Monday, May 5, 2014

If You Want To Book Live Music, Then Make It Matter

Having been in a band for over 15 years I have plenty of experience when it comes playing live shows in bars and clubs.  I have played to packed rooms, empty rooms and in between with nothing but what seemed to be fate to determine which it would be.  My own frustration’s with the way the scene was handled by those who book bands were brought back to the surface recently when a friend of mine in a local band shared with me the following. 

His band was playing a club in St. Paul and was told the starting times for each band would be determined by which band pre-sold the most tickets.  Meaning that if you have 4 bands, the band who sold the most tickets gets to pick it’s time slot first.  Then the band that sold the second most picks and so on.  This may seem fair on the surface but in reality it’s a flawed business model that benefits neither the bands nor the clubs interests.  Where are the bands supposed to sell these tickets?  Who are they supposed to sell them to?  Treating these events like a Cub Scout expo where the more tickets they sell the more rewards you get is demeaning and doesn’t get more people into the club.  It reminded me of my own experiences and thing I would like to see changed.  So in a “for what it’s worth” effort here is what I think would foster a better music scene while making it more profitable for the clubs and the bands. 

1)  Establish a weeknight where you showcase local music.  Sunday – Wednesday are typically nights where attendance is iffy on a good night.  For the record I think only showcasing local live music Thurs-Sat makes the most sense If you insist on 7 days a week make it worth it both the bands and the venues time.  The current model depends on the members of the bands to hang around buying drinks when they aren’t playing.  Considering the club probably isn’t paying them much more than one free drink to play that night, it may seem like a good safety net on the surface.  But it’s really just done because that’s what’s been done and it’s easier than making your club a destination for people who enjoy live music.  Make the music as important as the atmosphere, flow, drink specials etc. and people will come because they know THIS bar really looks for good bands.

2)  Have some sort of drink specials and have a representative of the establishment announce them on stage between every band.  Make it known that every week you will have similar specials and push it.  If people know you offer the best of up and coming local music as well as drink specials they will come back.  Again knowing THIS bar has something to offer.  Too often drink specials are treated like a secret they hope you don’t find out about.  You should have specials you want people to take part of.   

3)  Have a clear criteria for any band who wants to play that night.  Whether it be someone from the club goes out to see them or as simple as a waiting list where the band just waits their turn as if waiting for a table at a restaurant.  The current model is basically getting to know someone who knows someone who knows the sound guy.  That’s just lazy.  This shows the club doesn’t care to hold whoever books the bands to be accountable.  It does nothing for quality control.  In this scenario you are guaranteeing that bad bands will get opportunities and good ones won’t.  Because having a connection and having talent do not go hand in hand.    

4)  No cover.  The whole ticket pre-sale is built around the idea that bands have plenty of friends who want to go see their friends bands on weeknights.  That’s just not realistic.  Friends, while supportive, rarely want to go to see their buddies band every time he plays a local club on anymore than they want to see their buddy bartend every night he works.  Do you hire a waiter or waitress with the idea that his or her friends will be a significant part of your sales?  Of course not.  Friends of the bands shouldn’t be who you are trying to get in your club.  They won’t stay for all the bands meaning they won’t be buying drinks all night.  You want to make your club a destination for people who want to see new local music.  And they’re out there.  Make the night more about them and less about the bands actually benefits both the club and the bands.  Once again who are trying to make your money off of?  The members of the bands who you are paying nothing to perform?  Or people who enjoy your club because of what you offer?  And bands, who would rather have in the audience?  People who have never seen you before?  Or a combination of the handful of friends you successfully baited into coming out that night and members of the other bands who are playing with you that night? 

5)  Quality control.  Bands will have bad nights.  And some bands are just bad.  Stop the practice of hiring one band and having them fill the night.  Why booking agents for clubs are allowed to get away with this is beyond me.  The people booking the bands should know who they are booking.  It should be a job requirement.  Just because one band is good doesn’t make their buddies band any good.  You squeeze out good bands because this is easier.  I assume someone is paying you with the idea you in turn will generate money for them.  Bar owners:  Do you know what your booking agent is doing?  And once you have bands you know perform well, have them back.  Put them with other bands that are good.  You will increase your venues reputation and grow the audiences.  Book hard rock bands with other hard rock bands and alt rock bands with alt rock bands etc.  My band is a hard rock band bordering on metal.  We were once booked on a bill with a country alt band, a black metal act and a comedian.  None of us looked good that night.

6)  Generally speaking, the bands playing these nights are not getting paid anything worth their effort.  The least you can do is treat them with respect.  Drop the holier than thou routine when a new band wants to know what they need to do to get a slot on one of these nights.  Just tell them.  There is no downside to treating people with respect.  Here’s an exercise to try.  Pick a bar at random and see how easy it is to find out who books the bar.  Then see how easy it is to contact them.  Do they get back to you?  I know bands trying to get a gig can be pesky.  Guess what?  That’s part of the job.  Understand this.  If people need to kiss your ass to get you to give them a couple of minutes, they know it.  Start running a karaoke night at Chi Chi’s if you are desperate for that kind of acknowledgement.  

7)  Don’t call it “New Band Night”.  All that says is “Don’t come because the bands suck”.  If you know who you are booking you should know what to expect.  Again make it about the night and the venue.  Call it Live Music Happy Hour or something that gives people a reason to come.  If you are going to feature the best of un-established bands, making it about the band is going to fail.  Remember, just like established bands, un-established bands don’t have enough friends to make it worth opening the doors.

The bottom line is this.  The current system makes for a bad scene and from what I’ve experienced can’t be making the clubs any real money.  Cover charge’s should be for bands that are guaranteed a payday.  If you are not paying a band enough to cover gas and their time, then you have no excuse to charge people to see them.  Make your money off the drinks.  Bands, be honest.  Are you good enough?  If not don’t waste anyone’s time until you are.  You can only damage your reputation if you are unprepared or untalented.  It’s time for bands and the clubs to realize they are partners and spend more time working together.  And from my experience that means most clubs are going to have to do more. 

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