Where does pay-to-play come from?
Though the capitalistic concept of pay-to-play is itself old, the phrase pay-to-play emerged in the 1920s, with one early use referring to a pay-to-play card game for a Catholic association.
A prominent use of pay-to-play occurred in the music industry in the 1980s, when some venue owners in Los Angeles began charging new and fledgling artists a pay-to-play fee if the artists wished to use their facilities. This model has received much criticism, and been referred to as a “scene killer.”
In 1992, the idea of a “pay-to-play plan” for schools was first discussed as a way to address diminishing revenue. It consisted of forcing students to purchase “activity tickets,” that is, pay a fee, if they wanted to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities. This approach had reportedly led to a decrease in student participation, but due to continuing funding concerns, there has been some speculation that it could become a fixture of school sports in the future.
By the late 1980s and 1990s, the phrase pay-to-play became increasingly identified with US politics, specifically referring to the practice of companies or industries giving contributions and gifts to candidates in exchange for political favors, influence on policy, tax breaks, and so on. It’s been argued that this practice amounts to “buying out” a candidate, and has been criticized by politicians such as Bernie Sanders, who argue that it had led to politics being controlled by “billionaires and special interests.”
However, politicians, pundits, and news stations on both sides of the aisle have criticized what they perceive as pay-to-play scenarios in the opposing party.
Who uses pay-to-play?
The phrase pay-to-play is used in a wide variety of different practices, from standup comedy to video games, and specific definitions may vary depending on the industry. However, the defining attribute of any form of a pay-to-play situation is the notion that one must pay to “get in the game,” whether that game is politics, sports, engineering, etc.
Though it depends on the industry, the phrase pay-to-play usually carries the connotation of shady, underhanded, or illegal dealing, particularly when it comes to politics and finance.
On the other hand, pay-to-play gaming—also called P2P and not to be confused with peer-to-peer gaming or computing—is very popular. This version of pay-to-play refers to online games, sometimes embedded within social networking sites, which require payment in order to be played.
In addition to its use as modifying phrase, pay to play is also often used a straightforward verb phrase, e.g., You have to pay to play.
“Im talking an average artist that doesn't know any better. Im sure theyre the ones keeping pay to play and post alive and healthy.”
@JosephAParker Twitter (May 15, 2017)
“Good lord. Trumps do Literal Pay-to-Play. This is grounds for immediate dismissal fm government.”
@MalcolmNance Twitter (May 21, 2017)
“If search marketing is important to you — and it should be — you’ve got to be willing to pay to play.”
Carlton R. Smith, “How to Pay to Play If You Want to Win Local Search Results,” Forbes (May 12, 2017)