Club Owners vs Bands

by | Aug 28, 2013 | Band Life, Live Music

The other day, several of the folks at Reddit had an aneurism over this post.  The major issue is a long standing point of contention in the music world.  The idea of club owners taking advantage of musicians.

Generally this is “pay to play” or maybe unpaid gigs.  Generally the club puts zero effort into promotion, almost as if they don’t want the bands to play.

Musicians take the stance that they are being treated like indentured servants.  And I think the attitude was nicely summed up in this post.

Now, Mr Goldberg made some very valid points.  I’d argue the premise of hiring the wine bar to deliver liquor for next to nothing is a fallacy as you’re talking about a consumable good with a defined market value vs an abstract “product” with no universal value… but let’s leave that alone for now.

We can argue till the end of time about who is right here (if anybody).  But that argument won’t tell us the most important piece of information.


Why do clubs not pay bands a fair and standardized wage for their performances?  Why are the cards seemingly stacked against bands?

Let’s see if we can tackle this one… I don’t know that answers will come about, but it at least might make for some good discussion.  I’m going to try and bring up some ideas and questions, and explore them in greater detail wherever I can.

Club owners are breaking the law by not paying a fair wage to bands!

Let’s get this out of the way immediately.  Bands are independent contractors.  They do not need to be paid minimum wage, or any wage.  There may be some states/counties/cities where that is different, but on the national scale that’s how it works.  Sorry.

Club owners hate musicians!

Alright, I’m being a little silly here.  But it almost seems that way from the musician standpoint.  But I simply default to the belief that if this were true, they would just get a jukebox.

Club owners should be promoting shows.

Well, they do, to some extent.  Bare minimum, they’ll hang up your posters.  Generally they have some sort of web presence where they mention the shows.  Lots of clubs will put listings in various local papers as well.  Given that a local club usually has a much bigger audience than the bands playing there, this isn’t horrible.

Beyond that, it’s tough to expect much.  The club has to pay the rent, the staff, the supply costs, the insurance, the taxes, etc.  While that might make you think it’s in their best interest to promote the hell out of shows, the reality is the opposite.  It costs a ton to do a wide scale promotion effort.  We’re talking multiple staff members, ad buys (print/radio/tv/web), print costs, PR, and then some.

If you put in all that work and the show is a big hit, you might break even (this is why the larger clubs charge all sorts of ticket fees).  If the show is a flop, you lost out really bad.

So it’s in their best interest to put more on the bands.  Find bands that are willing to show they believe in themselves and go out and sell.  And deliver.  If the band doesn’t deliver?  The club likely loses money (extra staff [sound & door], fewer patrons).  But, they don’t lose nearly as much as if they did all the leg work for the band and it still failed.

Clubs should be screening the bands they book

There’s a lot of different arguments you could make for or against this one, but the biggest thing I can say against it is that it’s just not going to work.

For one, doing your homework to ensure the bands can deliver a great show and great crowd will automatically exclude new bands.  Beyond that, some bands only work in certain neighborhoods/clubs, some sound great in recordings but stink live, some are just great BS artists.

And in most cities, the small clubs are bars first and music venues second.  The owners are professionals at slinging booze.  Their best indicator of which bands are good is to book them and see if drink sales go up.

Basically, let the audience decide.

Music is not socially respected

I think this is close to the truth of the matter.  But I debate whether it deserves to be.  And this is coming from a musician who is very very passionate about the art.

What music is closest to being universally respected?  Classical and religious music.  Why?  Mostly because it’s a formula that has been successful for generations.  If a city can support a full time symphony, they have a known commodity that they can charge a premium price for.  It’s a tried and true product.

And don’t think that classical musicians are favored.  To make a living in the field, they have to rack up well into six figures of education debt, be willing to move to whatever city has an opening (there will be less than 5 job opportunities in a given year, nation wide) and push aside any individuality in their performance.  They don’t have it easy.

As for the religious stuff, well it’s an essential part of communicating the fundamental principles in many folks’ lives.  I don’t want to get into the topic, so we’ll leave it there.

Anything else?  It’s kind of an experiment.  Rock/pop is constantly changing and evolving.  If you say you’re a rock band, that could mean an infinite number of things.  There’s no way to convey to potential customers what they’ll get if they listen to you.

And since our reactions to music range from intense love to extreme hate, it’s a large personal risk to test out something new.

Should people be more open to trying new music?  Maybe.  But that is not going to change.  And as long as that’s the case, people are going to remember all the bad feelings they have connected to seeing unknown bands.  And thus, they’re a lot less likely to universally respect musicians.

See, I dodged talking at length about how so many musicians don’t take themselves seriously, but that’s definitely part of the equation.

People don’t like live music

I’m not defending the position, but I do think it’s accurate.  I’m not talking about going to see your favorite band, either.

People have been conditioned for far too long to shake their asses to whatever 140bpm song with a memorable hook is on the radio these days.  Anything else is scary.  And I’ll go as far as saying that if you don’t have the chorus memorized before you see a band, you’re not going to like them.

It’s absurd really.  This is the same problem that causes people to walk out of concerts after hearing the radio hit.  It’s the reason iTunes (or Napster or any other file sharing sites before it) was invented.

Folks only want to consume what’s been deemed socially acceptable, and thus they’ve taken the time to get familiar with.

This has been discussed at length countless times before, but I think it’s important to reiterate here.  This is a big reason clubs have a bad relationship with bands.  It alienates the customers.

Think of it this way, if you’re a relatively unknown band playing original music, you need to convince a crowd of strangers to feel almost as good about your music as they do about whatever Bruno Mars song they were singing along to in the car.  That’s a tough sell.

And I know, you’re reading this thinking how you want to appeal to a more sophisticated crowd.  You know what?  That’s great.  But “sophisticated” also means smaller.  And if you’re not trying to appeal to the majority of people, then don’t expect to get asked to play the majority of clubs.

Conclusion?  Musicians are second class citizens

It seems kinda true.  But I think too much of it is our own fault.  To go back to Mr Goldberg’s article I referenced earlier and turn things around… What other job lets you show up late on a regular basis, not be the most talented person in your pay grade, not put forth 100% effort, get drunk on the job, ignore or insult your boss (the fans) and quit when you please?

Face it, the bands that make it treat things like a real job.  They bust ass non-stop, get their performance down to a science, and make sure they are the best at what they do.  You don’t just wake up one day, record “Please Please Me” and suddenly get millions of loving fans.