Preface/edit: Got a lot of feedback about this and wanted to point out that I’m not advocating pay-to-play as a good system. It’s terrible. And I’m writing from the band perspective, I don’t own a club. I’ve been subjected to this system many times and hate it.
So you’re in a band, and they suck. You’re not sure why, but people aren’t coming to your shows, it’s becoming more and more difficult to even get shows, nobody likes your Facebook page or views your Bandcamp site.
What did you do wrong?
And most importantly, what can you do to fix things?
It’s not the music
Let’s get this out of the way first. If your music is horrible, people will tell you. Hopefully, you’ll notice it yourself. But there are lots of bands with good or even great songs that don’t get noticed because of bad breaks and lack of promotion. This is for those bands.
You’re Hurting the Venue
If you’re in an unpopular band, the bar hates you. And this will destroy your chances of getting other shows. Popular bands bring in crowds, drinking crowds. They turn a slow Thursday night into a bustling bar with full cash registers. Bad bands? When they play, the bar loses money. The crowd is smaller than it would’ve been with just a jukebox playing.
You may have seen this open letter from a bar owner that went viral in the musician world not long ago. There was a subset or musicians that reacted quite negatively to this, as if the bar is supposed to cater to them, like it’s their right to play their music.
If you’re one of those people, I promise you that your music career will go nowhere.
For the rest of you, this doesn’t mean you’ve gotta play Bon Jovi songs to get the middle aged women shaking their booties. That’s one route, but there are other options.
The easiest route is if you have a large network of friends. It’s tough as many musicians are quiet people that stick to smaller groups, but not impossible. Even if you hang out in smaller crowds, you probably have that person or two in your circle that is well connected. Getting them to their show can mean they bring 10 of their friends. That can be the difference between never getting asked to play again and having a bar owner who loves you.
Of course, if you’re relying on a large or small group of friends, you can’t abuse it. If you’re playing once a month and never adding new fans to your following, the crowd is going to diminish. Even if your music is really good, your friends will have other commitments or just get tired of seeing you all the time.
Cover Charges Hurt
But there’s more to it than just that. For one, so many new bands get into the trap of playing shows with a cover charge. How does this make sense for potential fans? In any larger urban area there’s a lot of competition for live music and bars.
If one bar has a band you’ve never heard of and they want $7 to get in the door, are you going to go? Likely not.
If you build a good following, you can start charging money. But when nobody knows who you are, this is a huge barrier to having people hear you.
When you’re booking a gig, ask up front about this. Find out why they are charging a cover. Many times, it’s to pay the person doing the sound as they aren’t a normal employee of the bar. And as much as the “pay to play” system stinks for musicians, this is a case where it’s worth coughing up some cash. If your band can give up $100 to get out of a cover charge, it’s almost a must. If you’re playing with a 2nd band, that might be $10-15 per person, not a lot of cash. That little bit of pain means anyone can get in free.
I personally have done shows with a cover and then followed up with the same band and supporting acts, but no cover. Went from 20 fans to over 200. Shows were close together, no promotional changes, no sudden radio play. So while it’s obvious that free helps, I think it gets understated just how big a difference it can make for a new band.
A bar has a band you’ve never heard of playing, but it’s free to get in? Well, now you might go check it out.
Drink Specials Help
Lastly, you should think about trying to work out some sort of promotion with the bar owner. Most bars have a happy hour or nightly specials. Come up with a special just for your show. Bars make crazy profits on hard liquor, so if you mention something like a deal on mixed drinks, it’s an easy sell. Tell the owner you want to keep people drinking while you’re playing. Don’t make it about getting people in the door, but about keeping them there and keeping them spending money. It’s a bold move, but good bar owners will at least be open to it, if they aren’t doing it already.
More than anything, this shows you care about the people who are taking a chance on you and your music. It shows you’re a professional and a business person. The bar owner will remember you and be more likely to invite you back.
Bar has a band you’ve never heard of playing, but it’s free to get in and there are $3 rail drinks? Now that’s a lot more convincing.
There’s more to come from this. We’ll tackle other aspects of having a band that hold a lot of people back in future editions.
You cannot advocate pay-to-play. Ever. It’s a system that inevitably ends in young impressionable people in bands being taken advantage of. It flat out stinks.
Of course pay to play stinks. But there are simple economics going on here. The bar needs to stay in business. They are taking on a big risk letting unknown bands play. Asking for the door to cover the cost of a sound guy doesn’t come close to mitigating those risks. If the bar loses hundreds in sales that night, then that’s their problem ultimately, but it reflects a lot on the band for not filling the room.
If you can get the bar to waive the cover and not pay anything out of pocket to do so, great. That is the ideal situation for a new band. Chances are, it won’t happen. If so, pay to play will improve your odds of a successful show. And you can always negotiate taking a percent of the bar that night to make up for it.
Uh, if the bar ownership has any business savvy at all, they’ll come to the exact same conclusion that having a cover will cut down on attendance and therefore sales. Anyone who doesnt realize this is an idiot who doesn’t deserve to be in business. As for paying the sound guy, guess what, that’s an expense just like paying the liquor license and the ASCAP/bmi/sesac fees and the electricity. If your business model cannot accommodate that expense, there is something wrong with your business model. If you can’t attract bands that put money in your pockets, maybe you’re not a very good venue. Bands that put money in the register can play anywhere they want, and you have to compete for them. Work on that, or find another line of business.
Never, ever pay to play. Ever. If you’re gonna put up money, rent some kegs, charge for cups and play in a basement. You’ll make a lot more money for any given amount of attendance than playing a bar, and it’ll be a lot more fun for everyone anyway.