You’ve probably heard of the pay to play situation — a venue will book your act/band and charge you a room rental fee, which is a flat rate amount, to cover the costs of turning on the lights, paying service people, etc. The idea, of course, is that you pay the fee up front then sell enough seats to cover this fee and, with a good turnout, make money in excess of the fee and realize a profit. While I can understand that the venue needs to make money (obviously), it seems somewhat unfair to out-of-town groups who are playing the location for the first time or on an infrequent basis.
No matter how well you promote yourself and how big your listener base is, there can always be valid reasons for a bad night: weather, another gig / festival / event at that same time, road construction in the area…. These are situations I have dealt with personally in the years I have been performing. I have also witnessed established artists / acts suffer low turnouts because of these sort of situations. Of course, the venue is guaranteed a set fee whether you have two or two hundred seats filled. Your pocket takes the hit and, even if you’re not on the road, it can be devastating.
I recently received a booking offer from a highly visible and highly regarded venue (which shall go nameless) that explained that not only do they charge a room fee ($300) they also take 30% of the draw. Amazingly, when I checked their calendar they were booked solidly for six nights each week. Few of the groups / artists were major names and even the ones I recognized fit niche markets. I couldn’t help feeling shocked and disappointed that so many people are willing to cough up $300 just to appear in a club, then fork over 30% of their door take besides. To this venue’s credit, they do engage in promotion of the acts that are booked — many venues don’t bother to advertise on their own and expect the artist to do massive PR in a strange town to fill the club. (They will point the finger at you as being inefficient in your efforts if there is a low turnout. )
It may be the current economic times that force some venues to cover their own backsides through room fees. Sadly, too many venues save money and effort by not advertising except for a small listing on their website, often with little detail about the band / artist to attract perspective fans. It is in the interest of the venue to have a following of their own, to build a reputation as a club that features a certain type / types of music, that presents high-quality shows, that is worth checking out even when you don’t recognize the featured act. This sort of formula existed when I was young, before I even started playing out. Then, when I had a band, we targeted venues that featured the type of music we played. In most cases, the venue featured a range of music (prog rock, folk, fusion, singer-songwriter) but always had the quality no matter who walked on the stage. My groups benefited from this sort of approach and gained fans (without YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, etc.) because people came to check us out based on the venue’s reputation for good music.
While internet / social media developments in recent years have changed the way we relate to / do business with the public, they’ve allowed a shift away from a partnership between the venue and artist creating a successful ($$$) show to venues throwing the burden of making profit and the blame of bad nights entirely on the artists.
Someone did put out a rallying cry to all bands and musical artists to refuse to perform in major cities throughout the country for one week unless the bookers / venues agreed to at least pay minimum fees and engage in promotion. It didn’t happen, of course, as most performers were scared to lose what they’ve become accustomed to — they figure that no matter how mediocre, something small is better than nothing at all. If you really do stop to think about it, if most of these venues opened their doors and featured no live music of any kind how big would the draw be?
It’s a difficult situation that too many accept as unchangeable — I don’t have a solution to suggest at this time. Going on strike would only work if everyone did it. I do know that I will never pay to play.
(I wanted to share my take on this situation — my next posting will be more upbeat, I promise.)