Constructing “Authentic” Identities: Pay-to-Play: a Rite of Passage in the Los Angeles Music Scene

Date of Award

Spring 2015

Document Type


First Advisor

Ann Kakaliouras


This is an analysis of a phenomenon in the Los Angeles music scene known by musicians as “pay-to-play.” Musicians use the term “pay-to-play” to describe a “deal” made between a musical act (band or solo artist) and a gatekeeper, namely a club promoter. The deal requires musicians to pay for stage time in order to play on the stage, with little to no monetary payment in return. Many musicians call this practice “exploitative” yet they have (or still do) participated in the practice. This study questions what drives people, like these musicians, to willingly participate in something they do not agree with. My initial hypothesis was that musicians pay-to-play out of desperation for the stage and lack of experience to gain access through popularity or by the demand of LA venues. I attempted to answer this question through ethnographic fieldwork in the Los Angeles area, where I engaged music venues through participant observation, reflection on field notes and a total of thirty-eight personal interviews given by musicians, which were recorded and later transcribed. My findings suggest that musicians are more likely to participate in pay-to-play at the start of their musical careers, and that the basis of their consent to pay-to-play is not out of desperation, but on their need to be acknowledged by fellow musicians and listeners—their very identities as musicians are based on authentication and pay-to-play is a step many musicians must take in order to have access to a stage in which this authentication can occur. Pay-to-play is thus a larger structure that negates who has access to perform and who gets to become “authenticated” as a “professional” artist.


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