Your favourite band sucks: The secret shame of the ‘buy-on’

Buy on GigCity EdmontonThere are shady schemes going on behind the scenes of the concert industry that music lovers might be better off not knowing about.

For instance, people are unpleasantly shocked to discover most major bands use pre-recorded backing tracks during live performances. It’s become noteworthy when they don’t.

Have you wondered why concert tickets are getting so expensive? Artists aren’t making as much money on recordings because fans are stealing them on the Internet – so pay up, chumps, and $45 for that T-shirt, too. The same rationale can apply to charging for a “meet ‘n’ greet.” Fans lined up for photo ops with Miley Cyrus at $1,000 a pop. Avril Lavigne was a bargain at $400, but there was no touching.

Can you blame them? Quid pro quo.

It’s when they start eating their young that’s troubling. One of the most shameful hidden practices in the concert business is known as the “buy-on,” where an unknown band pays big bucks to open for a famous headliner. They pay to play. It’s starting to catch on in the indie scene.

The musician’s union frowns on this sort of thing. “I don’t think that’s a very wise investment,” says Eddy Bayens, longtime spokesman of the Edmonton Musicians Association Local 390 A.F. of M., on what he seemed to consider a very dumb question. “If you’re a professional who provides a service for someone, you should expect remuneration. If the headliner wants a warm-up band, they ought to pay for it.”

Tell that to all the young bands hungry for stardom. Impressing a crowd far bigger than what you could draw on your own can be a shortcut to success. If you’re good. There is no shortage of willing participants on both sides.

David Williams GigCity EdmontonMetal bands seem to like it. David Williams (right), former lead singer of Edmonton band Killinger, says he was part of a number of buy-on tours, including with the Black Label Society. It works like an auction: Big Shot Band X is going on tour, needs money and an opening act. The word goes out.

“We bid on everything,” Williams says. “We bid on everything from LA Guns, to Godsmack, Whitesnake, Alice Cooper, the Darkness.” He says they got their foot in the door to bid on an Alice Cooper tour because their agent sold Cooper’s manager a condo in Florida. “It’s still a who-you-know business,” Williams says.

Edmonton electro-metal musician Scott Fox of IVandensphere says he already knew the guys in the Norwegian metal band Combichrist when they approached him with buy-on deals “basically paying for my spot on the bus.” Fox paid the band $400 per show to open 27 dates in Europe; he also paid to play with Front Line Assembly. He came out ahead in each case because it was a good fit and he had a good act: selling about $300-$800 in merchandise per show, he says (and his T-shirts are less than $45), “far more than I could’ve done if I was out on my own.”

Killinger also made a killing on merch touring with the Christian metal band Stryper.

“Everybody thought were we a Christian metal band,” Williams says, and they didn’t blow the illusion. “After we did the House of Blues in Orlando, Florida, there were 250 people lined up at our merch table waiting to meet us.”

Scott Fox doesn't have to take it anymore

Scott Fox doesn’t have to take it anymore

More important than selling T-shirts is winning a lot of new fans in one shot – again, if you’re good. Can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t work if you suck. IVandersphere is at the point now that they no longer do buy-ons, Fox says. Despite reaping the benefits, he doesn’t like the practice. “The first time I heard of a buy-on I was stunned. This is the most screwed up thing ever. You’re going to charge me to do art, to show my art to someone else? I think it’s a cash grab on every level. I understand why they do it. It helps them fund the tour, but really, if you can’t work out a good tour budget to make it happen, you shouldn’t be out there. You don’t have to prey on the little guys.”

Like everywhere else, music business wealth is getting concentrated at the top, and there’s less to go around for the middle class. As songwriter Dan Hill wrote in a Maclean’s magazine column, “Essentially, the top 0.01 per cent of artists, groups and songwriters make 99.99 per cent of the money. That was not the case in the mid-’70s: there was a lot more room for modestly successful artists to make a decent living.”

Ironically, buy-ons can hurt a modestly successful headliner more than the no-name opener. Fans might see it as selling out. They pay a lot to see their favourite band, and deserve to get a support band chosen personally by the headliners out of love, not money. An opener that sucks doesn’t make the headliner look good. It makes them look bad. Consider that bands like the Tragically Hip would never stoop to such a cash grab – they don’t need to – and in fact is famous for touring with interesting warm-up acts. The fans think: “Wow, if Gord Downie likes the Rheostatics, they must be good.”

Nobody in the music business wants to talk about this. A number of subjects approached for this story refused to go on the record. One Canadian musician spilled the beans about a buy-on auction for a huge act that ran into five figures, but later asked that all his quotes be removed from the story. Even our two Edmonton metal dudes were a bit nervous about saying too much. Nobody wants to get in trouble.

Despite the secrecy, buy-on deals are perfectly legal.

“I don’t see how it could be illegal,” says Vancouver entertainment lawyer Miro Oballa. “It’s commercial transaction, like a concert sponsorship, in some ways, because they want the exposure. I just don’t think lot of people know how widespread it is.”

It might get dicey crossing borders. American officials demand to know exactly for how long and how much money a foreign musical act is going to suck out of the U.S. economy, but if you’re losing money on the tour, how do you report that? How do you pay your U.S. taxes and union dues from a negative income? Maybe it would be easier to go on tour and call it a vacation.

The concert buy-on is not the norm – yet – according to one Canadian booking agent who refuses to get involved with them (and wishes to remain anonymous). But it’s becoming more accepted and even encouraged. Independent buy-on brokers are starting to crop up, offering to set up deals between interested parties for a modest commission.

David Williams speaks from experience, “As soon as you get a little bit of notoriety there’s fucking hands that come out of everywhere to take a piece of what you’ve got.”

There’s a lesson here for any musician who wants nothing more than to become a rock star in 2014 – quit now, while you still can.