I have been thinking about some of this stuff for decades, but not since moving to the Twin Cities - where there is an overabundance of talent - have I been moved to really try and put my thoughts together regarding the intersection of promotion and wages in today's music industry. In an effort to avoid simply ranting, which I do a lot of, I will attempt to be not only concise, but to offer some possible solutions to what I see as major structural problems in how musicians, club owners and booking agents run the business of music.
This is one of the most difficult, time consuming, and thankless parts of being a musician in today's world. I say "today's world", because things have changed drastically in the last few decades. It used to be that a band went to a venue with the goal of working out a deal with the owner of a venue or an agent. The general idea was this: I have a great band. We are well rehearsed, we kick ass live, and we will definitely keep the people here for the night. In return for that, we think we are worth..... In the early 1990's when I was just beginning to book gigs on my own as a band leader, usually in the form of a funky jazz quartet or quintet, I would never get paid less than $25 per guy. Granted this was not in the Twin Cities, this was in Northern California. Anyway, the deal was usually that the club would do the promotion, the advertising, print up fliers for us if we wanted to go post around town, and they would even make an effort to talk to the regular customers about us a bit. "Hey, we have this really great young trombone player who uses the best local cats in his band. You should come out this weekend and check him out." I'll be honest, I have NEVER scene that happen since I moved here to the Twin Cities. Instead, I see a kind of ambivalence, even a sort of resentment from venue staff.
Before I start into another rant, here is the point I am making. We used to just go in and make a deal with the club; the club pays us X amount of money to "keep the people here", and the club does whatever it can to bring the people in, which INCLUDED promotion for the band(s) that plays there, at least if the club was worth its salt.
Today, we have a truly bastardized version of this. The first question I get, as the guy who does most of the booking for JE, from a club or an agent is this: "How many people can you draw?" Not "does your band kick ass?" Or "Can you keep people here partying and having a good time?" Just, how many people can you get to come to my club? Zero interest in the music for the most part. Now, I can live with that being the case. But what I can't live with is that half the damn clubs and bars in this town think everything is supposed to just be handed to them on a golden platter, simply because they are offering a place for us to play. Great example: We played a gig a long time ago at club I won't mention the name of. We busted our asses, doing fliers, sending out emails, doing My Space everything, and blasting out press releases to every damn paper in the Twin Cities. We didn't do too bad, bringing in about 60 people. Now, I'm thinking if we can bring in that many folks, being pretty much an unknown band, than the club should be able to pick up the slack in some way, making that crowd turn into closer to 100 people. Not the case at all. In fact, the club brought in a whopping 5 people. Guess who got the shaft on that deal? Not the lighting guy; not the sound guy; certainly not the bar tender; definitely not the club itself. The band did. We made something like $35 that night. Not per person, but for the whole fucking band!
My point here is simple, publicity only works when everyone involved is doing their part to get people out to the venue. Offer a damn drink special. Put an updated calendar listing in the paper at least! Maybe the bartenders and wait staff could be briefed on who is playing, and what style of music it is, so they can answer people's questions when they ask at the door. Maybe sell the fucking event a little, right? Too much to ask? Apparently so, because not only do they usually not do that stuff, but they expect us to do it all in place of them, all while paying us essentially nothing.
Let's just cut to the chase on this one. I believe, as do most of the guys in Junkyard Empire (maybe all of them), that music is like healthcare, in that if it is subjected to the tyranny of the "bottom line" it will thus suffer endlessly, creating yet another underclass of economically worthless people, worthless because what they make cannot be immediately turned around for profit. Unless of course, they record it, but that's a different discussion. We are talking about performing live right now. Just like a surgeon who operates according to the same market principles as that of the proverbial widget, the quality of the work suffers, and the good work becomes less and less available to the average person.
So, let's just admit that I am slanted. I am pretty much an anarcho-communist. However, I am also a realist, in that I am willing to admit that we need to deal with things within the confines of the system in which we currently are subjected. And with that in mind, change will only come when the engines of capital decide change has to come. For this particular argument, the musicians are indeed the engines of the music industry. Without us, it all falls apart, and we are left with music that can only be made by machines, or music that has already been made.
The question is, how should musicians be paid? The argument that is jammed down the throats of musicians everywhere, and extensively so here in the Twin Cities, is "why should you get paid if you can't bring anyone in to listen to it?" That question provides instant clarity on two points: One, the person asking that question obviously does not value the music at all, save for the dollars it brings in. Two, that person sees live music as unworthy of any kind of payment, unless it brings in vastly more money than the bar invests in it. In other words, the venue puts itself in a position of zero risk (not unlike a loan shark), while asking the musicians to risk everything to play there. If nobody shows, they don't get paid, losing all the time, money, and energy put into preparing for that show. The venue loses nothing.
Here's how it breaks down more clearly: Junkyard Empire goes to a club, let's call it Joe's Place. They talk to Joe and say, "we are a really good, tight band. We bring a kind of political and social message with our music, promoting activism in the community, which can be a cool thing to have in a club; something different than the usual knuckle dragging. We will do our best to get people to come see us play. We are responsible, so we won't show up ten minutes before we are supposed to play and then expect the sound guy to work miracles. And we will definitely keep the folks here, hanging out, enjoying themselves. For this, we ask for a basic guarantee of ...." Seems pretty reasonable if you ask me, especially after you count the endless amount of time we have to put into publicizing the event, talking to everyone we know to try and get them down, writing and rehearsing the music, loading in and loading out, and the simple act of performing our asses off for the patrons of the bar! Here's how the answer usually goes: "Well, how many people do you usually draw?" We say, "depends on the night, the venue, what other shows are going on during any given night, etc. We usually can safely bring in 20-40 people, but again, it all depends, can be a lot more." Joe: "Well, if I'm gonna pay you a guarantee, you have to guarantee me you are going to bring in at least 100 people or so."
