The venue’s security checked the guest list one more time. HG Locks wasn’t on it. It slowly began to sink in: No one was expecting him to perform; he had been scammed.
Weeks before the 21-year-old rapper found himself outside the Jones Beach Theater in Long Island, HG Locks received an email saying he had been selected to open for Wiz Khalifa and Ty Dolla $ign. All it would take was a down payment of $1,000 to seal the deal. It was a lot of money, but the contract looked legit. For an unsigned artist hungry for exposure in New York City, one of the most competitive hip-hop markets in the world, the money seemed worth it.
The night of the show, HG Locks drove to the concert in a rented van with his entourage. He made it past the theater’s first security checkpoint, but when he was stopped before he could enter the backstage, his heart sank. Not only had he paid for the chance to play, he was denied the opportunity. On the ride home, he thought of what he would say to his friends and family who had bought tickets for that night, and were still in the crowd, waiting to see him perform.
“That was a big, major point for me,” he told me over the phone. “I almost wanted to quit.”
The incident, which took place in 2014, showed a lack of business savvy on Locks’ part, but let’s forgive him for thinking the opportunity was real. Over the course of last year, I spoke to more than 10 rappers from an array of hip-hop hubs—from Miami to Memphis to the Bronx and more places in between—about a well-known scheme in the music industry known as pay-to-play. Most were hesitant to name the promoters and other actors who had misled them, but not one artist flat-out denied the existence of the practice. The details change from case to case, but pay-to-play describes the instances in which industry gatekeepers—promoters, bookers, touring acts—charge musicians money for the chance to perform onstage. In hip-hop, and in Locks’ case, aspiring talent might not even hope for that much.
Pay-to-play has found a cozy home in rap, and it’s easy to understand why: Hip-hop is huge, and there is no shortage of young, unknown rappers trying to reach the level of media attention that leads to a major record deal, features with top 40 artists, or a nationwide tour. Every night, in venues across the country, there are only so many minutes of stage time to go around. Who gets to perform? Far too often, it’s the ones willing to slip a few hundred dollars to the folks in charge.
Who can blame the new generation of rap hopefuls? The genre is at an all-time high, replacing rock as the most popular musical style Stateside, something that has made labels’ and talent scouts’ ears perk up. In the days of Instagram and today’s well-oiled music media, hip-hop fame has never felt more accessible. For young rappers, it’s not so crazy to believe that one show could change everything.
In Miami, rapper Prez P gets emails that sound too good to be true. “It’s like, ‘Oh man, I’ve heard your music. It’s dope. I think you’ll mix well with this crowd,’” he told me at the beginning of 2017. But the truth emerges once you take the bait. “They wait until the end of the conversation to be like, ‘Yeah, well, it’s $500 to buy in and you get to perform for 15 minutes.’”
Pay-to-play’s widespread presence in rap can be loosely traced to two things: an incredibly saturated market of talent, and a lack of places for rappers to perform.
“I think, in part, it’s due to the lack of accessible performance spaces, specifically for younger artists,” said Kevin Erickson, the national head of the Future Of Music Coalition, a D.C. nonprofit that advocates for the protection and proper compensation of musicians. “Punk rock has this sort of underground network of DIY venues and house shows. There isn’t the same underground DIY hip-hop shows, and I think that’s partially because law enforcement doesn’t have the same response to young people of color that they do to white kids, unfortunately.”
Without reliable venues, up-and-coming rappers have to seek alternative routes, with little to no leverage or power to negotiate. It creates an economy ripe for exploitation.
In Memphis, Marco Pavé said pay-to-play is “almost the main system in some areas” of his city. He said most rappers think of it as a rite of passage.
He can remember being approached twice by two local promoters in person: once to open for Machine Gun Kelly at a local venue called Minglewood Hall and another time for Young Jeezy. Each promoter said it would cost him $1,500 to play. (Minglewood Hall did not respond to a request for comment for this story, though Pavé says the promoter was not affiliated with the venue. Pavé says he doesn’t remember the name of the second venue.) He didn’t take either offer.
“They convince artists that you haven’t done enough, that you’re not worthy to be paid unless you have a hit record, or unless you’ve gone viral,” Pavé says. “It’s just not the case.” Similarly, Prez P argued that pay-to-play will continue to happen because “there’s a new artist every day trying to get on. And they see that as an opportunity.”
It’s clear that the old ways for artists to break into the mainstream seem less relevant every day. Putting in a year’s worth of work at local open mics isn’t anywhere near as effective as a repost from WorldstarHipHop. Shortcuts abound, and young artists are constantly in search of a new one. But persistence eventually paid off for Pavé, and his career began to build momentum, with the help of proper PR and coverage from MTV, NPR, and other outlets. He started booking his own tours around the South.
On one of those tours, Pavé paired up with New Orleans emcee Alfred Banks, who also struggled with finding adequate hip-hop venues. “New Orleans is really dope for live music—not hip-hop,” he says. Banks had performed at the same open mic so many times that the venue eventually just made him a featured artist. Once he found himself rapping in the library of Loyola University New Orleans.
Banks paid for the chance to play once, when he first started around 2011, but the show didn’t happen. The promoter then offered him the chance to open for another rapper. “That show didn’t happen either,” he says. The promoter, who Banks declined to name, finally stuck him onstage one night at the House Of Blues. He was the first act to go on, which, he said, “really sucked.” He decided to never pay for stage time again.
When asked for comment, House Of Blues spokesman Jim Yeager says that the venue’s staff is aware of the concept of pay-to-play and saddened if it did take place at their venue, but it’s absolutely not something House Of Blues would knowingly partake in. “We just don’t do it,” Yeager says.
