Venue Operator and Musician: A Good Relationship Depends on Both of You
Venue operators and musicians have historically been at odds. It seems we have a love/hate relationship and each, at times, wants to bite the hand that feeds us. It's understood that we locals are not exactly in a 'Music Capital' or anywhere near it, so of course these issues are meant to cover local music and the venues that host it. After conducting interviews over the last year online, in person and over the phone, I have come to a basic understanding of what the rift is between musicians and venues.
Musicians accuse venues of exploitation and venues view musicians' monetary demands as beyond what the market will bear. A spiral forms in which nobody makes any money, nobody does successfully what they enjoy and The Great Wall of Apathy builds up. The problems are real. The solutions are right in front of us. The following conglomeration of these issues is a combination of comments gleaned from several sources of wide ranging genres, styles and atmospheres and from both musicians and venue operators.
MUSICIAN: If it weren't for us being musicians club owners would have nothing going on to sell their beer and liquor.
VENUE: You are an act that's trying to promote yourself and your music. We are your outlets to do so. If it wasn't you we'd have darts or a DJ or something else.
MUSICIAN: We should get paid what we think we're worth. Everybody wants us to play for door only. No guarantees.
VENUE: If you are any good and have a following and aren't over exposed, you should do well at the door and better than we can take a chance on paying you in cash due to our lights needing to glow. We have seen bands come in that cleared lots of green at the door. They worked hard for their show. They made money; we made money. Therefore the door stays open for another paycheck down the road. In addition to you, we also have staff that needs to be paid, stock that needs to be bought and other bills to pay. Each night needs to pay for itself and then some, if we intend to survive and expand salaries for our staff. You need a much smaller budget to maintain your business than we need to maintain ours.
MUSICIAN: After a successful first show that brought many people, you still want to pay us the same money when we come back. We deserve a raise.
VENUE: We have to work hard to sell our product. It should be no different with your music. If you aren't going to make us money, we sure as heck aren't going to pay it out. Once you have proven yourself as a worthy draw, we are willing to negotiate guarantees based on your previous shows. You have the right to negotiate your return shows as well. If you don't want the money we offer, don't book the gig. If you do book the gig, it's in your best interest to promote us as well.'
MUSICIAN: Venues seem to have their favorite bands revolving over and over again. They don't give new acts a chance to prove we are just as good as they are.
VENUE: Well do you experiment with a whole lot of expensive equipment when you already have something that sounds great? Be willing to show us what you can do as an opening act without demanding a full gig and top pay, so we can determine your worth to us. Our decisions are based on what you can do for us. Your decisions should be based on what we can do for you.'
MUSICIAN: Many venues don't help promote their entertainment effectively enough through advertising. They leave it all up to the bands. You should work with us better and more thoroughly.
VENUE: Stop depending on just the people that walk by our doors to see the gig poster we put up. Often we post our entertainment lineup, never seeing what any marketing efforts by the bands. You want people to come see your act. Let them know you are around.
The performers that sell themselves the best make the best money. They don't accept anything less than what they deserve. Face it, if you are posting flyers up everywhere and no one comes to your gigs, maybe you need to consider revamping or even disposing of your current act and study your market a little more. We aren't talking about your faithful friends. Even they get tired of listening to the same stuff over and over. We're talking new fans, people that aren't planted to support you, but do so because you are a really good band. The venues genuinely like good bands and the money they bring in. So, most of them will try and keep them within reasonable prices according to their ability to bring in the money. The bottom line is if they want you, they will pay for you, provided you are worth the price -- even if they have to collect cover charges to help offset the cost. There are many venues that, regardless of how good you are or how many people you bring, cannot sell the product they need to make the money to pay high fees due to occupancy restrictions. Likewise, most restaurant and full-service bar combinations are going to make more money than most a full-service bars, which will make more money than most 'beer only' bars, which will make more money than most java shops.
