Pay To Play: NYC DJs Forced To Sell Tickets To Keep Their DJ Slots?

Most musicians and DJs have heard of (and know to avoid) pay-to-play schemes, where a promotional company offers small-time DJs “exposure” and an opening set at a club or festival in return for a fee. But based on a tip we’ve gotten from DJ Roodz in the New York City area, the practice has made a comeback, with promoters forcing DJs to sell tickets to keep their set times. Keep reading for stories from DJs in the NYC area about this scheme that promoters are running.

Do you have a pay-to-play or sell-tickets to play story?
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Being A “Small Time” DJ In NYC


Earlier this week, the staff at DJ Techtools got an interesting email from a New York City native and local DJ who has tried to get more gigs, Christian Roodal (aka DJ Roodz). He wrote to us asking for advice on breaking into local scenes and hinted at a major problem in the NYC area of promoters requiring that DJs sell tickets to hold down their sets. We’ve heard of pay-to-play, but this sounded different – so Christian shared more details:

“Out here the problem is pretty rampant – especially in NYC and NJ. When venues like Webster Hall, Space, and Pacha [closed earlier this year] book big talent, individual promoters and “promotion agencies” (mostly by way of Instagram) are generally responsible for promoting the event – just like in their job description – and “booking DJs.”

This usually involves talking local guys to push anywhere from 5-50 tickets in exchange for a set. These sets aren’t guaranteed, more like a very strong “maybe.” For mainstage, you’re expected to sell sometimes 75+ tickets. As DJs, we’ve been promised festivals, mainstage opportunities, or even side stage sets, and have been pulled off, sometimes last-minute, even when ticket quotas are met. The problem is, there really isn’t anywhere to go for gigs besides these guys. They don’t ask for mixes, or skill demonstrations, or anything. All they care about is getting sales.”

To us, this is incredible – no DJ should ever take on the responsibility of helping to promote and sell tickets to a gig without a firm agreement that they’re guaranteed a slot. And there’s likely even grounds for legal action in a case like this – as verbal agreements are often as enforceable as written contracts – albeit harder to prove in a court of law.

How The “Selling Tickets” To Play Scam Works

Pay To Play DJ Sets in NYC

We asked Christian to tell us as much as he could about the process of getting DJs to sell tickets in exchange for a “strong maybe” DJ set – and he elaborated:

“Essentially, no matter what a ticket costs, the DJ keeps $5. Doesn’t matter if it’s $20, $50, $90, whatever. The DJ returns the “ticket value minus five” to the promoter. The promoters use this as a sort of scheme to get people to play, saying things like “Check out your earning potential – sell out, make $250 (from selling 50 tickets, generally the norm) AND DJ!” However, the flipside is that, that $5 is also your bargaining room. You can take a hit on your commission in exchange for selling cheaper tickets to essentially move product and guarantee your set.

And what about the concept he suggested above, where sometimes DJs will sell tickets but still get pulled of a promised DJ set? Christian shared another story:

I’ve been pulled from a show on the day of, about 3 hours before my set time at the promoter’s office. I showed up there to cash out the tickets and had my controller, laptop, everything in tow. He took the money and told me “Sorry bud, not tonight” because I didn’t sell enough.

I had been with this promoter for over a year now, and I thought he knew my competency as a DJ, but he had never heard or even asked for one of my mixes, or anything like that. The next day, he called me up and said he wanted me to “image promote” for him – basically, host a table at one of the clubs he promotes once or twice a month. I was supposed to bring at least 5 girls for every guy and “Don’t worry if they’re under 21, I’ll take care of that with the bouncer and get you bottles.” Essentially, show them a good time so they have a better chance of coming to see me play, or come to me for tickets to other shows.”

Is this a one-off kind event? Apparently not – Christian connected us with other DJs in the greater NYC/NJ area who shared similar stories:

Stories From Other NYC-Area DJs

“I have had to sell tickets for Webster Hall and Pacha. For Webster I sold 5 actually and to keep my spot I bought 10 tickets so it became the Pay to Play type of thing and I didn’t get paid for my set at all.

For Pacha, this one time I didn’t have to sell tickets, just bring at least 20 people, I think 10 showed up, I was promised $150 a bottle, and a B2B session with my buddy, it was a deep house event.

When me and my friend got there, the “manager” said my friend and I were NOT playing back to back and that I wasn’t getting paid at all. So I took into my own hands and when my buddy was done with his set, I jumped on because no other DJ was around. We had the room jumping man everyone was dancing, I played 20 minutes, then this kid comes to the booth and says you are out after this song and he played [R Kelly’s “Bump N’ Grind”]. Everyone stopped dancing [and left for the] main floor, I packed up my stuff and left.

