This was going to be the post where I got together with a few local musicians and discussed the problem of bands not getting paid enough or at all for shows because other bands will play for less or free, so venues don’t want to put out the extra money, even if you can bring in more people and put on a better show. We discussed this briefly, but the discussion quickly changed to the problem of creating a music scene in an area without one, another issue many people have different opinions on (as well as it being a big issue in our area). Both topics are covered here. Special thanks to Kevin Black of Homewrecker (https://www.facebook.com/Homewreckr) and Andrew Thorson (https://soundcloud.com/andrew-d-thorson) for meeting with me and making this post possible.
I’ll start off with the opinion that the key to building a music scene around here is to play to the kids. All-ages shows have huge potential because kids/teens tend to drive the market in pretty much anything not specifically targeted towards adults. This is especially true of music. The problem that a lot of bands face though is the fact that most small venues (which they will have to play in order to build up their name to play bigger shows) are bars. In this area, which will be our example area (Lewis-Clark Valley on the Idaho/Washington border), there are many bars which can cater to bands but not many other venues. The only non-bar venues we see doing music regularly are big shows done annually, and without building up a name by playing local bars, you’re not going to be put on the ticket for these annual shows.
When thinking of catering to a certain audience, particularly in this case people old enough to drive but not old enough to drink, Kevin brings up the point that you need to look at the demographics of the area. Both Lewiston and Clarkston show 10% or the population between the ages of 18 and 24 according to the 2010 Census (sources cited below). Both cities have about 22% population below 18. So if we figure that about 8% are between 15-20, we’ll go ahead and round that to 10% for simplicity’s sake. The population is around 50,000, and it’s fair to say that on any given night (assuming there’s nothing big going on, no reason to go out) 10% of people can and want to go out. Of those 500 between our age range (10% of 10%), I think it’s fair to assume that only 10% will specifically want to come to your show. Sure, some will bring friends, whatever, but give or take, that’s still only 50 people. If you’re packed into a tiny venue then 50 people will seem like a success, but in this valley the only places like that that I know of are bars. While it would seem to be ok for a bar to make concessions to allow under-agers in for a night, they won’t make any money if they’re not selling alcohol.
If the venue can’t make money, charge a door cover right? Wrong. While a small cover like $3 or something isn’t unreasonable, the fact that there is a cover will often drive people away. Anyone who isn’t going specifically to see you will not pay this, they will simply go elsewhere. When you’re playing at a bar, you’re asking regulars there to pay you to play there by charging a cover. If they’re not familiar with you already (and like your music), they will find somewhere else to drink. Until a band has already built up a decent following, a cover charge is a bad idea. I know, this is starting to sound like maybe you just shouldn’t expect to get paid in your own (small) market.
This (the demographics of our area) is the primary reason not to try to play specifically non-bar shows, that plus the fact that there are almost no all-ages venues (in our area). Yes, there are coffee shops that can and do host bands, open-mic nights, etc., but how much as a band do you expect to get paid to play there? Andrew says that unless you’re the kind of band that can play a two- to four-hour set, you shouldn’t expect to get paid. You are entertainers. If you’re playing a 30 minute set, even just an hour, and/or are opening for/playing with other bands, why would you expect a venue, especially in your hometown, to pay you? As a band, you have to travel to build up your fanbase; you have to reach out to other cities as far as you can afford to travel and build up the markets in these places as well as your own. As you refine your sound, your setlist, and your showmanship, as you build up your fanbase to a loyal following that will come to shows just to see you, then can you expect to start getting paid regularly. Assuming you know better than to oversaturate your markets. Loren Weisman (http://www.tag2nd.com/) suggests not playing shows in the same city within 9 weeks of each other. I’d suggest something similar. I know bands that play any chance they can, playing coffee shops, bars, anyone who will take them; all in their own city. Now, why would I pay to see you Saturday night at Club X when I can see you Friday (or even next/last weekend) at Club Y for free?
Another thing we all agreed upon when we had this conversation is to have a generic band contract in place. If a venue will sign a contract, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to get paid the agreed-upon amount. Many small venues, bars, coffee shops, etc. won’t sign a contract. They will agree to give you X amount and you usually just have to take it or leave it. This can become problematic, especially when the band and venue agree on more than just X amount and also factor in band merch sales vs the bar. It’s pretty common to hear about a band that got screwed by a venue over something like this. Having a contract in place can work to protect you from this, as well as present you in a more professional light, but there will be venues (especially when you’re starting out) that will refuse to sign one. It’s just something you’ll have to deal with.
The other issue with playing for pay (assuming you have the two- to four-hour set to make it worth the money for the venue) is that other bands will play for free. Many bands like to get out and are just looking for exposure. They tend to not realize that exposure alone is worthless. Exposure means nothing until it is regularly converting to sales. These other bands will play for free and not want the venue to charge a cover. The way to deal with this is to be the band that already has the following a venue needs to see if they’re going to be convinced to pay you. If you bring in 200 people to a bar that’s selling these people alcohol all night, it’s a very good night for the bar and you should get paid. How do you market this show though? How are you going to get your fans, once you have them, to come to your town to that bar to see you?
Marketing responsibilities is another issue I see all the time, and I think that it’s really an issue due to bands and venues being unaware and inexperienced and also an unwillingness to put out the money for decent marketing. Both the venue and the band will put the event on their Facebook pages, and the venue will probably put up a flyer at their venue, but is that really enough? A lot of bands sometimes go around and put up flyers around town, and that’s not a bad idea, but be aware of where you’re putting them (are you targeting high-traffic areas?) and when (how long before the show is too long, and how short is too short?). Look into other marketing possibilities as well- Facebook ads are cheap and can be (very easily) specifically designed to target certain age groups, genders, in certain areas, etc. It doesn’t take a lot of money to do some better-than-nothing advertising. I’ve watched a bar completely fail because their only marketing campaign was radio ads (for a gay bar in a homophobic area) and a Facebook page they weren’t even using. They were relying on the bartender and dj to post on Facebook that people should come to the bar. You can imagine how well that worked.
Overall, we’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to build up a music scene in our area is for bands and artists to ‘band’ together (yup, there’s a pun) and be proactive in their area. If three bands get together and do a show one night, it will be small at first and surely they won’t get paid, but they’re putting the music out there. Bands and artists need to work together to force the scene into the area. If a bar has five bands looking to play there every other weekend, they’re likely going to start doing live music more regularly. This means regular bar-goers will become accustomed to seeing live music, and who doesn’t like that? When live music becomes something you can expect to be happening somewhere on any given weekend, people will start to look for it, even if they’re unfamiliar with the band. This will also help bands/artists gain fans they can later start to rely on for sales. Again, bands need to make sure they’re not playing the same market all the time or they will never get paid, but there are easily enough bands around that if we all work together, we will see positive changes in the music scene.
Kevin, Andrew, did I miss anything?
Sources for Census statistics cited above-