One of the things I do every once in awhile is book shows for bands, and one of the things I'm finding lately is the price venues are willing to pay for quality entertainment vs the rate bands are willing to play for are seeming to become an increasing variance which makes it difficult to book events. Now don't get me wrong, when the pandemic is put into play, venues have suffered, and musicians haven't had the opportunity to really get out and perform. As a result, from an economical standpoint, the cash flow just isn't there and needs to be replenished. But that's for both the musician and the venue.
Now, as a former performer that's played in numerous dive bars and special events around North America, I recognize there's been times my band's been forced to play for less than what we considered as our worth, and other times we played for free, simply because it was a fun event or for a good cause. We never played with the thought of the "exposure" or a chance for more fans. Minor league sports teams pay for their players, professional artists pay for their backup artists, and local businesses still pay a wage to students when they earn work credits for school. Even those who do craftwork as a hobby or pastime have the option to sell their creations at fairs, events, or through local merchants. In all of the fore mentioned examples, the recipients are paid what is considered a fair wage based on market value, a wage range analysis, the current market for the role, the list goes on.
In the case of determining a fair price for a band, the following criteria needs to be considered:
1) skill level/experience. If a band has been around for a few years, has had very little changes in their lineup, can handle requests from the floor without disrupting their show, and can recognize whether or not they're truly entertaining a crowd... You'll be willing to pay more for them than the band that's just gotten themselves together, practiced on 15 songs and think they can start going out in public.
2) travel. Whether the band a venue hires lives across town or is from outside of town, the band still needs to load the gear into a van/truck/trailer and haul the drums/guitars/amps and in some cases mics/backline/ lighting.
3) advertising. It sounds like a petty item to consider, but bands will advertise the venue they're playing at to attract their fans in the same manner venues will advertise the bands that are coming. At first glance, it's a fair tradeoff. But from a marketing perspective, Consider this: A venue will throw on their social media the week's lineup, or highlight the band for the evening, but the venue does not have the time bands make to go much further than that. Bands will splash the upcoming event all over their social media pages, and the local scene groups they're a part of.
When considering item #3, I think I must point out the bands at times do more than "hey, we're at Slum Dogs on Friday, check us out" - They give the address where you are and make it sound like it's a place you want to be at. I performed once at a place called "Death Trap" - the agreement the band had to sign explained exactly WHY it called that, and duplicated as a non liability waiver. Wasn't the easiest place to convince newcomers to attend, but I have to admit, it was actually quite the fun experience. I think all 7 patrons who came to see it enjoyed it as well.
Unfortunately, I can also to some degree see the point of view from the venues. We're looking at an unprecedented scenario of businesses facing increasing costs and reduced revenue due to an accelerated inflation and government restrictions which has forced many businesses close, some temporary, some permanent. In addition, people losing their jobs means tightening the belt straps, so an evening out may not be as easy as it used to be. With restrictions lifting, will wallets start opening up again?
Getting a band for the night is as big a risk as it is an attraction. You want the right music for the right crowd, and any new attraction may not sell as easily as the regular fan favorite that packed the house before. If you got a hard rock crowd coming to the venue, a country artist will be near impossible to sell. If you get an artist that performed poorly one night, the venue may question whether that entire genre or style is worth booking again.
I know there's also times where bands land a gig that nets them what they want, and figure they shouldn't have to do anything but show up and play. Those kind of bands don't last long in the local scene, they are either too good for it, or (in most cases) the local scene is too good for them. It was unwritten rule in bands I played in if a gig was coming up, we advertised it as best we could, kept tickets on us to sell if they were available, and ensured the pay was earned. In addition we showed up with plenty of time to setup, made sure we had at least one drink (doesn't HAVE to be alcoholic) prior to the show, and unless we were the closing act, stuck around for at least one more.
So how can a venue ensure they're getting their money's worth out of a band, and how can a band ensure they're getting their fair share and not earning less than the dishwasher? As I mentioned earlier it is an unprecedented direction we're heading in regards to live entertainment, but the entertainment shouldn't be screwed over in the process. Here's a couple things both the venue and artist may want to consider:
- Change your style of pay. Too often the response from bands and venues is more or less the bottom dollar. Venues: Instead of saying $X amount to play, switch it up a bit and offer what you consider to be a "safe" pay for live entertainment, plus whatever's earned at the door. Bands, consider a reduction in your rate if you can setup a swag table, a tip jar on stage, or get a meal/accommodations included in the deal.
- Sell the product. This is a two way street. Venues don't bring in the bands if it's not going to increase the revenue. Bands don't succeed without promotion. Venues: Be sure to advertise the bands, and if possible, throw links to their websites so your patrons can check them out. This goes for not only online, but in the venue itself. Bands: Provide the venue with posters if possible, and sell the venue right up to the end of your set. This includes mentioning bar specials, tip your waitress comments, etc. You're not the only one earning a pay, don't make the night all about you.
- Make them want to come back: Venues don't want divas that just show up, play, demand the pay and leave. Bands don't want to have to clear the stage to setup their gear and be treated more like an inconvenience than anything else. This doesn't mean one needs to be a slave to the other, it simply means hospitality is a two way street. the best nights of entertainment are the ones where the band is excited to come back to, and the venues profit from the live acts that make patrons feel good about being there, and not wanting to leave.
- Don't burn the bridge. I've had some good shows, I've had some terrible shows. Think the worst one was at the end of the night the show host and I were having an argument in the parking lot as were loading. After the heated exchange I walked to the vehicle where my then teenaged kids were finishing loading up for me. My daughter took one look and yelled "aw, Christ, Dad's mad..." - apparently I have a demeanor about me when I'm upset. I think my son imitated my 'mad walk' and got in the car before I could stop him. Go figure. REGARDLESS. To say none the less, I never stepped foot in that venue again as a performer or a patron, and I never got the invitation to return. The unfortunate part about it all is now that I'm booking shows in venues for other acts, that one will be a hard one to work with.
Hopefully we'll all get back to a post pandemic scenario where life returns to 2019 levels, and we can all work on getting back to regular programming. In the world of live entertainment, I believe 'normal' will be a long ways off still due to crowds and risks, whether shots have been taken or what have you. But whether we are musicians, promoters, managers, or venue owners, we all need to work together to prove to the patrons that the idea of live entertainment isn't dead, ESPECIALLY when it comes to something as simple as a price tag. As fans of live music, we all deserve it.