My band, Windhaven, just received an invitation to play a show at the Orpheum Theater in Tampa, Florida on August 28th. The invitation came from an company called Afton Live, which I’m well acquainted with. Since I’ve lived in the Tampa Bay area, every band I’ve played in has received invitations from Afton Live. A few of the bands were really good. A few were laughable. Afton loved every one of them.
Every band who has a web site, MySpace or ReverbNation page has likely heard from Afton Live. From what I can gather, the company mass e-mails bands, preying upon the younger musicians who are excited about playing anywhere at any time. If you decide to do a show, you quickly realize that you’re expected to sell tickets to the event. The more tickets you sell, the more money you make (though far less than Afton keeps, and far less than you’d make at a regular gig). The order that the bands take the stage is determined by who sells the most tickets. In short, what Afton Live does is book venues and then find bands to play on the bill; bands who are willing to sell tickets mostly to their friends and relatives, and then perform for next to nothing. Apparently there are plenty of bands out there who are willing to do just that.
There’s been an ongoing debate online about whether Afton Live is a scam, or if their shows are technically “pay-to-play”. It’s semantics, really. Since there has been music, there have been those who prey upon musicians. There’s hardly a professional act that isn’t well acquainted with the shadier aspects of the music business. There’s always going to be someone eager to shake your hand and pat you on the back while they offer you the next great deal. Roger Waters wrote a famous song about these people; just listen to Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” some time. These sorts of people are part of the landscape. They’re always going to be. And there’s really nothing wrong with it, from a legal perspective.
While it’s debatable whether or not Afton Live is a scam, the fact remains that they’re doing nothing illegal. They’re booking shows and inviting bands to play those shows based upon certain conditions being met. It’s entirely up to the bands to understand what they’re agreeing to, and to decide whether or not they’re being taken advantage of. That’s a business arrangement. Is Afton Live’s business model entirely ethical? Well, I don’t think so, but that’s a personal issue.
But the more I think of it, the more I believe that Afton Live is doing nothing any worse than what a lot of the venues are doing. We’ve had a heck of a time getting our band, Windhaven, booked at venues because there are so many places out there who expect artists to play for free. Our band is an acoustic duo, so we’re not going to get into a lot of the Rock clubs where I know bands get paid. What we’re left with are cafes and shops that feature acoustic music. Almost universally, these places expect you to play for free, with the only possible compensation coming from tips or merchandise sales. In other words, they’ll give you a slot, but whether or not you make any money is largely dependent upon bringing your own crowd with you. And, sadly, there are apparently plenty of musicians in the Tampa Bay area who are willing to play at these venues for free – usually people with day jobs who are just noodling around on the weekends “for the love of music”.
For a year and a half I performed weekly on Wednesday nights at a fairly well known venue in Ybor City. It was for free, but we always considered it a free place to practice. Sure, people would occasionally wander in, and we always approached it as if it was a gig even though we were often working out new songs. The clear understanding was that the only reason we were willing to do it for free was because it saved us the trouble and expense of renting a place to practice. But hardly a week went by that I didn’t find myself having a conversation with the owner about how we needed to find a way to attract more people to the venue. “It’s all about filling the seats,” he would say. I would often look at him and politely nod, but I knew there was no way our band could fill up a club on a Wednesday night. Christ, Ybor City is dead on Wednesdays. People typically don’t hit the clubs in the middle of the week. He knew this as well as we did, but he still always felt us out about how we might get more bodies into the venue on those Wednesday nights.
I always understood where he was coming from. He worked with a promoter on the weekends who staged exactly the kinds of shows that Afton Live puts together. Four or five bands would play these shows on the weekends at this venue, each selling a certain number of tickets. The promoter got paid. The venue owner made money from beer and food sales. The bands got to play Rock star in front of an audience. And, presumably, everyone went home happy. So this venue owner naturally wondered if something like that might be possible during the week.
Our parting of the ways came when that promoter died and another person stepped into his shoes. Within a week the venue owner was telling us that they were going to start doing those package shows on Wednesdays, and that we might be able to do a set or something. I smiled serenely, and knew that our involvement had come to an end. I wasn’t going to drive to Tampa from Saint Petersburg to play one set for free. While we had always played for free on Wednesdays, we were getting something out of it – a free place to practice. As part of a package show, that incentive was gone.
I never faulted this venue owner for wanting to find ways to make more money on Wednesday nights. He owns a venue. It’s about making money. The more people who come into the place, the more money he makes. What always bothered me was the fact that he never had to pay for the entertainment himself. The old model of paying a band to perform was not something he was familiar with. It was, in fact, something he would have scoffed at. Unfortunately, this seems to be the rule, not the exception.
So… the question I’m pondering, for the most part, is if what Afton Live does is any worse than what this club owner, and any number of other club owners, is doing? He gets bands to play for free or nearly free, makes a lot of money from the sale of food and alcohol, and laughs all the way to the bank. That promoter makes more money per ticket than the bands that sell them, and laughs all the way to the bank. The only people who don’t laugh all the way to the bank are the musicians, who put their heart and soul out there for a handful of peanuts, and are told they should be grateful for it.
In the end, maybe my perceptions have been shaped by the fact that I’ve been a musician for thirty years. Sure, I’m a dinosaur. I remember the days when it was a simple transaction. If you booked your band in a venue, you got paid. It was up to the venue to promote the show and provide an audience via regular customers. Sure, bands developed a following, and you could expect some bands to bring in more people than others, but no one was expected to play for free. Maybe those bands who brought in the big crowds got paid more money, but the low level bands still got paid.
Now all that has shifted. It’s a paradox, actually. You’re expected to play for free at these venues to build an audience. But even when you start attracting an audience there’s no real way for you to monetize your growing popularity, since the bulk of any income is going to the venue owners and promoters. Why would anyone in their right mind agree to such an arrangement? And how dare anyone tell me that this is “what you have to do”. How many people would go work a construction job for free on the presumption that doing so might some day lead them to being popular enough to do the same work and actually get paid?
In the final analysis, I believe that Afton Live is a scam. Not because people are being cheated, but because Afton Live preys upon the needs of up and coming musicians. Inexperienced musicians believe that all they have to do is keep playing, even if they have to do it for free, and they will eventually reach the big time. Sooner or later some producer will discover them and they’ll be on their way. So while what Afton Live does is not illegal in any way, it’s certainly immoral in my book. But what I contend is that they are not the only guilty parties here. Any venue that allows Afton Live to book these shows in their facilities is as complicit in the exploitation of young musicians as Afton Live or any other promoter who puts together these kinds of package shows. Any bar, cafe or shop owner who expects musicians to perform without any prearranged compensation is as guilty as Afton Live of engaging in questionable business practices.
I don’t blame any of these businesses. If I was Afton Live, or a promoter, or a venue, cafe or shop owner, and could get musicians to provide free entertainment while I capitalized upon their talents by selling tickets, food, alcohol or merchandise, I would be a fool if I didn’t take full advantage of that. Just as if I would be a fool if I owned a construction company and had to decide between paying one laborer a fair wage and another nothing at all. The question I keep coming back to is not whether or not Afton Live and these venues engage in anything questionable, but rather why musicians are so eager to prove themselves idiots and fools by allowing their talent to be monetized by these vultures with no real compensation to the artists themselves?
So. Is Afton Live a scam?