Door polling and old-fashioned pay-to-play are already controversial enough. Now the practice of “opener promotion,” a service offered by San Francisco company Rabbl, is the latest booking practice to stoke the crimson embers of music fans’ rage.
Tuesday, the Washington Post Express’ Sadie Dingfelder wrote a story about a newish “social booking platform” that helps bands choose their openers by putting them up for a vote. According to her story, D.C. concertgoers can use Rabbl’s “opener promotion” feature to pick from a predetermined list the bands they’d like to open a series of shows at Columbia Heights dive The Pinch. Fans select the band they want on the bill via Rabbl’s website.
Then this is where it gets icky for some folks: Users punch in their credit-card numbers and reserve a ticket for the lineup they’d like to see. The winning band is determined by how many ticket reservations it gets. Bands that fail to inspire enough people to pay for an advance ticket are dropped from consideration. (Only customers who pick the winning band get charged.)
On social media, the response to Dingfelder’s story was not warm and fuzzy.
“Boycott this promoter’s ass out of town. We don’t need this [stuff] in D.C.,” tweeted D.C. showgoer and photographer Ahmad Zaghal. Ra Ra Rasputin’s Patrick Kigongo tweeted, “Bands can do what they want. But I have no respect for any independent band that signs up for Rabbl.” Today, DCist’s Matt Cohen wrote that the service is anti-community and anti-scene. “D.C. musicians please take a stand against this pay-to-play platform,” scene-booster group Listen Local First posted on its Facebook page.
But is it fair to call Rabbl pay-to-play? Nah. I’d just call it unpunk.
Pay-to-play involves artists directly paying promoters, venues, or bands in order to hop on a bill. A subtler form of pay-to-play involves bands buying a venue’s stash of tickets and selling them itself—and ideally, but not always, recouping its money. (That’s already happening in D.C., and not through any fancy tech service.) Both of those practices cover the venue or promoter’s expenses and lay the financial burden at the band’s feet, which is why venues and promoters love them.
But Rabbl doesn’t charge bands anything. It does, however, require them to do something lots of artists hate doing: promote themselves and compete for money. Then it makes that process highly visible and cutthroat. Like I said: not very punk.
The only way Rabbl could be used as a pay-to-play service is if an extremely determined band, using multiple credit cards, bought all of its own tickets in order to win the opening slot in a Rabbl campaign. Could it happen? Rabbl CEO and co-founder Wade Lagrone says maybe—“I’ve been in the tech industry for a long time, and you never say never”—but it would be cumbersome. With normal use, customers can only buy two tickets per account.
In its Facebook post about Rabbl, Listen Local First DC wrote that Rabbl “will kill the development of a legitimate cultural community and basically the work LLF has been focusing on for the past three years.” Hm. Maybe. But on Rabbl, Lagrone says, candidates for opening slots are determined by the same people who already make those decisions: bookers or the headliner. If bands started paying those people just to be picked for a campaign, that could be dangerous. But that’s also a big hypothetical.
Consider this, too: How many D.C. bands make sense in an opening slot for buzzy act Hundred Waters, which plans to use Rabbl to pick an opener for its July 3 show at DC9? (The campaign has not yet been launched, Lagrone says.) Is the field really that wide open to begin with? And of the bands that fit, which is the most likely to bring out a crowd? That’s a question talent buyers, labels, and bands already mull when they decide who to put onstage. Rabbl lets fans decide. Why does it get ickier when they’re asked to back up their choice with a paid ticket? Is it more virtuous to pay the same ticket price and let someone else choose what you see?
Oh—about the ticket money. If a Rabbl campaign successfully picks an opener, the revenue goes to the party that started the competition, Lagrone says. It could be a band or a promoter, and they work out between them how the cash is divided. Rabbl takes its cut, usually $2, from fees that fans pay on their reservations. Ew, fees, I know. But ticket buyers already pay fees when they purchase show tickets online, and $2 is lower than a lot of them. Want to buy a $25 ticket through Ticketfly for Thursday’s Washed Out show at 9:30 Club? That will be $4 for “order processing” and a $6 service fee.
The bigger problem with Rabbl may be that it could fail, especially in a punk-rooted market like this one where a lot of bands don’t respond well to competition or transparently money-driven booking choices. (The service depends heavily on bands’ promotion of its campaigns.) But do we naively believe that club booking is noncapitalist in its present form? If your band has been turned down for a club slot in the past, there’s a good chance it was because you don’t have enough fans willing to buy tickets to your show. Bands will lose a Rabbl race for the same reason—especially if they chafe at having to promote themselves.
My theory: The blowback against Rabbl might have to do with our suspicion of the public’s taste, too. Is this only about so-called pay-to-play tactics, or are we also concerned that under the reign of Rabbl, every concert ever will be Katy Perry featuring Jason Aldean and an hour-long playlist of “Who Let the Dogs Out”?
We’re already hurtling toward that ugly reality—and Rabbl hasn’t been around long enough to have orchestrated it.
If D.C. bands want to get on club bills like the Hundred Waters gig, here’s something that might help: the same kind of self-promotion that Rabbl calls for. Steve Lambert booked the Hundred Waters show at DC9. He says that since the gig was announced on May 2, “not a single D.C. local has reached out in hopes of supporting the show.”