Being a musician for most of my life – playing in both cover and original bands – and later, owning bars and venues and of course working in other aspects of the music business, has given me a unique bit of knowledge of basically being on “both sides of the fence” so to speak. One one side, being in a band that wants to play and make money, and get their name out and build a fan base. On the other hand, being a venue owner that depends on music to help attract business.
In that spirit, I have put together a list of things focused on the economic realities that will help you if you are really interested in playing in clubs and getting your band out there. Of course, if you really want to do this, you really must treat it as a business. Don’t be a drunk idiot, only out to get as much tail as you can get, or see how drunk you can get before you pass out on the stage in your own vomit. But, I digress. Read through these ten simple rules, below, and your life will be much easier and you will likely experience much more success in your endeavors.
1. If you have a band, particularly a cover band – looking for a “guarantee” – don’t bitch if your pay is too low when you only manage to bring a few people out to your shows. Clubs that book cover bands are businesses, and they pay money out for bands who will help bring business into their establishment. They are paying you as an investment to help increase their sales, not as an expense that leads to a potential loss. You *must* bring something to the table.
2. Just because the club lists you in the entertainment guide or on their website, doesn’t mean that you automatically will have a big following. This takes hard work, and all of your band members must participate. You need to promote yourselves to build your following. Stop by every table and thank who came to your shows – yea, talk to them! Flyer the venue. Post ads on Facebook (oh my God yes, that might mean you have to actually spend money!) Use social networking (but don’t rely on it alone). Make an effort. Even if your “following” isn’t as large as it needs to be, I promise you that the venue/club will remember that you at least made the effort. Do what you say you are going to do, too. If you make big promises to the venues that fall through, that’s not nearly as good as underpromising and overdelivering.
3. If you think so highly of your band and you believe you are worth more than you are being paid, make a door deal with the club/venue and waive your guarantee. After all, if you are a bona fide rock star, your throngs of followers will no doubt come and pay good money to see you, and you will make a killing.
4. Don’t get hung up on how the club/venue is “screwing you over” if it is part of a corporate chain. Most corporations have definitive limits on what they allocate for entertainment. It is what it is, and until it changes, that’s the way it’s gonna be. The reason these places exist and continue to exist is because they have figured out the economics so that they can continue to do business. In other words, every time they book a band, they take a risk (see paragraph one). So if they have five proven bands that draw well, and several others that do not, the established economic guidelines help to ensure they don’t lose money over time, and hopefully make a profit. So – if you don’t like it, then don’t complain about what they pay and don’t play there. Find somewhere else to play.
5. If you are a new band, and you have not yet established yourself – even if you have players who have played in other bands – you can’t expect top dollar. Make a deal the first time in. It’s not a sin, I promise. It’s a show of good will, that you understand the club needs to make money. Of course, there are exceptions, when say there are five guys who happen to play in road bands or who have been around long enough to each have a nice fan base, but most of the time this is not the case. And – by making a deal first time in, you are *not* selling yourself short. You are showing goodwill. I’ve done free shows before and I have no problem making this investment to help get established.
6. Club owners are not impressed with drunk musicians that are being PAID to do a job. Stay off the booze and the dope at least while you are performing, or at least maintain until after all is said and done.
7. For crying out loud, do NOT argue about your bar tab! I’ve seen this a million times, including back in the day in my own band (said musician was immediately fired). Seriously, you won’t get booked again. Don’t be a douche. And definitely, don’t walk your tab, If you do, call or go to the venue and apologize profusely and pay it! Nothing pisses off a venue more, and at the end of the day, the bartenders/waitresses do have influence – their opinions count.
8. Don’t be so pompous that you say “well I hate this owner” or “won’t ever play there again,” etc. You know, it’s kinda small out there in the real world. You never know if the owner you “hate” might open the next big club, or maybe the manager that “screwed you on your tab” could open their own establishments. Moreover, most venue owners in a given market know each other and likely talk. There are limited resources in each market – always keep that in mind.
9. If you don’t like the pay scales in your market, seek out venues in other cities. There are plenty of places to play outside of your area that would love to have a good band. But remember – if you do not live in that area, the first time you play you are going to have to make a concession, unless you are Bon Jovi or the Foo Fighters. You will need to make the effort to promote heavily, get a decent crowd the first time in, and make sure you leave the place raving about you, so that next time, your following (and your money) in that market goes up.
10. The Golden Rule. If you are “too big for your breeches” then there is always going to be someone hungrier out there that will gladly take your place if you pass up an opportunity. Therefore, pick your battles carefully. You can either make a deal and build your reputation and following (sometimes it takes a LONG time), or you can sit your ass home on a Friday night when another band that you think “sucks” is taking “your” slot. Always be humble and build respect through your actions. Boasting about how good your band is will not get you anywhere. Prove it.
These rules should help set your expectations and the realities of working in the music business at the club level. If you want to get serious about it, you should pay close attention to them. And remember: There are many more bands out there looking for good gigs than there are actual places to play. It is the law of supply and demand, and it is competitive.
Stay tuned… there will be more in this series.
©2018 Zach Bair