An Open Letter to Venues That Exploit Their Musicians
A open letter written by Dave Goldberg to venue owners who expect the band to bring their followers. It's been around for a while and may have been posted before. Either way, it's a good read.
As Ive been looking for gigs lately, I’ve never seen so many free and low paying gigs. Well the economy is bad, so I can understand that a little bit. However, it is no longer good enough for the musician to be willing to perform for little compensation. Now we are expected to also be the venue promoter? The expectations are that the band will not only provide great music, but also bring lots of people to their venue. It is now the band’sresponsibility to make this happen, not the club owner.
Just the other day I was told by someone who owned a wine bar that they really liked our music and would love for us to play at their place. She then told me the gig paid $75 for a trio. Now $75 used to be bad money per person, let alone $75 for the whole band. It had to be a joke, right? No, she was serious. But it didn’t end there. She then informed us we had to bring 25 people minimum. Didn’t even offer us extra money if we brought 25 people. I would have laughed other than it’s not the first time I’ve gotten this proposal from club owners. But are there musicians really doing this? Yes. They are so desperate to play, they will do anything. But let’s think about this for a second and turn this around a little bit.
What if I told the wine bar owner that I have a great band and we are going to play at my house. I need someone to provide and pour wine while we play. I can’t pay much, just $75, and you must bring at least 25 people who are willing to pay a $10 cover charge at the door. Now wouldn’t they look at you like you are crazy?
“Why would I do that?” they would ask. Well because it’s great exposure for you and your wine bar. The people there would see how well you pour wine and see how good your wine is. Then they would come out to your wine bar sometime. ”But I brought all the people myself, I already know them”, they would say. Well maybe you could make up some professional looking flyers, pass them out, and get people you don’t know to come on out. ”But you are only paying me $75. How can I afford to make up flyers?”
You see how absurd this sounds, but musicians do this all the time. If they didn’t, then the club owners wouldn’t even think of asking us to do it. So this sounds like a great deal for the club owners, doesn’t it? They get a band and customers for that night, and have to pay very little if anything. But what they don’trealize is that this is NOT in their best interest.
If you want great food, you hire a great chef…It needs to be the same with the band. You hire a great band and should expect great music.
Running a restaurant, a club, a bar, is really hard. There is a lot at stake for the owner. You are trying to get loyal customers that will return because you are offering them something special. If you want great food, you hire a great chef. If you want great décor,you hire a great interior decorator. You expect these professionals to do their best at what you are hiring them to do. It needs to be the same with the band. You hire a great band and should expect great music. That should be the end of your expectations for the musicians. The music is another product for the venue to offer, no different from food or beverages.
When a venue opens it’s doors, it has to market itself. The club owner can’t expect people to just walk in the door. This has to be handled in a professional way. Do you really want to leave something so important up to a musician? This is where the club owner needs to take over. It is their success or their failure on the line, not the musician. The musician can just move on to another venue. I’ve played places where, for whatever reason, only a few people have walked in the door on a Saturday night. The club owner got mad at me, asking, “where are the people?” I turned it around on him asking the same thing? “Where are all the people? It’s Saturday night and your venue is empty. Doesn’t that concern you? What are you going to do about it?” Usually their answer is to find another band with a larger following.This means the professional bands get run out of the joint in favor of whoever can bring in the most people.
But here’s where the club owner doesn’t get it. The Crowd is following the band, not the venue. The next night you will have to start all over again.
Eddie Mechanic, who has slaved all week fixing cars at the local dealership, also plays guitar. Not very well,but he’s been practicing once a week with Doctor Drummer, Banker Bass Player, and Salesman Singer. Usually they just drink beer between rehearsing a few tunes in Eddie’s garage, but this week they answer a craigslist ad and line up a big gig. Well they don’t sound that good, but they sure all work with a lot of people everyday. All these people can be given a flyeron Monday and after being asked ”are you coming to my gig?” everyday all week, will most likely show up on Saturday night. So mission accomplished, the club owner has packed his venue for one night.
