[BLOG ~ MUSIC ~ ALASKA/USA]
by Russell Copelin.
So you got a gig! Maybe it is your first gig. Someone is going to let you play in public with amplification. You have officially made it to the next level, out of your living room or the old classic out of your garage. The excitement is real. On the other hand, maybe it’s your 500th show? No matter how awesome you feel about a show, performances can also go horribly wrong and it may have nothing at all to do with how you played. Don’t let the chance of stage euphoria cloud your vision. This is when businesses will do what businesses do, get you for the bottom dollar, and they will widdle you down if you let them. Stand your ground and just say no. You are worth something, right? Well then charge accordingly. Don’t fall on your face a bunch of times to learn. Failure can be a great teacher, so I do recommend it, but let me take some of the repetitive pain out of this for you.
I used to get fairly angry about the treatment of musicians by venues, mostly how I was treated. Eventually I realised not all venues were predatory and sometimes a naive musician can also be to blame.
I got stiffed, short changed, belittled, took a crap gig with a crap deal with a crap bar. But I just stayed quiet, fearing I might never play the venue again. Not a lot of work as a musician going around, I thought. I was wrong.
These days I’m a road-hardened, even jaded tour hound, so I voice my disgust. I smile and laugh politely while pointing out how much of a joke the venue is. Sure I burn the bridge, but it’s one I never wish to again cross and I’m good at it. So good…
They usually tell me: “You’ll never work in this town again!”. Buddy, don’t tinkle on my back and tell me it’s raining. If they own all the venues in town, sure, they may have that power. But you know what’s probably 30 minutes or an hour away? Another town. I’ve been kicked off stage at the Hard Rock Cafe in Honolulu before. Too hard rock for the hard rock, anyway, how much you want to bet I could work at another Hard Rock elsewhere? Like I would ever want to again, but that’s not the point. They don’t have some black list unless you were some multi-thousand dollar act that really was too hard rock. Maybe this article will get me blacklisted? I doubt it. Maybe I will try to book a gig with them at one of their locations to find out? Either way, no one venue runs everything.
One entry-level way a venue takes advantage is making the artist basically pay for the venue’s financial risk. ‘Pay To Play’ pushes all the risk of having entertainment squarely on the artist. There are two major categories of this: the ‘door split plus’ or the straight up ‘pay to play/rent our room’.
The door split is used by many venues. So, the band collects the door money at an agreed amount per person who enters and gets it at the end of the night. They’ll usually suggest you keep 95% of the door money and the bar keeps a cut for putting a door guy to collect. I wouldn’t agree to them having anything more than 5%, though: 5% seems reasonable – $50 for every $1000.
Now, if they’re expecting you to bring their whole crowd, well, that’s a lot of extra hours of work for which you’ll likely not be compensated for, especially in a town where you know no one.
Actually, you can do really well with these shows. Hook up with a local act for the gig that will draw people, but remember you will be splitting the spoils with them at the end of the night.
Next level down is where begins the circle of gig hell. This is when the bar says, “Sure you can have the door money after we pay our sound guy and door man. That means the first $150 from the door we take off the top”. Now they’re making you pay for their risk of having entertainment at their venue. Do you get a cut of the food or drink sales? No. They probably will charge you for beers as well. These places are predatory. Avoid them.
If they’re concerned about the volume and sound quality they ought to pay for their own sound guy. It shouldn’t be on artists to cover all the show expenses and let the bar reap the rewards. After all, the artist has invested heavily in practice, gear and cramming everything into their mum’s minivan. I’m already in the hole financially when I drive to your venue.
Nashville, Tennessee, music capital of the world? Sure. Whenever I hear words like ‘music capital’ or ‘music city’ or ‘some other boasting of how big of a music town they are’ strung together, I get wary.
For years I avoided Nashville because if you’re a lower – or even mid-sized touring act they pay you in dirt/exposure dollars. After months of encouragement from a friend to let him set me up a gig at this historic Nashville venue, I reluctantly agreed.
I decided to climb down into the trenches for a “we take the first $150 of the door and the four bands split the rest at $8,” to humour him and perhaps… maybe the myth of the exposure dollar would pay off? My friend said that this bar was a trendy hip spot and I needed to do this, if not for myself, but for him.
Remember this lie, even from a friend: ‘People might see and notice you there’. If I wanted exposure, I’d strip naked and run down 1st Avenue in Nashville. I may even make the nightly news!
I should have known better, well, I did know better but decided to show up anyway. I got there at load in at 8pm. Lots of these trendy bars are really strict about load in. Don’t you dare show up early! I loaded in and the bar was dead, just a few staff and three people lingering around. No other bands. No sound guy. Nothing.
So I pre-stage my gear on stage right along the wall and wait for the sound guy. 8:30pm he shows up late, but not too late I guess, and asks me which act I am. I tell him and then he goes, “Who else is playing?” He didn’t even know. That should have been my second red flag other than the empty venue.
Earlier in the day I had received an email from my friend that had booked the show about how one of the bands had car trouble and couldn’t make it to the gig. Not a big deal, I thought to myself, a three way cut now after the first $150! However, the bar never got that email. I had to relay the message to the sound guy.
Now it is 9pm. The show is supposed to start. I’m on second, yet, I’m the only act to arrive. The two other acts were a no show. Only one person came through the door and paid the $8. They asked me if I want to play to their dead room… because I just showed up from Alaska to play for a few staff and the one drunk dude? I began chuckling and talking about how I’m such a fool for even showing up.
So I did what any respecting musician would do, I lied on the floor of the stage in an empty room and had my friend take a picture of me lifeless laying there.
By this time another drunk patron had wandered in and she tried to convince me to play, but I told her, “Nah”.
I should have trusted my gut, kept to my standards, and passed on the show. If a venue needs you to raise money to pay their staff they probably shouldn’t have music. If they aren’t willing to cut you in on the food and drink sales why should you cut them in on the door money? They’re promising you nothing to be there.
There are plenty of venues that will pay you a set fee for you to come perform. Why pay anyone other than yourself?
“But we need to pay our door guy,” you’ll hear them say. Wasn’t he already scheduled to be there?
“But you need someone to collect money?” How about we provide our own person? There are ways around their argument and if they won’t budge I’d move on. Do not pay to play. Ever!
Also, how much can you trust a random person to actually be honest with how much money came through the door? I’ve had it out with door guys and bars after gigs because I was smart enough to do several room counts to see about how much I should be getting at the end of the night.
If it is a venue where people actually show up for the music then you are the reason they are coming there. Not specifically you, but live music in general which includes your act. Don’t let the venues push you around. Just go find one that treats people right. It may take some searching but they’re out there. Talk to your musician friends, see what they’re making for wages and where.
A rising tide lifts all boats and if we all got together and just refused to play these types of gigs they would disappear. Maybe they wouldn’t disappear, but they would only get low-level talent or super-beginner musicians.
You know the saying, “You get what you pay for?” It applies here. Now, an act with an established large following could say screw it, do those gigs and end up doing quite well – but they’re “screwing” the rest of us. We are in this together to a point. Sure, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and everybody has a treat in their pocket but we can at least have some empathy. You don’t want to encounter crap gigs so why put someone else through it? Fight the power and get a seat away from the kiddie table.
TO BE CONTINUED === with PAY TO PLAY Gigs: The next circle of hell for venues.
Images courtesy of Russell Copelin
Ukulele Russ lives in Alaska but tours extensively with his One Man Ukulele Frontier Band.