Income can depend on the venue and how important music is in its budget. Just because a restaurant venue has live music every night doesn't mean the music pulls in the crowd. So, on the books, music might be the first expense to go during a budget crunch. This expediency unfortunately affects everyone everywhere right now due to the sorry shape of the economy. Many venues have had to scale back pay just to keep booking live music rather than shutting music out completely.
I've got an issue with musicians that have an attitude about their colleagues who will play for less money, accusing them as traitors and making it rough for the 'higher priced' musicians to find work. Be fair guys. Not everyone who is a musician wants or needs to make a living doing it and the hobbyists have just as much right to play as you do. If you demand a certain pay level, join a union which will protect that right for you. But don't expect your venue choices to increase as a result of that move. And you better make sure you have the clout in the industry to support that decision. Unorganized workers in any industry do not have, nor will they ever achieve, the collective benefits that organizations do. High priced musicians that slam a venue's budget with little or no return on investment mess things up for everybody.
The venue either closes down or stops booking live music altogether.
Check your egos. You aren't worth a bunch of money because you've been playing for X number of years. You are worth it because you make money for your venue operator. [Insert favorite artist] doesn't sell out a venue because he's been writing songs on the wall with crayons since the age of two. He sells out a venue because he promotes his music and sells tickets.
Many artists leave town, driving miles and miles to play in a venue for the same money or less, just to feel like touring artists, all the while blatantly criticizing their own community of venue operators for being slack and greedy.
A band will book themselves at a venue close by a week before their big gig and expect their crowd to want to see them the next weekend, too. I wouldn't go see Elvis or anyone else two weekends in a row. Seems the motivation to 'pack the house' for many bands doesn't extend past their first time in. To be fair with your demand for an increase, give a venue a chance to see what you can do past the first time in. Are you playing to a crowd that would be there anyway? Or are you bringing your own following? If the first is the case, they are going to naturally try and get some one less expensive. It's the difference between Suave and Pantene, but both still clean your hair. The majority of venues is not out to rip musicians off. The venues are out to survive as businesses, and you can't blame them.
Then we have that select group of musicians that refuses to play if it doesn't get paid, so those musicians sit home, still broke and lose out on the opportunities for building a fan base that will afford them the right to demand more money, wailing,” To hell with them! They ain't getting us for that bullshit money!"
Hello? Anybody home?
Venues should be motivated to support and be fair to their local musicians if they choose to host live entertainment. Here are some suggestions to bring that effort to the forefront and to make it more productive:
*Constantly reassess the performance of bands and acts you have on your schedules. Don't make everyone pay for the bad bands you book.
*If you are making the money, share it with the performers making it for you. Don't keep booking a great crowd-packing band at the same pay, expecting them to pay for your entertainment all week, unless it's a personal thing they enjoy doing and a mutual effort is underway for you to support each other.
*If you are guilty of exploiting live entertainment, stop it. If you are a low paying venue, go after the artists you can afford that work for you and your customers. Be fair if the performers have a much better night than planned and give them a boost in the pocket if they've gone above and beyond. Regardless of whether they leave with the money agreed or not without complaining, they'd love to know you cared and saw the difference they made in your register that night. Offer a reasonable tab to help offset the low fee and always offer free non-alcoholic drinks if nothing else. Maybe slap a meal on the agreement if you can.
*If your sound man is already paid staff don't dock the musicians another $100.00 off an already low fee. Agree on the cash to be paid and include a sound cost before you even offer a figure. Musicians want the bottom line. Also make sure the sound staff is qualified and not just a bartender filling in. A musician would rather provide his or her own sound crew and pay them out of pocket than sound like bad AM radio, especially if he or she is paying for it.
*Don't pay your buddy's band more than you are paying someone else that brings the same or more of a crowd.
*Maintain your schedules accurately. Nothing irks a musician more than showing up to see another act setting up for the night because you 'made a mistake' in the calendar. Musicians have counted on that money for bills since the booking was made. And in the blink of an eye, they are expected to either share it or work out a performance arrangement including only one artist's performance. If that happens, do something to make it up to them. Don't take the 'oh well' attitude and treat them as expendable. When passing on booking responsibilities, don't change the schedule just because the new booking manager doesn't like the band the previous one hired. If schedules must be changed, do so in enough time to allow the musicians to fill the night with another gig.
