Passing the hat because the van has a flat, crashing on couches, making enough money with merchandise to break even — these clichés, fit for any Bob Seger song, fall into a broader category of what musicians and other artists consider “paying their dues.” There is one element that is often overlooked when people book gigs, and that is the notion of “pay-to-play” or “advance ticket sales” for musicians and “juried exhibitions” for fine artists where, in order to gain some exposure, money changes hands between artists and promoters before the event. For a long time, the notion of “pay-to-play” had a slightly sleazy ring to it, mainly due to dubious outcomes for emerging artists despite profits for promoters and venues. RAW Ventura looks to change this model by fostering bands, fine artists and other talent through a highly organized network of interns and local directors with this year’s first RAW season, culminating in the RAWards semifinals.

The idea for RAW began in 2005 in Los Angeles when Heidi Luerra put together a multimedia showcase that drew more than 750 people, bringing exposure to new artists in a variety of fields. In 2009, collaborating with web developer Matthew Klahorst, Luerra found the opportunity to promote and market her growing stable of talent online, generating interest for individual artists and promoting RAW as a brand. From there, RAW took shape in Los Angeles and surrounding cities, slightly defying curating “rules” by combining traditional arts such as film, fine art and photography with cosmetic design, fashion and accessory design, as well as performing art. RAW, also known as RAW: Natural Born Artists, came to Ventura in April, spearheaded by Newbury Park native and RAW Ventura Showcase Director Sara Vausbinder.

“When I was a kid, Ventura was always the big city where my parents would allow me to drive, so I found it fitting that this could be a great place for RAW, as I feel such a great sense of community in Ventura County,” says Vausbinder. Indeed, there is no shortage of artistic acumen in Ventura County, but not everyone immediately finds a place to showcase his or her given talent. This is where RAW fills a particular niche and where the idea of advance ticket sales comes into play.

Participating in a RAW event requires a $200 payment, and while that might run anathema to Ventura’s “vibe,” the payment is usually covered by advance ticket sales ($10-$15) and the artists do experience a tangible return on their investment, mainly in the forms of web exposure, promotion and a team of supportive staffers. As Vausbinder notes, “What I’m hoping to accomplish with RAW in Ventura County is offer artists of all kinds a chance to be seen and heard where they might not otherwise have the opportunity. We’re hoping to make the art and artists of Ventura and its surrounding cities more accessible to a larger audience. Ventura has such a budding artistic community, and we’re hoping to not only bring the artists to light, but also give the overall arts community in Ventura attention on a national level through our unique platform.”

With an average of 20 artists per gig fronting $200, plus a slightly elevated cover charge for patrons, it is easy to write off the RAW franchise as a profitable marketing gimmick, capitalizing on young artists’ desire for industry exposure. Many of the artists, however, find that the perks associated with the organization and structure of RAW far outweigh the initial monetary cost.

Kapeesh Hayes, a hip-hop/spoken word artist, understands RAW’s business model and appreciates the amount of time and effort RAW staffers allot to his performances. “The folks at RAW really put themselves out there to promote for you and communicate with you. They did the Facebook page, they made the event flier, they took the event photos, they took event footage, leaving me with more time to focus on my set and its shenanigans,” he says. “Pay-to-play is pay-to-play, I don’t care how much glitter you put on it, but RAW [takes] an organized, fair, yet left-field approach to local events, and the outcome was an opportunity to perform for people who might not have ever been be exposed to my work.”

Marc Timmons, member of RAWards semifinalist Cirque Noir, agrees and adds, “As a musician, I’ve seen a substantial increase in the web traffic and fan turnouts to show since the last show we did for RAW in July . . . With merch sales, everything works out.”

Artist Jon Blackburn says that while he feels the participation fee is a bit high, he hopes that with time RAW will find a way to lower it. “Showcasing with RAW Ventura has been extremely beneficial in propelling my art form and its visibility tenfold,” he said. Blackburn explained that once ticket sales are satisfied, participating artists receive an unlimited guest list which increases turnout, and benefits everyone including the venue and the artists. He also said that the “once a RAW artist, forever a RAW artist” policy is a real bonus, allowing artists to showcase in any other state/city one time free without ticket sales and with an unlimited guest list. Not only have sales of Blackburn’s work increased since his involvement with RAW, but he’s also been picked up by several galleries. “That in itself is worth its weight in gold.”

While RAW seems to be hitting its stride in Ventura, it is not without some opposition. Christina Diaz, who formed the Pistol Artist Collective/Pistol Productions, which produces regular group shows in Ventura and hosts a monthly artists happy hour at The Tavern, does not believe an artist needs to pay for exposure or that awards for art are necessary, especially given Ventura’s rich history of being a “hidden art haven.”

 “Pistol Productions has been around since 2009 and is stronger than ever, and it is straight-up D.I.Y. grass roots from the love of this local community,” says Diaz. “I’ve never charged a cover for an art show and never will. I have never taken a percentage and never will.”

The upcoming RAWards were culled by online voting and then narrowed down to a group of five by Vausbinder. On Nov. 16, that group will be voted upon by both an audience tally (with stickers) and a group of judges she handpicked. They are David J. Holman, music producer; Holly Hughes, makeup artist instructor at Lu Ross Academy; and Dr. Gwendolyn Huddleston, dean of art at Ventura College. With winners in place, the competition moves to a national level (RAW has more than 65 locations nationwide, according to its website), and the winners will be announced in January at the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles. 

RAWards semifinals will take place Friday, Nov. 16, at Bombay. Advance tickets are $15 and can be purchased at