Don’t pay to play! 8 music venues you can book for free

by -
The Way Station is one of the city’s best free venues to book and has room for your giant stand up bass. via Flickr user The All-Nite Images

Imagine that you’re a musician in New York City, home of 8,000 bands trying to play the same venues, and someone approaches YOU on the Internet, saying they like YOUR music and want YOU to play a show. How cool is that?! Pretty cool. But you look again at the email. It’s actually a booking company that expects you to sell a certain amount of tickets. They are unclear about what will happen if you don’t sell enough tickets, but they ask that you sign an “e-contract” stating that you WILL sell tickets AND YOU’LL LIKE IT!

There are some venues in New York City that host what are known as pay-to-play gigs: a venue will say to an artist, “you can play here, but only if you agree to sell X number of tickets. Plus, you’ll be on the hook for whatever money you don’t make if you DON’T sell X number of tickets.” But there is an alternative. There are tons of places in the city where you can play a show for free. We’ve put together a list of NYC’s best venues for local musicians that won’t make you pay just to get on the stage, along with some tips on booking a show.

683 Washington Ave (between Prospect Place and St. Marks Avenue), Crown Heights

Slightly smaller and nerdier is The Way Station, which happens to be a Doctor Who-themed bar with regular live music (the music does not have to be about Doctor Who, though I’m sure if you have a love song about the T.A.R.D.I.S that would be a major selling point). They book directly through email, and rather than selling tickets, they pass a tip jar around. Booker James Coyle says that the Way Station is vehemently opposed to pay-to-play shows, because “it’s hard enough for musicians in this city.”

Contact: [email protected]


152 Ludlow St (at Stanton), Lower East Side

Cake Shop is one of New York City’s longest running venues, known for breaking bands like MGMT, Vampire weekend and the Dirty Projectors. Owners (and brothers) Nick and Andy Bodor always book directly, and they take great pride in crafting bills with bands that compliment each other. CakeShop books through email (instructions below), as well as by following blogs like Oh My Rockness and Brooklyn Vegan to discover new bands. CakeShop does charge audience members for tickets, but there is no set number that bands have to sell. The tickets are sold so that the venue can pay the door person and the sound person, and whatever is left after that is given to the bands.

Contact: [email protected]


via Flickr user Chris Sikich
via Flickr user Chris Sikich

249 Fourth Ave. (between President and Carroll), Park Slope

Brooklyn’s Rock Shop is almost two bars in one, with a sports bar upstairs and a music venue downstairs. You’re obviously interested in the music venue, which is mid-sized and has a similar policy to Cake Shop, in that they book directly through email, they do charge audience members for tickets, but there’s no set number that bands are expected to sell. Bands get to keep 85-100 percent of the profit from their ticket sales after the club pays their sound guy.

Contact: [email protected]



via Facebook
via Facebook

709 Lorimer St (between Frost and Richardson), Williamsburg

Pete’s Candy Store does all free shows, all the time.  Rather than selling tickets, they pass a hat around to collect tips for performers.  Jake, who has been booking at Pete’s for the past decade, says that he prefers to keep the Brooklyn music scene alive by booking local acts. If you want to play here, reach out! Just be sure to promote your own show — Jake says the best way is to simply tell all your friends about it.

Want to play Pete’s, but aren’t ready for a full gig yet? Come by on a Sunday afternoon and brush up on your chops at one of the city’s longest running open mics.

Contact: [email protected], [email protected]


via Facebook
via Facebook

12 Grattan St (at Bogart), Bushwick

Pine box does free shows as well, but with a twist. To make a little extra scratch, bands can pass a hat around or bring their own door person charge at the door. While the latter is mostly if a promoter wants to put together a full night of music, it’s always nice to have options. Pine Box is also home to fun things like trivia nights, a Wednesday comedy open mic, and a vegan shop-up, which sounds exciting [note from your vegan editor: it is indeed awesome].

Contact: [email protected]


via Muchmore's
via Muchmore’s

2 Havemeyer St. (between N 8th and N 9th), Williamsburg

As long as you can bring a crowd, Muchmore’s  offers a free space to showcase your work. During the week (Sunday – Thursday), they focus on giving the floor to newer acts. They don’t sell tickets, but if you organize an evening of music there, you can choose to set an admission price (and you get to keep all of it!)

