So this supposed metal band from Canada came down, on the latest of several DIY tours, promoting their fourth proper album. And they come to Des Moines, spend the whole show dicking around on their laptops and ignoring people, intro their set with “let’s get this shit over with” then put out a video on their tour blog wherein they slag on Iowa, insult the opening bands and bitch about the paltry size of crowd they had to play for and how they sold no merch and made next to no money. OK, these guys were jerks, but their complaining did get me thinking, because the real surprise to me was that after how many years playing music and touring, they weren’t already so used to having bum shows that they wouldn’t just let it roll off their backs and move on, and instead made a bitchy video about it. Because playing for 6 people and making no money is, let’s be completely honest, not at all an unusual thing to have happen when you’re an indie-level band. Most bands find this out pretty quick and learn to take it in stride and develop a little perspective; after all, if you’re playing your cards right, there should eventually be enough good shows to make it all worthwhile.
Still, I wonder if there’s something we can do to help this situation. I don’t want to see things get to a point where only the independently affluent or lucky are able to get by as musicians. Already we’ve hit a point where it seems like one can be serious about one’s music, or have a family, but not both. So many talented people are driven to write songs and record them and play them in front of people but see themselves as stuck just playing hometown gigs at the same venue over and over until they die. But that’s the macro-level view of the problem. At a smaller level where we might be able to do something, we have to ask: how can we make gigs work out better for the musicians?
Often times we’re so used to the way we do something being just “the way to do it” that it doesn’t occur to us that the formula might be out of whack for our situation. And the formula I’m talking about in this case is: schedule some bands to play on a given night; charge people some money to get into the venue; use that money to pay the sound man, the door man who you hired to collect said money, and then maybe, if there’s anything left, the bands. Never mind that the door man and sound man are working for you part-time, and live just around the way where there’s food waiting for them in their refrigerator — whereas the bands have hundreds of miles to drive by tomorrow, have just lugged hundreds of pounds of equipment into and out of your establishment and probably haven’t eaten all day. Yeah, shit, where did we go wrong with this plan?
I think this formula was developed under a set of assumptions that don’t hold up under scrutiny. Those assumptions are: any band you book is already well known enough that people in your town are chomping at the bit to see them; and they have money pouring in from records being sold at stores all over the country. This comes from the layman’s view of the music business, where as soon as you see guitars, you immediately free-associate to all the trappings of the rock-star mythos. This thinking probably works if you’re booking a big venue in a big city that brings in big bands. It’s a fallacy that I’ve seen happen in other kinds of businesses as well: the idea that because your small business aspires to be a big business, then the proper way for you to conduct business is to imitate what the big boys do that seems to be working for them.
Here’s some numbers I’m completely pulling out of my ass but that I suspect are not far from the truth: 99.9% of people have not heard of 99.9% of bands. And given a random person A and person B, of the .01% of musical acts currently in action that A has heard of, there is no telling how little the .01% that B has heard of overlaps A’s. Now take that set and find its intersection with the set of bands sending press kits to your little venue and you’re extremely lucky if have more than zero. So relying on people coming to your venue because they want to see the bands is pretty stupid unless you’re booking big-time acts. There just aren’t going to be that many people in it for most bands. And trying to increase turnout by cramming more bands onto the bill doesn’t help; it just hurts the overall quality of the show.
I’m going to propose something radical here: let’s get rid of the cover charge. You ask me, “then how am I going to pay the bands?” Newsflash, genius: you’re not paying them now. I’ve seen so many people turn away at the door of a venue simply because there’s a cover. People don’t want to part with $7 just for the privilege of walking into a place to hang out and have a beer just because some joe shmoe they never heard of is on the stage. It’s not because they’re lame-asses, they’re just acting rationally: they have no idea if they’ll like the music or not, and if they don’t, they’ll have wasted money that could have gone toward a couple more beers, and there’s another bar next door that they don’t have to pay to get into where they know that even if they don’t like what’s playing on the jukebox, they can ignore it easily because it won’t be as loud. On the other hand, if you could get them into your venue, you can be pretty sure that they’re going to buy drinks, and there’s at least an outside chance they’ll enjoy the band enough to buy merch from them (provided it’s reasonably priced; if the band’s trying to get $20 for a 7″ and no one’s biting, that’s their own idiocy hurting them).
What I’m saying is, it doesn’t make sense to expect all your potential patrons to be showing up because of the bands. You’ll still get those people showing up, but that’s a small group of people who are already pretty plugged-in to the indie music scene. How many of those people there are in your city is up to you to figure out because if music is part of your business plan you should probably be paying attention to that kind of thing. What makes more sense to me in most cases is to bet on people’s curiosity: “oh this place has live music tonight? Wonder if it’s any good.” Save the cover/ticket charge for the acts that warrant it — which acts those are, again, depends on your community; I think the rest of the time it would pay off better for everyone if you just let people come in and check it out.
Any thoughts on this out there? Am I missing something big here? Am I crazy?