But here’s where the club owner doesn’t get it. The Crowd is following the band, not the venue. The next night you will have to start all over again. And the people that were starting to follow your venue, are now turned off because you just made them listen to a bad band. The goal should be to build a fan base for the venue. To get people that will trust that you will have good music in there every night. Instead you’ve soiled your reputation for a quick fix.
I think we as musicians need to fight back. Sure You can get mad about it, but that won’t do anything.We could all agree not to play those for the door gigs, but you know that isn’t going to happen. But what we can do, is explain to the club owner that it’s not in their best interest to operate their business like this. There is too much at stake for them not to be truly interested in the music presented in their venue. Convince them that if they think that live music is important to the demographic that they are trying to reach, then they need to reach out to that demographic in a professional way.
If you asked a club owner, ”who is your target demographic?” I doubt they would answer, “the band’s friends and family.” But yet clubs operate like it is. Would you expect the chef’s friends and family to eat at your restaurant every night? How about the dishwasher, the waitresses, the hostess? You see, when you start turning this argument around, it becomes silly. Another example, I answered a craigslist ad for a nice looking place in Beverly Hills. The ad read… ”looking for a high energy jazz band, if you can bring the band and have a following, I will put you on stage.” That logic seams to say that they think musicians in a jazz band know lots of people living in Beverly Hills. And the people those musicians know, have lots of money to spend. Those are two pretty big assumptions. Good luck finding the combination. Even if you find that combination, are you going to find it every night? Friends and family of a professional musician won’t come out that often. They can’t. This is what we do every night. Would you expect the chef’s friends and family to eat at your restaurant every night? How about the dishwasher, the waitresses, the hostess? Or how about the club owners friends and family? You see, when you start turning this argument around, it becomes silly.
I’ve started arguing with club owners about this. It happened after I played a great night of music in LA. We were playing for a % of the bar. There were about 50 people there in this small venue, so it was a good turnout. At the end of the night, I go to get paid, and hope to book another gig. The club owner was angry. ”Where are your people?” he asked. ”All these people, I brought in. We had a speed dating event and they are all left over from that.” I pointed out they all stayed and listened to the music for 2 hours after their event ended. That was 2 more hours of bar sales, because without us, you have an empty room with nothing going on. He just couldn’t get over the fact that we didn’t walk in with our own entourage of fans. Wasn’t he happy that we kept a full room spending money? Right when we were talking, a group of people interrupted us and said ”you guys sound great, when is the next time you’re playing here again?” The club owner, said ”they aren’t, they didn’t bring anyone.”
I went home that night bummed out and sent him an email telling him most of what you are reading here and how his business model and thinking is flawed. After a lot of swearing back and forth, because I’m guessing that musicians never talk to him as a business equal. He eventually admitted that what I was saying made sense. BUT, that’s not how LA clubs and restaurants work. And he has bands answering his craigslist ads willing to do whatever it takes to get the gig. It’s been a couple of years now since that conversation. I called his bar, and the number is disconnected.
So there you go, LA club and restaurant owners.The advice is free. But you’ll most likely ignore it because ”that’s not how it works”. But if more musicians kept telling them the same thing, perhaps it would start to sink in.
Dave Goldberg is a professional jazz musician and is one-fourth of The Dave Goldberg/Duane Allen Quartet. For the past fourteen years, Goldberg and Allen have performed throughout the entire South Florida and Los Angeles areas to critical acclaim. The Dave Goldberg/Duane Allen Quartet currently have five CDs released with Tritone Records.
If a venue doesnt know how to market itself as a live music destination than it has no business even pretending to be so, I can rent a hall and promote myself before I will do it for some manipulating ******* of a bar owner. Anyone who buys in to this pay to play scam deserves what they get, your putting money into someone elses pocket that should be in yours.