*If you agree to pay a band a certain fee, pay them at least that fee. Do not attempt to lower the salary at the end of the night because the night didn't go as well as you intended. Advertise effectively. Do not expect your musicians to bring your entire crowd. You need to be doing your part, too. Help the bands as much as you want them to help your venue.
As a Musician:
If you are working hard, drawing a crowd, being paid well, then you don't even have these issues and are probably just reading this article out of sheer curiosity. But, many musicians spend years honing their skills and continue to allow them to be exploited because they love to play music. Don't allow it.
Respect your ability to challenge the market and succeed by demanding the pay you want and refusing to play without it if the money really means that much to you. There is more to music than money can ever bring. So, in making the decision to survive in the business, treat it as a business and at the same time be prepared to protect it professionally. If you are marketable, the work will speak for itself. If you need help and want it, seek the mentors and resources needed to help you make good decisions about your business.
There are some venues out there you want to avoid and they have reputations that will alarm you. But don't allow yourself to become jaded in all of them. If you get burned once, don't go back. If you work for door and prefer not to deal with the venue's door person, bring your own. If you are working 100% of the door, they may need their own staff there to check ID's, but the venue has no reason to handle your money. If you are working for a percentage, definitely have a door person that's working a counter. If you have a guarantee against the door, you still want to use a counter. If you are working for guarantee only, you don't need anyone at the door unless you simply want a head count for future bargaining power.
There are things that musicians can do to work together positively and provide support for each other. Here are some suggestions for a well rounded approach to dealing with your community of venue operators and peers:
*Always remain on positive, professional ground with venue operators even when your answer is, "No, we'll pass." Yesterday's booking guy may be tomorrow's venue owner with a huge budget or he may just know someone with whom he'd like to hook you up later. Make a solid effort at improving or developing good public relations skills. Never underestimate your fans and don't be rude and unapproachable. How do you think band news travels? The very people you “don’t have time for” today, can be your way up the ladder tomorrow.
*Don't bad mouth venues or peers. Be the good guy. Gossip is a never ending circle of morale decay. And it seriously makes the 'mouth' look bad in the grand scheme of things. Behavior speaks for itself in all instances. Good news travels just as fast as bad news, but only in the good news circles that matter. Remember that venue owners and booking managers talk to those from other venues with the same passion and frequency you talk to other musicians. Of course, you want to enquire about a venue's pay policies, etc., when you know someone that's played there, but be fair when seeking or disclosing information. Don't bash a venue for not paying you all your money when, in fact, you showed up late and started an hour later than agreed upon. If you have issues with another member of the music community, take it up with them and at least attempt to heal the riff. But by no means should you make it your business to try and see them fail by jabbing at their back. What goes around comes around.
*Show up on time and do your job the best you can. Don't be lazy about your promotions and show the venue you care about the gig.
*Recruit your friends to help make and post flyers, maintain your web sites if you have one, email lists and if you need help with promotional ideas, seek those resources that are there for you. Trade links with other bands and support networks online. I have personally reaped the benefits of online exposure, so I know it works. Make email sign-up forms, gig cards, business cards and website info a regular part of your equipment. Create a monthly one page news sheet if you don’t have computer access, or even if you do and use it to brag on your achievements, upcoming projects etc, and print them off and lay them on your gig table. There’s not a lot of work in that and it does bring results.
*Hold regular band meetings and assign one or two promotional tasks per band member so that no one person is responsible for everything. If you are a solo act, enlist your support network for help. If you find yourself stuck in situations where your bands ego is more important than the music you are playing together, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. Sometimes you have to clean house to see a brighter ceiling. Nothing positive develops with a constant battle of wills and no one person has to be wrong. It’s the mix that sours more often than not and when that happens, the whole concoction tastes bad. With a focused effort and tackling problems before they start, things can work out better for everyone involved. Having a firm set of standards regarding the people with whom you can productively deal is a self actualization issue that will grow in importance in the long run. Wasting time with time wasters is never a good thing to do. Avoid the members of any community that just ooze a bad vibe and negativity. If you can’t influence them, don’t be influenced by them. Nothing can change with the insistence that it won’t change always being the front guy.
