Why Music Venues Are Totally Lost: An Open Letter from a Professional Musician

By on Thursday, December 7th, 2017.

From: CD Baby

Jazz musician Dave Goldberg wrote a pointed and darkly humorous open letter to LA club owners that I thought was worth sharing. In it, he argues that it’s actually a counterproductive practice for venues to book bands who are willing to work for free. And when I say “counterproductive,” I mean it’s bad for the venue’s business.

To read the whole letter, click HERE. But below are a few of the highlights:

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 lets 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’t realize is that this is NOT in their best interest. 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 decor, 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 its 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.

He then makes the point that professional bands will have a somewhat harder time playing the “friend and family” card because, well… they’re pros! They play every 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 of 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.

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? Or how about the club owner’s friends and family? You see, when you start turning this argument around, it becomes silly.

So what does Dave suggest? Start fighting back, with calm, reasoned arguments. He explains:

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 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 what do you think? Can this battle be won by reasoning with one venue at a time? Or have the economics of the live music world shifted forever beyond our influence? We’d love to hear about your experiences as a live musician. Please feel free to comment in the section below.

[Editor’s note: Most talent-buyers, venue owners, show promoters, and club bookers do not resemble the sleazy pay-to-play club booker pictured above. Most of the time it’s best to view them as partners or allies in your event’s success. Treat these industry professionals with courtesy and respect. If they give you cause for argument– stay calm, state your points, and be ready to walk away! You can choose to never use a certain bridge again. It doesn’t have to burned down entirely.]

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