There is a popular bar/venue in Dewey Beach, DE called the Bottle and Cork. They operate exactly how the OP suggests. You can go there on any given night and expect to see a great band.
His fatal mistake was to have played before collecting pay. Never play one note without pay in hand upfront. This isn't 1986; people are not trustworthy anymore.
I don't think the OP's beef was with the pay for that gig, but the venue's "where's your crowd" attitude.
Realistically, I think it's a tough situation. How does a band book quality gigs without a following & how does a venue provide quality shows without a fan base? Kind of like getting a job without experience, but you need experience to get a job.
I have to agree 100% and being from LA as well I have to add a point that I think was missed. I'm in my early 30's and have been playing shows here for the last 10 years. The thing about LA is that it's overly saturated with (I hate to say musicians for this argument) people that want to "play in a band". It's like a trendy thing here to carry the label of Musician or Artist. Every event I go to, casually talk to anyone and they play some kind of instrument or are some type of aspiring painter, sculpture, etc.
Now that is not a complaint at all. I actually think that brings a certain underground culture to LA which I love. But buisness is buisness and they are in it to make money. Very few places have managment that still have the ideal they had when they first started. Wanting to be proud of the bands you bring in, bands you dig and have a reputation for throwing awesome events. In the end they just want money and I can't fault them for that.
But like I said LA is a "look at me I'm trendy" city and owners of venues will exploit that. I've seen scene after scene come and go. Remember the whole Rap/Rock craze from like 10+ years ago? Saw like over 100 new "bands" come and go. Within the last 5 years it's been this whole look at me Im super "Indie" and only have influences by bands you've never heard before. Metal has always had a influx of new young bands that again just create a band cause its the cool thing to do. Why pay legit bands when you can easily sucker any of these so called new trendy musicians into not only playing for free, at times charging them ticket sales to play, ON A MONDAY! It's just the sad nature of the city.
The OP definitely sounds like a musician's take on how to run a bar....
I don't buy that women are being "exploited" when they work as strippers, either...
If there's a job available and you aren't willing to do it for the compensation offered, don't take it.
A thing is only worth what somebody is willing to pay for it.
If you're going to cry a river over every business owner that runs their business badly, you're going to be dehydrated right quick!
There are a lot of bands playing for $250-300 in my area is a joke, but $75 is an insult IMO.
I DO play an acoustic patio gig for a friend that owns a Mexican restaurant and he only pays $100 plus food and a few beers. $50 each for me and the singer but it is a small place, they don't make a ton of $$$ and he is a good friend. I would do it for free if he supplied a PA. The patio is mostly friends, so it is a fun Sunday afternoon in the sun.
In any case, my classic rock cover band is one of the better ones in the area and we all have super high end gear. We refuse to play for less than $100 a man. I dont care if that sounds petty or that we are full of ourselves but we all have great day jobs and we refuse to be taken advantage of by greedy bar owners.
We bring 10-20 people every gig (25-50 on a very good night but that is rare) and will not commit to bringing 25 people. We will commit to keeping the crowd dancing, drinking and having fun.
The way things are going really sucks for young or new bands starting out, but the reality is that if good bands dont stop playing for peanuts, a $75 per band gig isn't too far away for all of us.
An original band may be an exception as they may be looking for exposure and willing to play for free or next to nothing. That is totally different.
Honestly, I would rather sit at home and have a few drinks and clean/restring my basses and fiddle with my pedalboard vs. leaving the house at 8:00pm and getting home at 3:00am then playing for under a hundred bucks.
Just IMO and YMMV....
The thing that those with "day jobs" don't realize, though, is that there's a key difference here- you guys have all kinds of legal recourses if your boss tries to pull something like that. If your boss shorts you pay, you have a crazy paper trail of corporate documentation, back pay stubs & so forth, and can prove a complaint for the wages quite easily. There are all kinds of labor laws protecting most other professions.
Professional music? All bets are off. That fat coke fiend behind the bar stiffs your pay, and you literally don't eat dinner that night.
