Finding A Middle Ground



This will be a two part series. The first section will be about bar and music venues, and the second part will be geared towards special events and outdoor festivals. 

A musician walks into a bar…

I have heard all of the excuses. They don’t have a built in crowd, they won’t comp us any drinks or meals, they don’t provide a sound guy, and they don’t market our shows!  These are all valid excuses, but you can’t live by what they don’t have or do. Bar owners are in this business to make a profit.  Regardless of how they operate their establishment, you need to understand a couple of key factors.

When bar and venue owners pay a band, they typically look at it from two perspectives. The first is sales from the night you played, and the second is overall expenditures for the music program. If a bar owner pays your band $500.00 for a Friday night, the venue will need to ring at least $5,000 in sales to make your service worth the expense. Usually, the band’s payment for the evening accounts for 10% of sales. Ten percent is not a mandatory number, but it is used by a majority of owners as a guideline.  Anything added to the tab, such as free drinks or food increases the owner’s expense and lowers his or her profits. Before you get fired up and start comparing the price of your gear, hours crafting your skills, setup and breakdown time, let me reiterate learning about the business side of bar gigs will help you better negotiate pay. Owners have more expenses than most people know about. From initial set up to operating cost, overhead can escalate into the hundreds of thousands, depending on the size of the venue and whether or not they have a liquor license. I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with my band or me? Everything!

Most venue owners are looking for the music program to not only increase sales, but to also facilitate the overall ambiance of the venue. If the venue is new or lacks a built-in crowd, then it may be time to start amplifying your game during the break. Communication is key while developing a note worthy show. In between sets make it a point to start conversing with the staff and crowd. Befriend them and get to know what type of music they like. Keeping your shows fresh and exciting will only enhance the experience. Learning new music, collaborating with other local artists and finding unique ways of marketing your service will help you move forward. Stand out from the crowd! Dare to be different! My next suggestion is to find a way to interface both your needs and the venue’s needs. Most venue owners are looking at the bottom line and want nothing more than an artist to help rejuvenate the venue. Show initiative and attempt to help them better the overall experience. When faced with these types of expectations, what should you do? How do we bridge the gap between unrealistic expectations? Let’s start by examining the complaints from both sides and then figuring out how to come to a middle ground and start moving forward. 

What do venue owner’s want?

  • Higher sales
  • Bands with a following
  • Packed house
  • Ambiance
  • Entertainment that keeps guest coming back
  • Good reviews

What do musicians want? 

  • Fans
  • Receptive crowd
  • Higher paying gigs and full tip bucket
  • Welcoming staff at venues
  • Sound and stage that compliment the artist’s show

What venue owners fail to do. 

  • Market the music program
  • Advertise the music program
  • Develop a built in crowd
  • Set the venue up for success
  • Give ample time to develop a music program

What musicians fail to do. 

  • Market their shows
  • Change their set list
  • Keep things fresh
  • Communicate their needs
  • Leave their ego at the door

So, now we have a general idea of what both parties are looking for and the common mistakes that both parties make. Let’s break down some of the key areas to improve.

First for the venues…

– The most common question is, “Does the band have a following?”. If a local cover band is playing in the same town three to four nights a week, then most likely they are not going to draw fifty people into a cover show. Fans will wait to check out the band at the closest location to their house because it’s all about proximity when your drinking. There are some bands with strong followings, but most of those bands limit their shows to once a month at each location.

– Marketing. Both parties are guilty of not marketing . I usually see one out of two market on social media (Facebook).  “Tonight Live Music by Blinker Fluid from 9-12“. What is enticing about this statement? What makes you want to go to Dick’s to see Blinker Fluid rather than other countless bars that host live music? Let’s take this same statement and spice it up a little. Add a picture of the band, a video and choose a preferred audience by pinpointing the target market. Now, let’s get real adventurous and market the show off social media. Some examples are table tents, posters, newspapers, community radio, sidewalk chalk, marquis, email list, and any guerrilla marketing tactics that will stand out. I understand that most people feel that Facebook is the only way to post an event or show, but please remember that only a small percentage actually are able to view your post. Think outside the box when you are marketing. Why do you want your band or venue to be different than the rest? Answer that, then attempt to capture the crowd. Invite a music blogger to come review your establishment. Whether the review is positive or negative, use this information to make corrections and move forward. Don’t be afraid of constructive criticism, learn from it.