Well, the conversation goes on for a bit, and then usually we settle at some utterly ridiculous fascistic capitalist idea like, the first $150 from the door goes to the club and then the rest of the money is split evenly among the bands for the night. What that usually means is - on a damn good night - about $350 to be split evenly among AT LEAST 3 bands, and that's if 100 people come to the club at $5 per head. That also means the bar keeping 100% of what it makes on drinks - although sometimes the bar pays out to the sound guy which is cool. And the crazy part is that this is one of the better deals in town. Many places just offer some piss poor guarantee, no matter what, and because they force you to book 3 or 4 bands on the bill, everyone makes the same embarrassing money.
Bottom line, everyone in that venue other than the musicians providing the night's entertainment is guaranteed a respectable wage, not based on how many people they serve, but on how long they work.
Now, for the solutions:
1. If the band is responsible for all the publicity for the gig in which they have been contracted to perform, they are entitled to be reimbursed, at last partially for the time and expenses that went into it. Easily worth $50 for a big weekend gig promotion. Otherwise, the band is NOT responsible for anything beyond talking up the gig to it's mailing list and regular media contacts.
2. NO MORE 4 BAND BILLS! This is a no-brainer people. If musicians want to actually be paid a rate that does not equal "pay to play", than the days of the 4 band bill must be numbered! A good classic two band bill, with a classic opener and headliner, just like what you would see at First Avenue, means two things: one, more pay for the musicians, and two, the patrons get more music for the money. The first band plays a nice long hour set, and the headliner plays - now, get ready for this - 2 whole sets! Bunker's has been doing it like this for decades, and as a result only great bands play there, and there are always people there to check it out. To put things in perspective, when I was 18 years old, doing my first jazz gigs, usually making never less than $150 for a night, I was playing the whole damn night, usually three sets, sometimes four! We had to WORK for our money.
3. Young bands, and all other bands desperate to play out live, have to grow some balls and start refusing to play at clubs that will not at least guarantee them something. It is a matter of respect for your craft. Do you think a carpenter, fresh on the scene, is going to frame up your new bathroom in the basement for free, because he hasn't framed a million other bathrooms first? No, he'll give you a damn good deal, but he'd refuse to work before doing it for free. This is one of the lessons we artists absolutely have to learn.
3A. There are plenty of ways to organize free concerts or "donation at the door" kind of shows at really cool venues that will actually respect you as an emerging artist, such as all-ages venues. I would rather play some cool house party, or a loft somewhere for $50 in donations than play at a major bar for the same amount to be honest. Plus, by doing that, we send the message to bar owners and bookers that we will play our music elsewhere if you are not willing to share with us some of the profit you gain.
4. High quality bands and individual musicians need to communicate with their fans, friends, and family that they are routinely being mistreated. We need to name names and point fingers. Clubs that disrespect bands should not have the privilege of booking the good ones, like Junkyard Empire. We, for example, are more than willing to take our show on the road to places where they will at least guarantee us a respectable wage, considering the tough financial situation we are all in. We all have to work together to ensure that live music does not fall by the wayside simply because the already flawed economic system of free market capitalism is now failing.
5. A grassroots musicians union needs to be developed. This will take at least a decade to really pay off, but just the process of putting it together will yield massive benefits. One way to start it off would be to start some kind of organization like "Twin Cities Musician Coalition for Respectable Wages." Just an idea I am working on. The point of this organization would be to get a group of very talented bands, some in high demand, some not, to sign a contract amongst themselves, vowing not to play at any venue that does not provide the bare essentials. Those bare essentials would be different for different bands, depending on how much material they have, how established they are, and so on. But it would NOT be based simply on how many people they "draw".
6. We need to redefine some terminology. How many people you can "bring to a show" is not the same question as "what is your draw?" Junkyard Empire can bring anywhere from 20-60 people when we push our friends, family, coworkers, etc, right? But we honestly have not a clue how many people we "draw". Bands are not marketing firms or number crunchers. They are artists and performers. How many people come to the show as a result of who they are, name recognition, etc. is for record companies, marketing firms, managers, and club owners to figure out. The job of a band is rock the roof off the venue and create a nice atmosphere for the people at the venue. A band that is really proactive will go out of their way to get extra folks to show up, because they are responsible and want to play for as many people as possible, not because some no-paying louse of a venue owner says they have to, even if he or she does nothing. So the next time someone asks me how many people do you "draw", I am going to give them an honest, and to my mind business oriented answer. I will say something to this effect: "That depends on who else is playing around town, how well you promote your club in the local papers and on college campuses, and how well Junkyard Empire name recognition is going. We don't have time to crunch all those numbers. What I can say is that we will have some people out, enough that you will be making money on drinks and what not. If we don't bring out enough people, or you are not making enough profit from the people who do come out, then we can always renegotiate our terms for the next show."
Obviously, this has been way longer and less concise than I intended. However, this is a very intense subject that can be interpreted numerous ways. This discussion needs to be had, and it needs to be had by the entire music community in the Twin Cities. Something has to change, and it has to change quickly. We do not have the luxury of slow, incremental change. We need to stand up for ourselves now, not tomorrow, not the next day.
If you are serious about re-thinking how we as bands and artists negotiate on our behalf, feel free to contact us. We have a big house and we'd be willing to host a meeting of local musicians to discuss some of this stuff. You'd be surprised what a small, focused group can accomplish when minds are put to task.