*Appeal to your proper venue and market. Avoid taking gigs just for the sake of the money if it's not your type of place. What's the point in the long run?
*Avoid placing a 'beer value' on your performance. You are treated as you present yourself. If you want to book your gigs with that type of bartering, then don't expect good paying venues to take you seriously when they know you play for free beer down the street.
*Keep your salary arrangements private, just as you would any other job, and be satisfied with the pay before you accept it. Contracts are a personal decision, but never hesitate to book a gig in writing if you don't know the venue's habits and always have a copy of the signed contract with you at the gig.
*When seeking reviews in local or even online publications, be sure to take this on with an organized approach. Send a nice package including Bio, CD, and Photograph’s. A Review writer in many ways is just like venue. They need interesting and thorough subject matter to pique their interest enough to write about you. If the information they seek is not there, they will move on to an easier subject. Include your contact information in case they want to know more.
*It’s always good to make friends with the right people, in the right places. Nothing say’s you can’t or shouldn’t go out of your way to support your community as a whole. And I’m not talking about playing a free gig or two. Go beyond that and get involved in your community as a key team player. When you do that, good things happen. By helping to promote others, you aren’t taking attention off yourself. You are increasing it. Why? Because everyone wants to be recognized for their input, value and place in the community so, why not makes yours positive and a little more selfless. In general, it means a great deal to a musician to be appreciated by another musician. Go out and support each other. Let’s start a new local fad and call it…. “Musicians helping Musicians…..all year long.” Don't just promote your next appearances. Promote other bands playing the same venue you are within the week coming up so they'll do the same for you next time around. It's never good politics to promote other venues on the microphone, so stick with when you'll be back at the venue you are in and encourage people to pick up a gig card for other appearance locations.
*Don't forget those Bartenders and Waiters on the microphone at least once a set and be respectful and friendly to all the staff at the venue. You never know where they will be pouring or serving drinks a month from now or how close they will be to their new boss. Make it a practice to clean up your stage before leaving of trash and bottles. Replace tables you had to move and leave it like you found it. Believe me, the staff appreciates it and it shows you are a considerate act. Be good to the waiters that keep you supplied with beverages all night on stage. Nothing indicates that you shouldn't tip them just because you're the entertainment.
*Join online news groups, organizations, discussion forums and network with other music communities. You’d be surprised at what some good, focused networking can do.
*When playing in another town, always pull in a local to open for you. When playing locally, pull in an out of town band to open for you if the venue allows it. That’s one of many ways to work your way into another city…by supporting the musicians that are living there. And above all remember, that being a smart person in business and being the kind of person that remains flexible and willing to help is not "kissing ass." It's just good public relations and good business. Sometimes, just simply staying out of the way and quiet works if you want nothing to do with changing things for the better. It's to be expected that change is not embraced by everyone for their own reasons. But who says those people have to have the final word? I'll tell you who.....nobody but you, and that can change. When colleagues that are on the wayward, unproductive road to failure decide to come around, be glad for them and be there to support the change they are now willing to make. After all, isn't that we want? Don't hold grudges when the issues are resolved. And I believe that it's never too late to start over.
*If you have problems along the way, learn to deal with people professionally. So many things get misconstrued and misquoted when you take part in the “beginning and end of the line” style communication. If you can’t seem to get through to any particular member of the community, leave them alone and focus on what your goals are.
Only you can stop yourself from succeeding. I challenge all of us involved, and encourage those who aren't, to making that effort towards a better and more productive team work attitude and approach to dealing with this business of music. As musicians, publications and venue operators, we're all in this economy together and together, we will survive or succumb. It will make it easier and more productive if we hold true the fact that…
“Supporting one another adds strength to courage and breathes life into motivation.” -Annette War