I follow Music Clout on Twitter, and often see posts that suggest they view their target audience as aspiring pop stars, not musicians for hire. So when I caught the title Why Bands Need to Stop Bitching, and upon skimming the first few paragraphs of the post and noting that the author, Wade Sutton, was describing music as a conflict between art and business, I was prepared to launch a defense of the lowly club artist. It’s a common understanding that musicians are undervalued by the entities that hire them, and my knee-jerk reaction to the article was that it was a typical attempt at contrarian internet provocation.
Readers of SteelStringCheese may also remember that I have called attention to articles for the sole purpose of refuting them. But after really reading Sutton’s post, I must say he raises some excellent points. Let’s explore them.
Art vs. Business
First, Sutton explains that once money is involved, music becomes a business, and expectations are affected by factors beyond an artist’s control. As difficult as it may be to face the reality that your best work might not have a practical value to the public, it’s true.
I perform in a wedding band. Pop media often portrays wedding bands unfavorably; but they provide a service to people willing to spend a good deal of money. Club bands performing originals are basically advertising their product; unless the audience consists of already loyal fans, this is not a service. You might feel your pride injured when others do not assign value to your art, and I get it; but there is also a great deal of pride to be taken in demonstrating your performance skill.
Failure of Venues to Promote
Here, Sutton argues that venues cannot be expected to promote your show, so suck it up. I believe this is true; you cannot hold others accountable for your promotion (unless you have an agent or some other marketing people working for you). But where we might disagree is on the point of whether a venue should promote your show. I think it’s in a venue’s best interests to promote all their shows. With or without bands, they would be advertising their business, so why not put the bands at front and center in their marketing messages? It hurts no one and helps everyone. If a venue owner is concerned about endorsing a band of dubious quality, then he hasn’t put enough thought into the booking process.
Sutton’s closing statement on this matter is dead-on, though: “Whining and complaining will change nothing other than a venue’s desire to have you back.” Absolutely true: Keeping in mind that music is a business, a club’s failure to promote your show has a negative impact on your bottom line. So what is the appropriate response? Don’t work with them again. And don’t get all down on the fact that you have one less venue to play at. Call it “artistic integrity” if it makes you feel better.
By the way, if every musician did this, imagine what might happen to the market value of their services in their local community.
Your Band is a Risk
To summarize Sutton’s next point briefly, Promise a large draw. Venue operators spend more than just your fee when you perform at their establishments. There are often extra staff added to the schedule, for example. If you don’t draw a crowd, you violate their trust.
This has been common knowledge for ages. And it’s why many venues pay a low “guarantee versus the door.” That is, a token fee that is raised only when admission sales exceed the base fee.
Nowadays, there is no excuse to perform for an empty room. Build a network of followers through social media, even if it’s just family and friends at first. Start at a small place where just a couple dozen people would be considered a healthy increase in a typical evening’s crowd size. Work from there.
To echo the first point: Your art, no matter how clever or crafty, is not what gets you the gig. It’s the promise of reward for the person hiring you.
You’re Worth What They Say You’re Worth
Another uncomfortable realization, especially for those like me who have formal training. There are performance situations, like symphony orchestras, wedding bands, and studio sessions, wherein you can expect a sort of “scale.” But in these cases, it’s because the service being offered is part of an economic system that has well-established pricing conventions. Clubs are different; each has its own challenges, objectives, and budgets. You cannot expect any particular bar, club, or restaurant to follow scale just because they host musicians. Music as a service is different to them; it’s background entertainment, not something that they exist to provide.
You’re Not Giving a Recital
Sutton’s final point deals with audience perception; why would they want to spend their time and money supporting a local act that isn’t entertaining? Does this mean you have to sacrifice your serious, brooding indie persona to put on a cheesy act? Well, sort of. Pick up a local free paper and take note of which groups are consistently playing for the biggest crowds at the best venues. I’ll bet you’re going to see a lot of tribute bands, novelty singer/songwriter-types, and genre bands that focus on, say, 80’s hair metal or disco. Your poems set to atmospheric sonic rhapsodies are mostly interesting to you. Find a long tail of fans with similar interests online, because you’re not going to stumble into a crowd full of them on any given night at the local watering hole.
It seems to me that musicians often treat club gigs as recitals. They intend to showcase their works for an attentive audience. But for most in the audience, this is the musical equivalent of being subjected to your aunt’s slideshow of her latest trip to the Grand Canyon. They recognize that you enjoy what you do, but they’re not obligated to have a good time watching it.