Cleaning Toilets: What’s With The Cost of DIY Shows?

tip jar

Lately a lot of high schoolers and college students have taken to Facebook messaging me at 1 a.m. asking questions about what they should do for their bands, how to send an awkward email, or the best way to interact with someone they know from going to see music. Exporting these interactions into an advice column, I am calling it Cleaning Toilets. I have cleaned a lot of toilets because of shows. Everyone uses the toilet, and if you have too many shows without cleaning the toilet it can get entirely out of control. I think about that a lot. If the mundane and gross are ignored, it adds up until you have nowhere to shit.

On to our first question…

Q: SUP. In my time attending shows I have noticed a trend in Brooklyn DIY where bands will play spaces like Shea or the Silent Barn when they are just starting out and these shows normally cost around 7-10 dollars, even if the band is on tour. However, once these bands have gained some level of acclaim or notoriety, they often come back to these same venues but with prices raised significantly, sometimes even doubled. As a person who very firmly believes that accessibility should be a core value of any DIY space I find this to be very frustrating. Why do these venues need to charge more when they know that the popularity of these bands almost guarantees a sold out show? This doesn’t sit well with me at all but I am sure there has to be some kind of explanation, so I am writing to you to hear what that might be.

What’s up! Ok, I have a really short answer and then a really long answer for you.

The short answer is that this happens because the show will sell out anyway, and the extra $1600 made from 200 people paying an extra $8 at the door is going to a band that is trying to make a living off of their art. Leaving $1600 on the table is essentially the same as asking the band to pay $1600 to play the show.

The long answer tackles the question behind your question, which is “Who pays for art?”

As far as expanding on the short answer, I would like to bring up that if a band is playing a sure fire sold-out show at a “DIY” venue for $15 they almost certainly have someone (manager, agent, publicist) telling them it is in their best interest to do that show at a more commercial venue, and the fact that they are doing it at a place like Shea Stadium shows they’re a band who wants to give back to the community that fostered them by giving them a profitable show. This is called an “underplay”—when an artist plays to a room smaller than their demand.

This is not meant to say that “this band could be playing at a shittier club, so be grateful you get to pay $15 to see them play at Silent Barn (or wherever).” What I am saying is that said band playing there in the first place is a decision that is not financially motivated. But, with that given, if they have the option to be playing in bigger rooms for more money, they are probably going through the awkward transition of this project being a hobby that maybe broke even to a part-time, or maybe even full-time, job. The decision to play a guaranteed sold-out show for half the price could very well also decide whether the band members have to wake up at at the crack of dawn the following morning to work a cafe shift.

Some people would call this “paying your dues,” but most of those people are shitty revisionists.

Who pays for art? The audience can agree that $15 isn’t an unreasonable contribution towards their favorite band not all being dog walkers, or a band can acknowledge that their fans are all broke and keep their ticket prices at $7. I tend to believe that artists are more entitled to get paid for hard work than a person I don’t know is to an extra $8. There are few cases where $8 breaks someone’s bank, and in most cases the limitations of that amount of money comes down to priority more than it does cash. You probably have $8. You have $8 in your deli sandwich. You have $8 in another show you’d go to that week. You have $8 in the two cans of Tecate you buy from the bar at the show that was going to be $15 but is now $7. The cost of playing shows does dramatically impact the accessibility of shows, however I do not think the cost of playing shows has as much of a dramatic impact in this scenario.

I relate to people who would rather not spend $8, but my sympathy is truly reserved for those who we do not get to see because of the limitations preventing them from entering the conversation. For example, previously I said that in turning away money an artist pays for the show in a figurative manner; however, before they can get to that stage they need to literally pay for their shows. Being in a band costs money. Some people would call this “paying your dues,” but most of those people are shitty revisionists.

There is a lot of mythologizing of being a starving artist, and it all stinks to me. I have yet to meet a person who came from poverty who told a romantic story about having to live off the dollar menu at McDonald’s. Those who come from poverty are less likely to be starving artists, and that is the tragedy of all this. Instruments, amplifiers, pedals, cars, practice spaces, beer after your drink tickets got you buzzed and you want to keep drinking; this is hundreds if not thousands of dollars. That is security, privilege and exclusivity. To expect artists to turn down money their fans are willing to pay them is to require even more privilege in a system that already does its best in many ways to prevent marginalized voices from being heard.

To expect artists to turn down money their fans are willing to pay them is to require even more privilege in a system that already does its best in many ways to prevent marginalized voices from being heard.

Again, we are talking about bands choosing to raise the cost of loft shows and not blink-182 releasing three different versions of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket for $20 each. This is making a living, not obscene price gouging.

You’re right to question why you have to pay an extra $8, but let’s not pit allies against each other. The issue, in a much larger sense, assuming you live in the United States, is a significant lack of artist funding on top of an already vast economic gap that leaves people bickering over $8 with each other. Why doesn’t the government do a better job funding art? What are they spending money on that they could otherwise be spending on art? Who isn’t part of the conversation because we’ve left them in a different room entirely? How can we best support those that create things that we appreciate? We need more people thinking about those questions.