During the weekend it’s a little different: They focus on more established bands and bookers. While you still get to set the cover, the club will keep the first $125 to pay the sound/door person. Which makes sense, because the sound person’s gotta eat too. Plus, major bonus of playing at Muchmore’s: bring your skivvies to wash in their small, coin operated laundry.

ContactUse the form here


Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk, via Facebook
Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk, via Facebook

496 Morgan Ave. (at Beadel), Bushwick

Having just celebrated its first birthday, Aviv is quickly establishing itself as one of the best indie venues in Brooklyn. They both reach out to bands directly and respond to emails, but booker Stuart says that you’re more likely to get a response to a cold email if you have a full line up or a solid headliner in place. That said, bands are not required to sell tickets, ever. EVER.

Contact: [email protected]


via Facebook
via Facebook

6 Wyckoff Ave (between Jefferson and Troutman), Bushwick

Brooklyn’s premiere rock club/yoga studio/coffee shop/performance space is host to a bevy of rock n roll genres like punk, noise, goth, country, and more. They love getting emails, but will also reach out to bands directly, especially if they need to fill a specific bill. Major benefits of playing Cobra Club include the full menu of specialty cocktails named after Misfits songs. They don’t require bands to sell a certain number of tickets either.

Contact: Email Tracy at [email protected]

How should you approach these venues? Here are some emailing tips: 

1. Keep it short and sweet. Bookers won’t read your novel.

2. Always include a short bio and a link to quality recordings of your music; if you can, also include some places you’ve played before. If you don’t already have a Bandcamp, SoundCloud or ReverbNation site, make one and include the link. Having one of these is one way venues will find out about you and book you directly. 

3. If you have a video, definitely include that. Videos are fun. Just make sure it’s actually of your music and not, you know, your cat.

4. Mention if you think it’ll be a well attended show, that will inform the booker for when to book you.

5. These venues don’t require a certain number of tickets to be sold, but they do expect you to promote your gigs. Social media seems to be the best way, as well as simple word of mouth, but it’s also a good idea to use platforms like Bandcamp or Bandsintown to promote your music.

You don’t have to pay to follow Lilly either: @LillyVanek.

Related Articles


Shop til you drop, bike to the lights, cackle at comedy, be at Basel, know your memes, break in the dance floor, and more ways to have a fantastic weekend.


This article was originally published in January, 2015. The class is still running at The Cobra Club once to twice a week.I find that...


Cutty Sark is curating a Bushwick music series this November and December. {sponsored}


The Bushwick Community Plan will be discussing the 'potential of historic districts' in the area to help preserve some of the nabe's unprotected gems.


  1. re The Rock Shop and Cake Shop …. “i… they do charge for tickets, but there’s no set number that bands are expected to sell.”

    so you still have to sell tickets. just because there’s no set amount of tickets to sell, you still have to sell tickets. that’s still paying to play. and what do you mean by they “charge for tickets?” charge WHO for tickets? does that mean bands buy tickets outright and sell what they can? this is confusing.

    also, you don’t really explain Cobra Club’s ticket/admission policies.

  2. Please give me a couple of venues in New York City and or in Brooklyn that makes bands pay to play. Personally, I can’t name one.

    • Blackthorn 51 in queens – My band has been forced to pay out of pocket a number of times for failing to meet their ticket quota. This has also happened to MANY other bands that I speak to the members of.

    • Tobacco Road in Times Square
      Blackthorn 51 in Queens
      Black Bear Bar in Brooklyn
      Bushwick Public House in Brooklyn

      Just to name a few.

  3. No disrespect to any of these, but as a venue where you don’t need to pay and that has *THE* longest-running and largest free open mike in the city, Sidewalk should be on this list.

  4. Hello my name is Duane Smith and I’m a Vice President of an up and coming in the rise I might add Independent Record Label SideBlock Generalz Entertainment/ New Rap Order Music Group (NROMG)… I’m an artist as well and we are very interested in what we checked out in ur website u have please if u have any other listings email them to me when u can we would like to set a appointment to talk to you possible perform our musical talent….looking forward into hearing from you thank you for your time reading this request

Leave a Reply