– Advertise that you have a music program. Are you serious about hosting live entertainment, or do you just want background noise for your patrons? If you are serious, then you need to treat it like it’s part of your business plan. It takes time to develop a music program. The same amount of time it took your business to establish good regulars. If you really want to host music long term and benefit from being considered a music venue or a bar that hosts quality music, then you need to target the right audience. Advertise in places where music fans look for shows. The local paper, (Creative Loafing or TBT). These papers include a list of shows all the time, and numerous bar patrons read them in search of events.Another great avenue for advertising is the community radio station. Our local station, WMNF 88.5 runs show updates throughout the day. The station’s audience is in tune with the local community and supports the area musicians.

– Developing a built-in crowd. The first thing we need to do is learn that no band is going to save your business. Let’s start off with the basics. Service. Are your bartenders and servers passionate about your product and establishment? Do you give them a reason to come to work everyday? When you have live music, do they know who is playing or do they just spout out “we have music!”? To develop regular customers, you need to provide them with a reason to come back.

– Ambiance. What makes your business stand out? Is it that you have 60 flat screens or an accommodating stage for the band? Do you push the family dinner crowd? What is your exact niche? Too many places want to do it all. They want to be a music venue, a sports bar, craft beer bar, family restaurant and club on the weekends. Find what your good at and stick with it.

– Set the venue up for success. “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!” Why would anyone take you seriously if you just stick the musician in the corner, while the bar guest have their back turned to the music? If you are serious about hosting music than take the time to set up the venue correctly. Visit bars that get good draws for live music and start taking notes. Your competition should be your most valuable resource. Learn what they do right or wrong and utilize the info.

Give ample time to develop a program. This is key in the bar and restaurant business. If you are going to commit to doing something at your establishment, then you need to commit to a minimum of three months. If you can’t afford to host live music, trivia or karaoke for three months, then don’t give it a shot. When you start switching gears every month, your patrons and staff notice the unsteadiness of the ship and tend to jump quickly. Don’t just add music because you need a boost in sales. Add music because you really like the tunes, and you want the program to succeed.

Ok artists… here we go!

-Marketing. What does this entail? Who is your target market? What audience are you trying to reach?  You need to standout, and you need to get resourceful and creative. Start learning about marketing. Take a free online class. Schedule a meeting with a free mentor from SCORE or SBA. Learn how the game works so that your music is heard and in the hands of people that fit your genre. Start collecting emails, and start sending monthly emails about your music. Make sure that you include your upcoming schedule, videos and news releases.

-Playing the same shows. Each week you play at Luck’s, on 4th. Each week the staff greets you with a smile, then proceeds to mumble underneath their breath, “Oh great, here comes four hours of the exact same songs we heard last week”. I used to gamble with my co-workers on who could come closest to writing down all three set list for the bands. You need to switch it up, and keep it fresh especially if you are taking on a weekly residency gig. I have seen artists that played weekly, and they were some of the most talented musicians in town. But, the show got stale after a couple of months. The artist becomes comfortable and content and fails to grow. Learn new music, switch up your set list, learn a song for a patron or staff and ditch the weekly residency gig so that you don’t get burned out on the same place. To develop a strong following, limit your shows to once a month at a venue. If your goal is to build a strong fan base and advance your music career, you should really only play once a month in a town.

-Communicating. We all struggle with getting our message across. The only way to make a music program favorable for all parties involved, is to communicate your needs in a positive manner. This may mean sitting down with the manager and finding a way to make the program beneficial for each party. Start off by writing down a list of all the things that you think could help the club out. Create a list of all the things that you would be willing to do. It’s a give and take world.

-Leaving the ego at the door. An old time musician once told me, “I checked my ego at the door a long time ago!”.  No one likes to deal with a hot head. Especially when you can sense the attitude right from the beginning. If you think that you are too good to be playing the venue, then you should have stayed home. The bar staff will have plenty of issues to deal with, and your attitude will only complicate things. Learn to leave the ego at the door, and work in unison with the staff.

The more we know about the business side of the industry, the better off we will be. Let’s learn together. Drop us a comment so we can grow with you.







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