Try announcing that you *won't* pay upfront to the doctor, or even the dude at the gas station. Odds are that you won't get that twisted ankle checked out, or that thirty bucks of unleaded released into the pump on the "honor system" before you pay.
It's too bad that pro musicians are still such crabs in a bucket over this stuff. We've been shooting our feet for decades.
there is another thread on this letter in the BM forum, many hundreds of posts about it already.. Bumping that one with new comments might be a good idea..
They won't listen, because like most people, they know (in their head) that they are always right, no matter what the actual facts are.
I don't know when people as a group became so f'in stupid, but it is really an epidemic.
Here's my thing - I agree with everything the "open letter" says, and I think it's a much more sensible strategy for running a venue. My question is, how do you actually handle a venue with the "how big is your following" mindset? Do you immediately walk out the door and refuse to deal with them? Do you play along and promise you'll bring X number of people? Do you turn around and deliver a lecture on business philosophy?
I don't think relying on a band's following to boost a venue's turnout for the night is completely wrong. A bar has X number of guests on any given night without a band playing. If this bar is going to pay a band to come in and play, it's usually with the mindset that having a band playing will increase the amount of people that come in the door, and increase the amount of money that gets spent. With the recent economic downturn, the effectiveness of bringing a band into the venue dropped off horribly, and with it, venues valued it less. I don't think that effect has loosened any in recent years.
I've seen this letter before, posted on a non-musicians forum where it got its share of well thought out responses from bar owners too. It's an interesting discussion.
I of course tend to side with the artists, but the one dimension Goldberg ignores is that all venues aren't created the same. There are still those out there, fewer and fewer, that have their own reputations and followings unconnected to the band playing there on any given night - Antone's in Austin, Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville, Baked Potato in LA for example. It's just that you have to be a really established band to get into any of those.
Goldberg is kind of complaining because he's still paying dues and doesnt want to be.
I'm in an originals band, and this is what we deal with, even at free shows or no cover shows. "How many people can you bring?" Or "you need 35 tickets minimum."
The best was a gig in Brooklyn we did. The girl who was setting up the show told us the wrong time. We had no one coming because we are a jersey band going to play in Brooklyn on a Sunday night at some (I will say very cool) random bar. When we showed up it was empty and all the girl said to us was "I hope you brought people."
And what if we didn't? YOU already screwed your own show up by giving the only 2 bands playing the wrong times.
We brought no one and still played. The stage was set up in what used to be the garage of this building in its own room next to the bar area. The few people in the bar and about 30 off the street came in and watched our set and bought drinks and a few stayed for the other band. The room couldn't fit more that 45 people comfortably so it looked crowded.
We haven't played a show there again because we didn't bring enough people the first time, obviously the random people off the street that came and had a good time didn't count.
In my area there are a lot of young bands that will pay to play and bring all of their friends with them, so the club openers are happy. Of course, they bring their fans to another venue the following weekend and the original club is "unexpectedly" empty. We recently played in one of these venues (we did not pay to play as we've been a supporting act in the past) and it was virtually empty. The sad thing is that this venue was legendary from the 60s to the early 2000s as a premier rock club; I saw Ace Frehley with Bruce Kulick, Merrillion, Quite Riot and dozens of lesser known, but awesome acts there in the 80s and 90s. The unknowns packed the place because the venue had a reputation as being one of the best on the east coast so you were guaranteed a great experience. Now, it's a mere shadow of its former self and it's downfall was self inflicted. It's a shame because it's such a great venue with awesome acoustics and a great FOH.
I just can't see blaming the bar owner.
If anyone's band would agree to play for such minimal money as well as some of the other stipulations listed.......... they are not poor exploited musicians, they are dumbA$$&$!
You can't fix stupid.
Well.... if they are just starting out, call it an "unpaid Internship".
That way, The band doesn't feel "exploited" and the bar owner gets free entertainment.
everybody goes home happy.
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