by Wade Sutton, Rocket to the Stars
I am writing this article fully aware of how likely it is that the comment section below will turn into a blood bath. This is a very touchy subject with a lot of singers and bands and I’m certain my brutal honesty will be seen by some as hostile and overly critical. But those that know me well are well aware that I am extremely supportive of artists and want to see them succeed.
Readers should also keep in mind that I have personal experience when it comes to nearly every angle of the issue at hand. I’ve been a part of shows in which the venues did nothing to promote what we had going on. I’ve headed up promotions for shows, including Rocket’s own artist development competition. I have asked questions of owners and operators of venues as well as professional promoters. And during nearly two decades working as a radio journalist, I have witnessed how various types of legislation and the economy have harmed the very restaurants and bars many of you want to play.
Got all that? This is really long but, if you stick with me, you might learn something.
Saxophonist Dave Goldberg recently got a lot of attention lately for an open letter he wrote a while back (proof things can go viral long after they are posted) to operators of venues that host live music. The letter, which can be read HERE, was Goldberg’s way of sounding off against venues not paying artists as much money as they feel they deserve. The text, while not hostile in nature, was extremely misguided and managed to ignite another round of firestorms by similarly misguided artists. It was missing a lot of important information concerning why the music scene is the way it is right now and really offered little in the way of how to improve it other than to say venues should simply pay bands more money. Making matters worse, and this should have been expected, the comment section under the article turned into yet another “people need to support live music” scream session.
So I spent the past five or six days thinking about what Goldberg wrote and took into consideration the points he was trying to make…and I came to the conclusion that I could not disagree with him more. See, it is easy for singers and musicians to criticize venues for not paying them more money to perform. It is easy to use the anonymity of the Internet to lash out at the venues just like it is easy to complain about it when in the company of other musicians who feel the same way. But many artists find it easier to be critical in this situation than it is to sit down and take a hard look at WHY things are the way they are…because to do so properly involves a massive amount of self-evaluation. That is something most artists simply refuse to do even though it could be the key to a more successful music career.
Where to begin?
THE FINE LINE BETWEEN “ART” AND “BUSINESS”
You can be an “artist” in the privacy of your own home or when you are recording or when you are playing at an event that doesn’t involve money. But once you step into the realm of playing in exchange for cash, you leave the sanctuary of being an “artist” and enter the no-holds-barred world of “business”. That changes the rules quite drastically because the level of expectations becomes much different and you suddenly introduce several variables over which you have little or no control. Once money is involved you become a businessman (or woman), a marketer, and a customer service representative.
The music business is a business of relationships and you need to have good relationships with your fans as well as the venues at which you are hoping to play. Yet I see so many of you burning bridges by publicly blasting the venue operators for not giving you what you want instead of creating a better situation for yourselves. And you CAN make a better situation for yourselves. I know you can because there are bands out there right now “making it” just fine, only they aren’t sitting around bitching and moaning about the current state of things and are instead finding new ways to thrive in the evolving business environment.
WHEN VENUES WON’T PROMOTE
In a perfect world, venues would be just as enthusiastic about promoting your shows in their house as you are. Sadly, it isn’t a perfect world. I had the honor of being involved in a truly wonderful show at the Hard Rock Cafe in Pittsburgh. I was the show’s writer and host and, taking my role in shows as seriously as I do, I was present for every rehearsal for the months leading up to it (yes, we rehearsed for MONTHS for one show…and lived to tell about it).
A few weeks before the show was scheduled to take place, one of the performers brought to our attention that Hard Rock not only wasn’t trying to promote the show, the venue hadn’t even put it on their website’s schedule. The show’s producer, James Meny, attempted to contact Hard Rock about the issue to no avail. Relatives of some of the performers in the show started calling the restaurant wanting to know why it wasn’t on the site’s schedule. Nobody could get any answers. Were we upset about it? Of course we were. How did the performers in the show respond? They kicked their ticket selling efforts into high gear and, not only did they sell out the venue, the Hard Rock that night was over capacity.
You wish venues would do more to promote your shows. I understand that. But this is an issue you have little or no control over. So you can refuse to play those venues or you can accept it for what it is and find ways to improve your own marketing skills (something you should be doing anyway). I can tell you this though: Whining and complaining will change nothing other than a venue’s desire to have you back.
PAYING YOUR BAND IS A RISK FOR A VENUE, NOT AN ASSET
Put on your “business goggles” and look at your band through the eyes of a venue operator and you will see a financial risk, not an asset. This happens for a lot of reasons. Many of you fail to stop and think about how many other bands walk into a venue on a daily basis and shower the owners with promises of sold out shows. Then the night of the show arrives and you bring in around 100 people. Why is this such a huge financial risk for the venue? Not only would they be in the hole for what they agreed to pay you for performing, the owners would have scheduled too many employees to work (waitresses, bartenders, cooks, hostesses, dishwashers, bussers, etc). That is a lot of money to not make back because you made empty promises about crowds you knew you couldn’t bring. And imagine how pissed off the employees would be if they were told they had to work on a Friday or Saturday night only to get sent home two hours into the shift. In that case, not only is the venue out a lot of money, now their employees are unhappy.
Want to know how you can clear this hurdle? Develop a strong reputation for drawing big crowds on a consistent basis. There are two things you can do to start down that road.
The first tip is to start putting a serious and legitimate effort into collecting e-mails and expanding your fan base. And don’t just collect e-mails, segment them. That means be sure to get the zip codes of every person signing up. Want to impress a venue owner and put yourself in a better BUSINESS position to leverage more money? Slap down a list of 800 e-mail subscribers all living within a twenty mile drive of the venue. That is 800 people you can market to directly about that show.
