Playing Fair: How Musicians and Live Music Venues Can Get Along

In January of 2011, singer/songwriter Gabriel Mintz performed at a popular Seattle music venue. At the end of the night, the venue gave Mintz a printout of incomes and expenses associated with the show.

The gross revenue from ticket sales was a promising $825, yet Mintz received no cash to go along with his printout. Instead, Mintz found himself reading through a laundry list of expenses that whittled away the gross, until his “Artist’s Potential” was a single digit number listed in red. Taken literally, the printout suggested that Mintz owed the club $9.

Mintz was spared the indignity of having to pay the club $9, but he later emailed the booker, trying to make sense of the payout, or lack thereof. The booker’s reply was that perhaps Mintz didn’t understand the costs of putting on a show in a venue that large and heavily-staffed, and that despite that gross revenue number of $825, the club actually lost $1400 that night. Both parties were unhappy. Both felt they had put more into the show than they got back. If someone wasn’t wrong, then something definitely was.

Printout from Gabe Mintz’ show at a 500+ capacity venue, showing a net loss of $9 for the artist.

Stories like this one are all too common at the local level and as a result, any discussion of live music can take on all the vitriol and pettiness of a political debate, with each side dug into its trenches.

Can musicians and the stewards of the clubs they perform at find a common ground of mutual respect, professionalism, and measured expectation? Are there ways to avoid surprises like the one Mintz was confronted with? I spoke with bookers of three prominent Seattle venues to try and find out.

Nailing the Interview

“Hi, Please keep me in mind for a gig in the future. When you have the time please check out the tunes!”

Aside from a link to a Bandcamp page, this is the entirety of an email shown to me by Greg Garcia, booker at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern. Garcia has been the booker at The Tractor for six years, and has also booked The High Dive and The Sunset Tavern. Garcia, along with The High Dive’s Kyle Kauzlarich, and The Comet Tavern’s Michelle Smith, make up our informal panel of bookers. They were happy to give me a wide range of band do’s and don’ts gleaned from decades in the booking business, and literally tens of thousands of emails.

“This guy emails every venue in town probably once a month,” Garcia says, mentioning that he’s never responded to the request. The music is middling lo-fi guitar folk, but that’s beside the point. Garcia is getting at a very simple concept that many musicians miss when trying to book a show: If you’re asking to perform a service in exchange for a potential payout, you are applying for a job and need to act like it.

To Garcia, sending an email like this one, devoid of any details or context, is like blasting out your resume to a list of companies pulled out of a phone book, asking if they have any random jobs available. It’s an approach that won’t get you far with HR managers, and one that won’t get you booked at any legitimate venue, either.

Ballard’s Tractor Tavern

“I get emails all the time from bands that don’t even have any songs up on their websites yet, or they have horrible YouTube videos where they’re telling me they’re going to bring a hundred people and when you look at the video, there’s nobody there in front of the stage.”

Michelle Smith – better known to Seattle locals as ‘Mama Casserole’ –sees a sense of entitlement as another hallmark of unprofessional bands:

“To constantly ask for a Friday or Saturday night with no history of draw or even an idea for a bill that would fill our venue up is pure hubris…Also bands that act as though I, as a booker, am supposed to book the best possible show for them vs. what would be profitable for the venue. ‘But we have a better draw on Friday than Monday’. Um, who doesn’t?”

Kyle Kauzlarich has been booking bands in clubs since before he was old enough to get in to see them, and expects bands to be professional during every stage of their interaction with the club, including the night of the performance.

“Being late drives me absolutely crazy…Treating my sound engineer with respect is huge for me. He’s the guy there that’s taking care of you the most – He’s helping you get on and off stage, he’s making you sound as good as possible. We pay him to work for the bands, and when the bands treat him like a servant or treat him poorly, that’s a huge problem.”

Garcia points out that bookers are just looking for what every potential employer seeks in a candidate: “be professional, be prepared, have your stuff together.” Acting like a beer-soaked rock god too beautiful for the civilized trappings of mere mortals may make for great theater while on stage, but doing it offstage or while communicating via email will mostly make you seem like an ass, or more precisely, one less act a booker needs to consider for their next slot.

When first querying a venue, write in complete sentences. Provide the proper information about your group: links to music, show history, what type of bill you might work for, etc. Give the employer a reason to hire you, or at least a reason to remove your resume from the “shred immediately” pile. Continue your good behavior when you get to the venue. Be polite, be respectful. And for god’s sake, spellcheck your emails.

Drawing Dead

When it comes to talking about “draw”, musicians have developed a conventional wisdom: Fluff your numbers a tad when talking to bookers in order to get the proverbial foot in the door, and worry about the consequences later. It’s conventional, but not very wise.

This strategy may get you booked at a venue once, but when the club staff sees how much you’ve fudged the numbers with their own eyes, you likely won’t get asked back. What’s more unfortunate is that the fear that causes us to exaggerate our numbers to begin with is mostly unfounded.

Garcia, Smith and Kauzlarich all point out that bad draw isn’t a death sentence, just a natural part of a bustling local music ecosystem in which not every venue can sell out every night of the week. These bookers expect occasional bad draws, sometimes from acts that have drawn great audiences in the past. More importantly, they relish the opportunity to perhaps turn the poorer-drawing bands of today into the better-drawing bands of tomorrow.