For Space, I sold 25 tickets between me and my ex (her dad was the owner of the club), he put me in the container spot over the bar where you first walk in, you would think the man would pay the kid his daughter has been seeing for 5 years, right? Wrong. Area Events started telling him that the only DJs who get paid [are] the headliner, everyone else sells tickets and gets the 5 dollar rip” – Aaron E., DJ Eckhaus, NJ


“So I’d been in sporadic contact with this one promoter for a few weeks trying to figure out a good first gig for me to start with him that would fit my musical style and that my friends would want to come out to see me for. Then one morning, I woke up to a few missed calls from the promoter, which was unusual because we’d only text and haven’t spoken face to face yet. So I called him back and he said he had a great opportunity for me to play at Life In Color NYNJ on the “Local Artists Spotlight” Side Stage.

I was thrilled to be even considered to play […] but wondered what the catch was. He brought up the fact that I “obviously” wouldn’t get paid as the exposure should be huge for me and then asked me to sell tickets at the face value from which I could keep a $5/ticket commission. I wondered why there wasn’t a minimum number to sell or at least strive for. He said he could only give me 50 tickets and for me to push as much as I could, but also said there isn’t a minimum I need to sell because the event was big enough that online sales should take care of it as long as I basically didn’t sell just 1 or 2.

I sold like 25-30 tickets to my friends who were super-excited to get there early to see my set. A day before the show, when I went in to cash out the tickets and get my commission. I was asked why I still had tickets left. I just responded saying that everyone else already had one or bought online and since there wasn’t a minimum I thought about 30 was fine and was happy with the $150 I’d get for that.

The promoter then said that wasn’t part of the original deal. He said that I had to have pushed all of them to even be considered for a set and if maybe I’d be able to go B2B with another random local DJ. So basically the meeting ended with me making $150 off of ticket sales, getting bumped from a festival/show that I had received promo materials for, and the awkwardness of having to tell my friends that my set got cancelled because I was unable to sell an additional 20 tickets…” -David S., DJ Davvid, NY, Boston

“Some kid hit me up on Instagram asking me to sell 30 tickets for Pacha (for the first time for me) so I took it… Sold a good amount… Bought a few just to get them out… Drive all the way to the city from Jersey with a car full of people. Turns out the promoter ran off with the money and the bouncers and management said that anyone that worked under him couldn’t come in. And the ticket codes got cancelled out. Needless to say I was left in the dust on front of Pacha cause some scumbag promoter ran off with the ticket money.

I love when promoters come to ME to DJ, have a big convo with me, then BAM I have to sell 50 tickets in 3 days OR I just got offered to play I’m shmacked and they wanted ME to pay them 500 to play! But, I guess it would have been a steal cause “main stage” buy in was 1,000.” -Anthony J., DJ Statik, NJ


“Our first two times playing Pacha NY Basement, we had to promote using a guest list and the promoter was a friend from college who got our foot in the door for sure. Once he stopped working in the industry, we realized that other promoters were marketing the “opportunity to play mainstage and clubs and festivals.”

[…] we came to realize that every single promoter we were meeting didn’t even ask us for a mix, a sample, or a resume. All they would say is “25+” in text message responses. [With one promoter], we were booked for Pacha’s basement twice, but only played once because one of the times a water main blew up down the road. We only met a quota of 5 tickets for these shows, and he was lenient about those times only. He told us that if we want to play again we have to sell at least 20.

As young adults with full-time jobs to support our passion of music, how are we expected to drive all around the world to sell 20-30 tickets for a timeslot that’s not even guaranteed? Also, the commission (no matter how much the ticket costs) is $5.

The last time we performed was at Space Ibiza NY. We drove around NYC and Westchester County, putting roughly 300 miles on my car, to sell 13 tickets because the other 7 were for family and friends. We were told that our set time was from 1am-2am. The evening of our performance, we went back to our promoter’s office to cash out the tickets. The promoter said “So yeah you guys can either play from 11-11:30 or 3-3:30.” We were furious, but maintained composure and bit our tongues because we knew this would be the last time we did any kind of business with this person. At the end of the day, finally getting to perform is great. However, it is not worth the trouble we have to go through to “start from the bottom and work our way up” according to these promoters.”  – Francesco B. and Adrian B., Hammerheadz, NY

Have you ever been forced to sell tickets and then ultimately burned out of a DJ set at a club? Share your stories in the comments below. 

We reached out to Webster Hall and Space Ibiza NY for comment, but they have not yet replied. 

Want to read more about the pay-to-play scam that companies like Afton run in the music industry? Check out the incredibly informative

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