The second tip goes hand-in-hand with the first. Many of you need to start branching out and stop playing in the same geographical area night after night. I see so many bands doing two and three shows a week, every week, in an area of about a 20-mile radius. I’m not talking about bands in major cities; I’m seeing this from bands in rural areas. You are damaging the demand for your product, which is weakening your business leverage against the venue.
People are less likely to come to your show on a Friday night when they know they can see you Saturday or Sunday night…or some time next week. So many of you are burning out your audiences and it is ruining your ability to get more money from venue operators. Stop saying, “I’ll start playing venues that are farther away when I have more fans coming to my shows here”. Go do it NOW so you can build up your fan base, play more cities, and make your shows back home MEAN something when they happen.
YOU ARE WORTH WHAT SOMEBODY IS WILLING TO PAY YOU
I’m so tired of hearing bands saying, “I understand the economy sucks right now but I deserve to be paid more”. First of all, you deserve to be paid what the market dictates you should be paid. If the highest payment you can find for your act is one-hundred dollars per show, well, I hate to break it to you but you are a one-hundred dollar band. Stop bitching about it and start looking for ways to improve your worth (like building up your e-mail lists and creating a better live show). When you are WORTH two-thousand dollars per show, you will make two-thousand dollars per show.
And as far as the economy is concerned, restaurants and bars have been hurt by far more than just the economy, something you would know if some of you would take some time to sit down and TALK to these venue owners instead of bitching about them from behind a computer screen. They have a laundry list of reasons for being so mindful of the money going out right now.
First off, many restaurants and bars are still trying to recover from when public smoking bans were enacted in several states. The drop in business was experienced almost immediately. That came around the same time as the passage of bills promoting ethanol-based fuels, which resulted in massive spikes in food prices that were either absorbed by the restaurants and bars or passed down to customers. More recently, the Affordable Care Act struck and insurance premiums skyrocketed for both employers and employees. If all that wasn’t enough to make them tighten the purse strings, keep in mind that whenever states have a pet project they want to fund, taxes on alcohol and tobacco are often the first targets. What do you think happens to restaurants and bars when the price of alcohol goes up? It isn’t good, I can tell you that. And now restaurants are staring down the possibility of steep increases in dairy prices. Ever consider how many items on menus are smothered in cheese? Oh, and don’t forget that many of these establishments are already paying thousands of dollars a year to organizations like ASCAP, SESCA, and BMI for music licensing.
So when you approach a venue and get so bent out of shape because they won’t pay you more money, don’t assume that their financial books are as rosy as many others think. Get off your butts and do something to make them want to move you from the “risk” column to the “calculated risk” column.
WANT PEOPLE TO SUPPORT LIVE MUSIC? GIVE THEM A REASON TO!
Going back to the constant cries about people not supporting local music. Let’s be honest with each other: Many of you (not all) have live shows that suck. Before you get all bent out of shape about me saying that, take this into consideration: Are you aware of how many of you put on live shows that are nothing more than background music? I’m talking about audiences that are not watching you because they are talking to each other, eating or drinking, looking at their phones, and leaving early. If that is what is happening at your show, then the venues are seeing you as nothing better than a jukebox (which they probably already spent money on). That is part of the reason why they don’t want to pay many of you more money.
I will give you two reasons why people are not “supporting local music” and you can do what you want with the information. The first reason is because people don’t want to shell out money for a cover charge, pay to park, fork over cash for food and drinks, make a quick stop at the gas station, not to mention pay a babysitter just to see a band that isn’t all that entertaining in person. Just because YOU are having fun on stage doesn’t mean the audience is having fun. The second big reason is because you are failing in your mission to compete against every other form of entertainment available to your fans. The amount of money people have to spend on entertainment is like a pie and there are only so many pieces to go around. Remember earlier when I said you are a business? Businesses COMPETE whether you like it or not.
When two people have a certain amount of money each month to spend on entertainment, they are trying to decide between your show, shows by every other band, movies, sporting events, clubs with DJs, live theater, going skiing, shopping at the mall, buying a new television, amusement parks, video games, banking that money for vacation, and every other form of entertainment available. And YOU want these people to pass up their other options and spend their hard earned money on YOU when you won’t even spend the time to put together a top-notched live show? If you want them to come out and “support live music” you are going to have to become the better option.
SOME DIRECT QUOTES FROM GOLDBERG’S LETTER
Feast your eyes on these craptastic quotes…
“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.”
This comment is covered in fail. So he is saying that the venue should be in charge of all things related to promoting the musician’s show there because bands can’t handle “important” tasks? That is a slap in the face to every band out there making it right now because of hard work and business smarts.
“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?”
Well, David, only a few people showed up for your show. Doesn’t that concern YOU?
“Usually their (the venue) 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.”
Maybe the band that brings in more people is a better band. Of course the venue would rather have them. The venue is in business to make money, not provide you a place to play.
“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.”
While I’m sure the owner of the venue was happy the people attending the speed dating event stayed a little longer, it doesn’t change the fact that YOU failed to bring in fans (are you noticing a trend?). And, yes, he was upset about you not bringing in anybody. That was whole reason he hired you!
I know some of this sounds extremely harsh but the reality of the situation is I REALLY want to see more artists finding success with their music. And many of the artists having successful careers in music have managed to move past all the garbage talked about in this article. They understand that music is more about business than even the music itself…and they have done what all good business people do.
They don’t waste time complaining and find ways to adapt.
After spending nearly twenty years as a professional radio journalist, Rocket to the Stars creator Wade Sutton now helps singers and bands all over world advance their music careers. He offers classes and consultations on everything from how bands can better interact with the media to designing their websites and media kits. Wade’s articles have been read by people in more than twenty countries and have been shared by top music industry officials and voice instructors, marketing experts, radio stations, and artists. You can learn more about him and his services at www.RockettotheStars.com.