recent. It’s been going on for decades. I’ve been involved with new/developing artists who’ve bought on to tours (usually financed by their labels) and those who were selected to open without buying on.

    The buy on or lack there of had very little affect on how the opener was treated. Some headliners are cool and some are dicks. It’s a right of passage for the opener who doesn’t mean tickets to be treated like shit on at least one tour. I’ve seen it in rock, jazz and hip-hop. Now, being squirted with piss might be extreme, but, hey, it’s Motley Crue. Even in their old age they need to keep up their rep.

    Reply
    • C'monAri

      Yea, the Raskins. That sounded bad. Then again I heard bad things about their conduct on the tour (Not that anything justifies the R-Kelly treatment.)

      Reply
  7. The Music Specialist

    I am absolutely in favor of paying to open shows. I have seen several acts get there start, develop their fan base and make money on merch by buying into a show as a opener. In the Jazz, Blues, Hip Hop and Gospel arenas this is frequently where opening acts graduate to mid-level or headliners. A GREAT show is mandatory, followed by working the crowd once they are off stage. Capturing fan information, taking photos, staying in touch and connecting with fans is a job. Done well it is a strategy for success.

    The act must literally KILL the audience and make their show so fantastic that the headliner becomes nervous to follow them on stage. Using this tactic as a part of the marketing & promotional plan for an act is completely honest, straightforward and really works.

    When it doesn’t work is when the act is under prepared, normally “full of themselves” and honestly think that seeing their show will be all the audience needs to make them famous. Taken as a business opportunity and worked correctly opening a show is a critical part of a new act’s career move.

    Reply
  8. Paul Resnikoff
    Paul Resnikoff

    The most important question is this: is there positive ROI to paying to open? I never heard of the group that paid $1MM to open for Motley Crue. Says a lot

    Reply
    • C'monAri

      Depends on the deal struck and if anyone cares about the act when they see them.

      Reply
  9. Chelsey

    This is a great article, but I want to say – THERE IS HOPE OUT THERE. Bigger bands aren’t all money-hungry douchebags like this!

    Fairy Bones was asked last minute to open for Highly Suspect (their new album is out now, their song is #1 on rock charts I believe) in Arizona. Arizona is a hit or miss state, really. But the show sold out at Crescent Ballroom (500 cap) – of course we said yes to opening. We played, it was great. We mingled backstage with their crew, I was chatting with someone (I now know it was their tour manager), and he just said, “You guys were great. Wish you could be on more shows with us.” I looked him dead in the eye and said, “We will drop everything to go on tour.”

    Next day, wake up. They’ve offered us 10 tour dates up the Southwest. Sold out shows (3-500 cap), every night. We are added to bills, promoted. We were given dressing rooms, food stipends. We are paid every night! I witnessed this Grammy-nominated band backstage paying back a friend of theirs who had lended them money YEARS ago when they needed it, being so grateful and REMEMBERING their debts.

    It was truly a life changing experience – and it can happen. I love your articles, Ari. I just think the BUSINESS of music can get so disheartening that you think things like this never happen. Maybe it will never happen to my band again – it was luck mixed with genuine hard work – but it can happen if you stick around, if you connect, and if you have respect for yourself.

    A buy-on is never worth it. If you have respect for yourself, people (and bigger bands) will show you respect as well. Hope my story was of some interest to this.

    – Chelsey/Fairy Bones

    Reply
    • C'monAri

      It’s great that this happened for you but it’s far from everyone’s experience. How many artists have you worked on to gauge that something is “never worth it?” How do you detemine when / if it is worth it, per show? Of course, it’s a loss per show short term but as a long term investment it can be very valuable. Notice I will say throughout that it’s not for everyone and that I make no all or none statements.

      Money hungry douchebags? There was an article not too long ago about how a band was selling out radio city music hall but not all of the band members could afford health insurance. Why wouldn’t they collect this money when that’s the fiscal reality out there? A better question is- if they are a mid sized act can they afford not to?

      You pay a certain amount of money to get in front of people as a part of a marketing campaign almost no matter what you do. You can spend on Facebook ads, hiring PR, hiring radio etc. You pay people who can deliver exposure, period. You pay people or companies who have created a method of providing said exposure. Larger artists have created this type of pipeline. Why wouldn’t you put money in the pockets of other musicians rather than spend with Google or Facebook or radio stations. Artists play free shows for radio stations all the time and guess what- getting unknown artists on those stations costs money (I will leave it to your imagination) and paying people who have developed skills and relationships over many years to deliver radio adds.

      You spend money, time and creative energy making music videos and advertising and often pay to have those put in front of people via video promotion or advertising. Again- why is this different? Because your work on a buy on is ongoing or more expensive?

      You pay to work, you pay to perform, you pay to create. Yea, it’s backwards but you calculate what your time is worth (remember if you sell no tickets in a market you are worth fuckall to the headliner or the promoter) and build that number in to what you are willing to pay to get your music in front of x number of people.

      Is it worth it? None of this is worth it if people see you and don’t care and let’s face it- that’s the vast majority of acts out there.

      I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Ari or you or the majority of people on this thread have ever managed or booked multiple touring acts in the current climate. I have worked on the marketing side with several artists like this (and those who hope to develop touring bases) in the past few years and in spite of that interesting vantage point and an additional twenty+ years experience I’m not going to judge what an act does in this situation on either the buy or the sell side. I’ve seen negative and positive outcomes.

      This is all fine, you’re entitled to your opinions, you are sharing your experience and that has value but I question the breadth of your experience (and Ari’s) to sit and judge and make all or nothing statements about the way things should be or the way things always are.

      Call me a troll if you will, it’s just my opinion. I have no desire to out my acts as ones who do perform a buy on- in addition to exposure a buy on is buying validation from someone more established. It’s no one’s business. This is still show business- how one is perceived is important.

      Open your minds- things aren’t black and white. We don’t work in a business where marketing is one size fits all.

      Reply
      • Chelsey

        I didn’t say they were black and white – at all. Like I said, the music business can be disheartening and here, my story, is one that is good. Can bring hope. That’s all I was saying. I don’t see how any of what I said was an opinion. Do what you want with your money – It’s yours! Doesn’t bother me. I don’t like people being taken advantage of. And this was simply a story, mate.

        Addressing your questions: we came out ahead in profit and I have a lot of experience in professional booking and marketing.

        Reply
        • C'monAri

          “Bigger bands aren’t all money-hungry douchebags like this!”

          “A buy-on is never worth it. If you have respect for yourself, people (and bigger bands) will show you respect as well.”

          Reply
          • C'monAri

            The above are your opinions and ” I don’t like people being taken advantage of” is your opinion that people in this situation are being taken advantage of…

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