There are plenty of honest concert promoters out there who aren't looking to hustle anyone, but when you're an up-and-coming musician, you also definitely run the risk of meeting a few bad apples. What are you supposed to do when you honor your end of the bargain and deliver a great show, but the concert promoter won't pay you for your work? You probably feel like throwing something, but the first thing you need to do is take a deep breath and remain calm. Better? OK. Now here are your next steps (or your manager's next steps) in getting paid for your show:
Check Your Contract
Let me guess - you don't have one. I get it. TONS of smaller indie shows work this way. It's not a great way to do business for this very reason, but you're hardly the first musician to find themselves at a smallish show with nothing in writing. But let's just pretend for a minute that you DO have one. If so (and after you make sure you're not the only one who signed it), kindly show the concert promoter the section of the contract that addresses compensation. Hey, promoters put on a lot of gigs. They could have forgotten about the arrangements they made with you, and your friendly reminder might do the trick. Probably not, but it's essential to start here.
Don't have a contract? Comb back through your email conversations. Hints or outright commitments may be found there. And here's another tip - it's a good idea to do things like booking shows by email, precisely for this reason. If you book by phone, send a confirmation email with all the details and make sure you get a written reply. Phone conversations are all well and good for the personal touch, but I believe Judge Judy yells at you if you try to reference them in court.
Make Sure You're Not Missing Something
Unless you have a straight guarantee, chances are that your pay for the show comes with a lot of strings attached. Did you jump through the hoops you were supposed to hit? In other words, did enough people pay in, did the concert promoter break even, did you forget that you accepted hotel accommodation and pizza in exchange for your fee? This is when you find out if you're dealing with a reasonable person or not. If the promoter can tell you why you're not being paid, and it rings a bell, then oops, time to move on.
There are other reasons that may not have been pre-negotiated that could cause you to lose your pay. Let's say your bass player had a "moment" and destroyed some of the venue's expensive equipment. That might come out of your cash. Maybe you were hired to play for an hour and you only managed 20 minutes. Remember, you were hired to do a job in exchange for that money, so do a quick mental check of your work to make sure there is no wiggle room on the payment issue.
Consult Your Team
Did a manager or booking agent schedule the show for you? If they're not around and haven't been consulted, do it now. They may have had a discussion about paying you that they forgot to relay. They may also have existing business relationships with this concert promoter that the promoter doesn't want to compromise, so a quiet word from them may do the trick. This is also another opportunity to make sure you understand the deal correctly and are asking for money that is your due.
And What to Do When a Concert Promoter Absolutely Owes You Money and Is Just Refusing to Give It To You
Well, one unreasonable, immoral person in a situation is enough. Despite how annoyed you may be, you've got to be the levelheaded one here. So, they just won't give you the money, and no amount of arguing is changing their mind. You're getting played, and that's that. No fisticuffs - you probably still won't get your money, you may get arrested - it's a mess. Instead, you have two options: if you have a contract or email proof that you have an agreement that isn't being honored, you could sue. If you're in this situation alone, chances are that you're looking at small claims court type of money, which means you don't even need a lawyer (if we're talking large sums of money, oh yeah, you need a lawyer). You just have to be sure the time investment is worth it to you. If it's less than $100, the time and money spent filing may make court a losing proposition. If it's a few hundred or thousand, sure, you can try to get it in court.
Your other choice is to take it on the chin as a lesson and move on. Maybe the lesson is to get a contract for all your shows or simply that the music industry has its fair share of bad characters. Try to take stock of whether your ego or you wallet is hurt the most. If it's mostly ego, that's absolutely understandable, but your best revenge might just be becoming a big live draw and never giving this promoter another bite of the apple. That may be better than devoting six months of your life to collecting $15.
Do you need more help with live shows? Be sure to check out Playing Live 101.