Banks and Pavé have toured together twice, once breaking even and then turning a profit, thanks to sponsorships. On both tours, the thought of turning to pay-to-play to earn extra cash didn’t feel right for Pavé. “I just have morals and refuse to charge anybody to rap. I understand how it is to be on the other side of that. It’s not fun at all.”
It’s tempting to dismiss pay-to-play as just another small-time hustle, given that there’s no easy way to measure how widespread it is, and that it’s often practiced by local promoters.
But there are big players, too. Miami’s Rolling Loud—the biggest hip-hop festival in Florida, if not the country—boasted a 2017 lineup that included just about every big-name rapper you can think of: Kendrick Lamar, Future, Lil Wayne, A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott, Migos, Lil Yachty. In 2016, Rolling Loud’s second year in existence, the Miami festival had Future, Young Thug, and Ty Dolla $ign as headliners. That year had a smaller area off to the side called the Citrus Stage, which featured mostly young, unknown artists. A week after the show ended I learned, as the music editor for the Miami New Times, that many artists had paid at least $500 to perform on the Citrus Stage. Playing on the festival’s bigger stages could cost as much as $5,000. This system took place with the festival’s knowledge and consent.
Rolling Loud co-founder Tariq Cherif responded to the story when it was first published, not exactly apologizing, but defending the festival’s use of pay-to-play as a standard industry practice. “Pay-to-play exists nationwide in all levels of the music industry,” he said. “Major labels across all genres of music pay other labels to get artists on tour with bigger artists.”
Some rappers who did pay to perform at Rolling Loud later complained about the poor stage design and sound quality. Atlanta rapper A Plug Named Pablo, who paid $500 for his 15-minute set, wasn’t one of them. “I was happy because I got a lot of fans, got to interact with a lot of people,” the 24-year-old told me. He hasn’t done it since, he says, but that’s not for lack of chances. In Atlanta, Pablo concedes, it’s “very common.”
The music industry has long been puppeteered by money’s persuasive power, regardless of genre. Consider the presale booking system, in which a promoter or booker sells an artist a bulk of tickets, and the artist, in order to make their money back, must sell the tickets to their own show themselves. If the artist sells all the tickets, they can even earn a little extra cash. If they don’t, they essentially foot the cost of the unsold tickets.
Sean Healy Presents is one of the largest booking services based out of Los Angeles that uses the presale system. “Every Monday, we send out an email to 30,000 musicians across the country,” Healy told me. Of those who respond, some are booked for shows and given tickets to sell themselves. According to the company website, webookbands.com, Big Sean, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar have all booked shows with Sean Healey Presents. Healy told me his company booked those artists’ first L.A. shows when “those guys broke.” (The representatives for those acts did not respond to requests for comment.) He added that the artists were given “hard tickets” and “their street teams” would sell them, ensuring the shows would reach capacity.
Healy does not consider his company’s system pay-to-play. “Nobody should ever pay-to-play,” he says. “Our contracts clearly state: Don’t take this show if you don’t think you can get these tickets to the right people.”
While artists selling their own tickets might be impressive, one might wonder: What, then, is the promoter’s job?
As Erickson sees it, the risk of putting on a show should be shared by the promoter and the artist. The promoter forks over the cash. The artist forks over time, effort, creative energy, and the personal risk of being booed off stage mercilessly. But, to Erickson, asking artists to sell their own tickets is just “pay-to-play under another name.” It essentially eliminates all risk on the promoter’s side.
“If I’m working at McDonald’s,” Erickson added, “I still get paid regardless of whether or not McDonald’s turns a profit that year. Musicians are workers, like any other kind of worker.”
So where does this leave us? If the system extends from A Plug Named Pablo to Kendrick Lamar, is it too widespread to correct?
One route to the eradication of pay-to-play, according to Erickson, is a unified, transparent opposition by those in the industry. He stresses the power that artists, as well as “legitimate promoters” can yield by calling out bad actors.
In reporting this story, I came across only one concerted effort to tackle pay-to-play led by an artist—and it served as a cautionary tale that calling out abuses is not always easy to do, especially for a small band or musician. Back in 2010, Bon Von Wheelie, a drummer for the Seattle band Girl Trouble, was sued over the content of her website, neverpaytoplay.com, which contained a catalog of promoters and venues that had been known to charge artists to perform. A Cleveland company called Gorilla Productions, which was labeled as a pay-to-play offender on the website, was behind the defamation suit. The judge eventually dismissed the case.
Alfred Banks, the emcee from New Orleans, agreed that artists can create change by opposing promoters who offer pay-to-play. He gave the example of passively complaining about music on the radio, but still listening to it. “If you just stop supporting the artists that you think are whack, they’ll go away at some point. If you don’t like this pay-to-play idea, stop buying into it,” he said.
It sounds simple, but consider the newcomer’s perspective. Say you’ve been at it for a year, maybe two, uploading tracks to SoundCloud and trying to get coverage. The stage feels like it’s getting further and further away. One day, the opportunity to play in front of an audience is there, in your inbox. A few hundred dollars for a dream come true may not sound unreasonable.
HG Locks says he looks back on that night in Long Island with gratitude. “It builds character, so it’s all necessary.” But now, think about that night from the promoters’ perspective; he was able to send the young rapper home without even meeting him, and walked away $1,000 richer—basically for sending a couple of emails. That was one night four years ago. The system persists today, even if HG Locks had complained to the promoter, or told those in his circle not to work with him; he could just shoot off more emails to another aspiring rapper the following week—the way Sean Healy Presents contacts thousands of artists every Monday. And if that rapper doesn’t respond, he’ll find another. And another. And another.