If Michelle Smith likes a band but not their draw, she’ll put them on a bill as an opener for a strong local act or even a touring act – a situation that gives them the opportunity to build a following without the pressure of having to pack the place: “Getting an unknown band that is awesome some recognition is one of the perks of being a booker.”

The Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill

Similarly, Kyle Kauzlarich wants to give younger, less-established bands every chance to improve their footing in the local scene: “If there’s a band that I enjoy – say they played on a Tuesday and brought six people – I’ll book them again in six months, but it will probably still be on a Tuesday…I try to give a band more than one opportunity if I really like them.”

Greg Garcia says that he’ll give a talented yet floundering band two or three different chances to open a show and improve their draw before suggesting they move on if they’re unable to ever up their numbers.

“This is what I always tell bands: If you do your work, and the venue does their work, and at the end of the day the show tanks, the show tanks. But you did your work, and that’s going to get you in the door again.”

To Garcia, the cardinal sin for musicians when it comes to draw is not even trying.

All three bookers agreed that at the local level, show promotion is a shared responsibility between band and club. Better clubs will pay for advertising in local papers, keep an online calendar, and send out email blasts with show listings. In return, the artist is expected to spread the word through their own channels: social media posts and invites, or word-of-mouth. (Making a poster and posting it in the venue always helps, too.)

Greg Garcia cites an informal poll taken at The Sunset Tavern one night. Attendees were asked how they heard about the show, and an overwhelming majority claimed word-of-mouth from the band members themselves. Musicians can be their own best friend when it comes to promotion, or they can be their worst enemy.

Bookers walk the same streets that musicians do. They post on the same social media sites as the bands they book, and they check those bands’ websites. If they see you’ve ‘done the work’, but the audience didn’t show, perhaps it was just a better night for a different music venue, or your band needs a little more time to progress.

If you can pack a house without doing any promotion, more power to you. More often than not, bands that don’t promote shows see the results in their audience. Bookers see a lack of professionalism and motivation, and move on down the line to an act more eager to bring in an audience.

Know Thy Venue/ Know Thyself

Some of the bookers we talked to were surprised about the details of Gabe Mintz’ story, but they were just as quick to point out that different venues have different requirements and overhead, and sometimes there just isn’t enough money to go around at the end of the night.

The musician could rightly argue that without a performance, there would be no money coming into the club in the first place. Meanwhile, the booker could point out that if the venue doesn’t exist, the musician has no show, and if basic overhead costs aren’t met, there is no venue.

Ultimately, stories like Gabe Mintz’ might not unfold the same way if a very simple and blunt conversation takes place beforehand.

Booker: “At X dollars a head, you will need to bring Y people in order to be paid”

Musician (either to booker or internally, panicked): “I’m not sure I can bring Y people.”

Unless you become a superstar, live music venues will usually have the leverage when negotiating with you. Their payout policies aren’t going to change for you.

The average musician’s options are to: A) Learn those policies and work within established parameters to satisfy them B) Find a venue with policies more likely to work in your favor, or C) Find a hobby less costly and stressful than live music performance, like sky diving, Iron Man training, or self-mutilation.

Knowledge is power, and Kyle Kauzlarich makes it clear that bands who don’t ask questions at the beginning are the ones that end up feeling powerless – and profitless –just like Gabriel Mintz at the end of the night.

“A lot of bands don’t ask about this stuff. ‘Do you pay ASCAP tax? Do we have to pay tax on merchandise sales? What do you pay your sound guy? If you have a lighting guy there, is that an extra cost? Is security included?’ Bands should feel comfortable asking those questions after they receive a show advance. I answer questions similar to that all the time, and it makes my life really easy because I can say ‘It’s all right there – there’s nothing hidden. We’ve told you exactly what’s going to happen.”

The High Dive in Fremont

If the answers to your questions don’t jibe with your plan for world domination, it’s probably not the venue for you. And if you can’t get straight answers to those questions, it’s definitely not, and it shouldn’t be, either. Greg Garcia makes a point that bands don’t have to play every venue in town – they should only play the venues they feel personally comfortable with, or at the very least, the ones that make them feel comfortable in their ability to put on a good, well-attended show.

“Bands will come to me and ask ‘How do we move up into bigger rooms’ and I say ‘Keep playing the smaller rooms until you sell them out, then move to the next one’”.

Every venue has a different personality, along with policies that can be either benefits or hindrances, depending on what you want to accomplish. The High Dive is one of few Seattle venues that actually reduces its room fee once a certain amount of bar sales have been made, while Mama Casserole is encouraging of bands who want to curate their own bill for a show at The Comet.

Regardless of what musicians may think in their worst moments, bookers want to see you succeed. They have a monetary stake in your success, and when you do well it will profit the club. They have an entertainment stake in your success in that a good show brings in a good crowd, makes everyone happy, and keeps the club popular.

And they are closer to musicians than we give them credit for in that they do it for the love of music, even when the money isn’t there. Garcia, Smith, and Kauzlarich all feel that they have a personal responsibility to foster a great music scene, and take pride in their part in doing so.

Get to know your local bookers. They are people just like you. Know what your local venues offer their performers, know that the devil is in the details, and make educated decisions in order to give yourself the best chance of putting on a show that makes the musician, booker, and audience happy all at once. If you don’t ask the questions early, you might not like the answers when they are handed to you on a printout at the end of the night.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in All Stories, August 2013, Featured Stories, Industry Trends, Most Popular. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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