Playing for Free/Playing for “The Door”

The bands have been letting the clubs get away with this for several years and now it’s become the norm.  It boils down to this: if a club wants to be the place where everyone goes to watch the big games, they invest in Big Screen TVs if a club wants to be known for entertainment, then they need to invest in entertainment.

As bands, we need to convince them of the investment they are making by hiring good bands instead of going on the cheap and taking anyone who will play for free. If a club consistently books ONLY good bands then they will have a regular clientele and not have to rely on the bands to bring the people in.

A lot of clubs don’t have a regular clientele because you never know what you will get when you go there. Could be a good band, could suck – but you’ve already paid your $5 to get in the door. If you are going out and 4 of you have to pay a $5 cover, you are going to go where you are sure the band will be good. When you think “where should we go?” you think of the place where there is always good entertainment – not the place where you went and the band sucked and you were out the cover charge.

Building a Brand

A club that consistently books ONLY good music has a regular clientele and is busy every weekend. Doesn’t even matter the genre. It becomes a destination. Burt’s Tiki Lounge, Gracie’s, Brewski’s, The Green Pig, Club 90, Canyon Inn, Hog Wallow, Piper Down, and Pat’s BBQ all come to mind. Liquid Joes on the weekends too.

All those clubs actually pay the bands decently. They want quality entertainment and realize it’s a cost of doing business. If you cheap out on it, then people won’t think of you when they want to be entertained. If you don’t have some other reason for them to seek you out like great food or fun games or big screens or whatever, then why will anyone want to come there? Why would they think of YOUR club for a guaranteed good time?

Not sure how you teach business 101 to the club owners/managers without coming off like you are trying to tell them how to run their business. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the problem. Many of them are just bartenders or musicians who decided to open their own club. They haven’t been to business school or managed a business previously. They don’t know principles of advertising and marketing. Attraction and retention, etc.

The clubs that have professional hospitality industry managers and owners who have attended business school pay well for entertainment because they want to be known for having quality entertainment. They want to be a destination. And, because of that, they are packed and take in more than enough at the door to cover the guarantee for the band every weekend.

Original Music Doesn’t Pay?

And that’s not just cover clubs. The Zephyr and Dead Goat rarely ever had cover bands and they were highly successful. Burt’s Tiki Lounge, Hog Wallow, and Piper Down still have mostly original bands and yet they manage to be busy every night and make enough to pay the bands decently.   Other clubs are a hybrid of original and covers like Liquid Joes – but they manage to fill the room too.

Putting it off as “original acts can’t expect to get paid” is a cop out. Is YOUR music worth paying for or not?  If you can’t definitively say yes, you have no business asking a club to book you – yet.  They aren’t in business for you to practice – get better on your own. If the answer is yes, then don’t let the clubs take advantage of you. Have some self-worth. Stand your ground. They will continue to treat you like shit as long as you allow them to.

There’s an old saying “You teach people how to treat you.” If you don’t even value yourself why the hell would they value you?  It’s all in the negotiation and whether you will stand your ground.

And the clubs that don’t invest in entertainment don’t stay in business long, so who cares about them anyway? They rarely make it past the 18 month mark before there’s new ownership or new management or whatever. The clubs with longevity – that are in it for the long haul as an entertainment venue invest in entertainment. Think about it how many clubs have come and gone in the last 10 years? Think about whether they invested in their core business and worked on building a brand? Then think about the clubs that have been around forever and what’s different about them? The ones that went out of business were hit and miss on the entertainment side of things.

The few good clubs that have gone out of business like the Zephyr, Port O Call and the Dead Goat had great attendance right up until the end. They didn’t go out of business for lack of clientele, there were outside forces like a disappearing building, loss of a lease, etc. They were successful because they built a brand. You knew that if you went there the band would be good no matter what genre, covers or originals, whatever – it would be entertaining musically.

The clubs that go out of business simply don’t have the clientele to support themselves and it’s their own fault because they have a lousy business model, but they prefer to blame the bands. Seems like a pretty dumb move to put the entire fate of your business in the hands of someone else.

Goes something like this: “Can this band bring in enough people for me to cover my nut tonight? I wonder if my limited clientele want to listen to them for 2 hours? I’ve never heard them live or bothered to listen to their demo CD – but they’ll play for FREE! Gee, guess I’ll roll the dice and find out! Oh, darn I lost $500 tonight because they sucked so badly -  some of my regulars actually left and only 10 of their friends showed up! And I lost $500 last night too!” Pretty soon they are out of business.

Since we already know those clubs won’t make it for the long haul, why would you even want to play there? Why would you want to jump on a horse that is falling behind? Why would you want to play to a room with only 25 of your friends and no one else? You might as well stay home and invite your friends to the practice space instead of hauling your equipment.

What’s The Value of Your Time?

If a company asked you to work the first day for free and then they’d decide if they’d hire you, would you do it? Your time has value. Don’t let bad business owners and managers take advantage of you. That’s what you are doing when you play with no guarantee. And you are decreasing the worth of every other musician that comes after you. Don’t stand for it. Hell, at this point they are sometimes paying the bar back more for washing glasses than they are paying the band.  Doesn’t playing for a crowd of people require a little more skill than washing dishes?  Maybe the clubs should ask the bands to wash dishes before they leave at the end of the night – they seem to value that skill a little more and will actually pay for it.

They aren’t even paying minimum wage which is against the labor laws. Only tipped positions are allowed to pay less than minimum wage and the tips have to add up to at least minimum wage.

You have to decide that you will no longer allow yourself to be taken advantage of – that you have value as a musician.  Put on your own shows if you have to. Rent out the Avalon or use the MusicGarage or something and charge admission.  If you just want to play your music for people then set up and play acoustically in the park rather than allow these club owners to keep raping you.

Maybe start doing “guerilla shows” on a flatbed truck. Pull up to a crowded place, fire up a generator and start playing. Yes, you’ll probably get shut down in 30 minutes and a $100 ticket for disturbing the peace, but you are already paying to play in some cases aren’t you? At least it’s YOUR show, done YOUR way and someone else isn’t profiting off you without compensation.  You’ll probably add a bunch of names to your mailing list if you are any good and maybe even get some press coverage – but creative marketing is another subject for another day.

About Shar Wood

Over 25 years in the music industry as a musician, performer, and recording studio owner/operator.
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One Response to Playing for Free/Playing for “The Door”

  1. Glenn says:

    I sure do miss the Zephyr, I played there a lot. That wasa club that new how to treat bands…..Glenn

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