We Need to Talk About Booking Fees [OPINION]
Everyone wants our favorite musicians to make a great living. They make music that brings joy to our lives, and they travel around the world to play shows to share the music personally. But over the last few years, booking fees at the very top have gotten out of hand, and ultimately this hurts nearly everyone.
I'll start with an anecdote. My friend is a fantastic producer and songwriter. He's cracked the Beatport top 10 in a few different genres. His tunes get support from some of the top DJs in the world. He slays every show he plays, because he's also an amazing DJ. He makes a modest living off making music and touring, and fairly recently he was able to leave his day job and support himself entirely with his music.
A few years ago, he was contacted with an offer to play a show that would be the biggest of his career to date. Opening for one of the top acts in the world (who he has massive respect for), at one of the most iconic venues in the world. It's the kind of offer that most aspiring electronic musicians dream of, and very few will ever get.
So of course he took the gig. Yet it was hard for him to be totally happy about the booking, because of the detail of payment. He was paid $50. Which is less than the cost of a single ticket, of which there were approximately 10,000 sold. Conservatively estimating the headliner's booking fee, my friend was paid .05% of what the headliner made.
For a barely noticeable percentage of the headliner's fee, my friend could have been paid a decent fee of $500, or a respectable fee of $1,000. But he was paid $50.
Now of course the argument could be made that the headliner deserves so much more, because they make the best music, they are famous, they are the name that will sell tickets, they are paying for the massive stage and lighting production, etc. And to an extent, these points are valid to justify some inequality in booking fees between a headliner and an opener. However, in my view a ratio of 2000:1 (or more) is very hard to justify - particularly because the headliner had previously played my friend's tunes in DJ sets, and requested copies of unreleased tunes from him.
My friend's story is a particularly bad example of how out of control booking fees for top tier acts hurt up-and-coming artists, but speaking with any lower or mid tier artists will yield countless similar stories. Now of course the headliner of a show doesn't directly decide how much smaller acts will be paid. But any given event has a maximum budget, based on venue capacity, ticket price, and secondary revenue sources such as bar and merch sales.
When a headline act demands an outrageously high fee, the event organizers are forced to slash the budget in other places, or raise ticket prices. No one wants ticket prices to be higher than necessary, so the smaller acts are among the first targets for cutting costs. There are certainly other places where organizers can and do make up the costs - think $10 bottles of water, $15 beers, inadequate security, inadequate medical staff, oversold and overcrowded venues, etc. And of course ticket prices do rise, as any EDM fan has seen over the last few years. All of these things can negatively impact the crowd's experience, so they are less attractive to organizers because they may hurt attendance at future events. Cutting booking fees for supporting acts will rarely have a direct negative impact on the organizer, because those acts will usually keep their mouths shut about it, for fear of hurting their career.
When up-and-coming DJs and producers are paid too little, it hurts the overall scene. Newer artists can't afford to quit their day jobs, can't afford to upgrade their studios, can't afford to hire great designers for their album art and websites, can't afford to hire PR firms to help them reach more fans, can't afford to invest in lighting and stage production. This causes stagnancy in the top tier, because newer artists can't afford the investments that would give them the chance to break into the top tier themselves. So we end up with the same top tier acts year after year, even though there may be less known artists making better, more exciting music. And sadly, top tier acts (or their agents and managers) probably know this, and use it to protect their own position at the top.
Now I don't mean to say that top tier acts shouldn't be paid well. They absolutely should be. But they have the power to make the whole scene healthier by choosing to share the wealth a bit more equitably.
To illustrate how, I'll use a hypothetical example. Let's say there is a world famous producer who makes post-shoegaze smallroom loungecore. His stage name is D3adRat. There are 10,000 people in a city willing to pay $50 to see D3adRat. And there are 4 up-and-coming producers who would be great supporting acts, but D3adRat's fans probably wouldn't pay anything to see them on their own. So in a purely selfish, capitalist sense, he could demand a booking fee of $500,000. And perhaps his agent would argue that the $500k is coming in because of his popularity, and he deserves it more than the promoter, venue, or supporting acts. Based on this limited view, his agent is correct.
However, imagine if D3adRat wanted to do his fans a favor, so he set his booking fee at $250k, and insisted that the promoter only charge $25 for a ticket. Or, if he didn't care too much about saving each fan $25, but he really wanted to help support the careers of the 4 supporting acts, the tickets could still be $50, but his booking fee would be $400k, and he could insist that each of the supporting acts would be paid $25k. Or, if he felt that working class people don't get paid enough, he could keep the ticket price at $50, but insist that all 500 people who staff the event - from security guards to ticket checkers to roadies to janitors - all make at least $500 for working the event, and still keep $250k for himself.
Yes, these examples are oversimplified. Top tier acts generally spend a lot on stage production, their agents and mangers take a percentage, their labels might take a percentage, they pay taxes, and travel expenses, and other costs. But a glance at this video from Forbes indicates that top tier EDM acts are still raking in crazy piles of cash.
I don't mean to imply that any of these artists are terrible people. In most cases they don't determine their own booking fees, but rather leave that completely in the hands of their booking agents. And 15% of $500k is more than 15% of $250k, so agents will always be pushing for higher and higher fees. But it's time top tier artists take more responsibility for sharing the fruits of EDM's popularity a bit more fairly. There are a lot of people who work incredibly hard to make music events happen - from supporting acts and sound/lighting production staff, to security, medical staff, and cleanup crews. And all of these folks are frequently underpaid. Top tier artists have the most power of anyone in the scene, so they have the greatest responsibility to make it better for everyone involved.