Disclaimer: This is not about guilting musicians for playing at clubs with bad deals or badmouthing venues for setting what are, in my opinion, ridiculous terms. This is about informing the live music audience of the realities behind putting on these shows and what I see as an unsustainable situation, and trying to move past the usual finger-pointing and complaining so we can have a constructive, open discussion about what is fair and why.
Every few months the Seattle musician community erupts with outrage over a particularly awful night at one of the city’s many live music venues. For whatever reason there was a breakdown in communication between the musicians and venue, who each had different expectations about the cover, room fee, sound situation, promotion, set times, etc. We all quietly piss and moan to each other after last call, rarely letting our audience know what happened for fear of burning bridges. The fervor dies down and a few weeks later we’re back to where we started, playing the same venues with crowds none the wiser, waiting for the next time one of us gets a raw deal so we can repeat the cycle.
There have been a few solutions thrown out there, all basically centered around some kind of union. Musicians would organize and collectively decide on a set of acceptable terms for playing these venues. The problem I see is that I can’t tell another musician what they’re worth. If someone wants to play for less than ideal terms for exposure or getting more playing experience, that’s their choice. Everyone has their own idea of what they need to be happy and I can’t change that.
In my view, the key to a solution to all of this is information and fairness. People in general want to contribute to a system that is fair, especially in a progressive city like Seattle, and information is the fuel that feeds that fire. When we learn that Walmart treats their employees poorly and puts our neighbors out of business, we stop shopping there. When we learn that buying fair trade coffee contributes to better working conditions for South American workers, we seek out shops that sell it. When we learn that Apple products are made by Chinese teenagers working 70 hour weeks at Foxconn, we get on our iPhones and post about how terrible it is.
If we want fairness in this system, we need to let our audience know where to go, where not to go, and why. Tell them what you think is fair, let them know which venues meet those standards, which ones don’t, and let them make the decision. I’m willing to bet your audience will make the choice to support the venues that treat their musicians right.
In that spirit, here are three issues that I think cause the most problems between musicians and venues, and what I think is fair:
Cover and Payment – For ticketed/cover shows, 100% of a mutually agreed upon cover. For venues with no entry fee, a flat fee of $75/musician for one 60-90 minute set, or $50/musician/set for two or more sets.
Most venues in Seattle are bars. Their business is providing food and liquor. Our business is providing music. Venues should get paid for what they sell, and musicians should get paid for playing music. Venues have no right to get a cut of the cover any more than musicians have a right to get a cut of bar sales. As far as I know, no venue in Seattle gives bands 100% of the door, with even the best venue taking a small percentage for a city admission tax. As of right now, the city of Seattle levies a 5% admissions tax, with exemptions for venues with capacity under 1,000, which is a large majority of the venues I’m really talking about. These venues are charging for a tax that doesn’t exist.
If a venue doesn’t want to charge a cover to avoid turning people away, then they should pay musicians a flat fee. Musicians aren’t food and drink salesmen, so getting a percentage of bar sales makes no sense. Just like a bartender or sound person who are given set rates, musicians provide a service that requires payment. What I have listed may seem low to some, maybe high to others, but it’s the lowest I can charge without feeling exploited at the end of the night. I work for less sometimes, sometimes more, but that’s about average.
Staff – Sound and door person costs should be split 50/50 between venues and musicians. HIRED STAFF SHOULD BE COMPETENT AND TRUSTWORTHY
Bands perform much better when it sounds good on stage and audiences are happier when their ears aren’t being blown out by feedback. Happy audiences spend more at the bar and in turn give energy back to the band. The person at the door collects money for the band, checks ID’s, and keeps out aggressive drunks that can ruin the vibe inside for everyone. With the right staff, everybody wins. Both parties benefit equally from having them on board, so both parties should contribute equally to their payment.
As of now, I don’t know of any venues in Seattle that split the cost at all. Most charge a room fee of varying amount to cover the cost of staff, many charging much higher than needed for a sound and door person.
Mutually agreed upon design/print costs split 50/50
Obviously, both parties need to be in the habit of promoting themselves. They should both have mailing lists and a social media presence, and be actively promoting shows.
Unfortunately, most venues expect musicians to commission artwork for a unique poster, print out copies, hang them up all over town, and pay for it all themselves. This is shared advertising that should be split evenly between bands and venues. If a venue wants a poster designed and printed, which they should, then they need to have a budget to contribute to the costs. I’m wrong about this. After conversations with venue ownership and staff and other musicians, it’s reasonable that bands cover the cost of promoting individual shows. It’s just part of what we have to do to be successful. I think the reason I wrote this in the first place was related to the many times I’ve printed flyers and dropped them off or hung them up at venues, only to have them left untouched, ripped down, or covered. Anyway… Most venues already take out ads in the Stranger and Weekly. Really, these ads are for the venue and not for the bands, and shouldn’t be considered shared advertising. The venue name is large and in color, and the week’s schedule is listed below in black and white 6 pt font. I think these ads are a complete waste of money. Is a 3″ spot on a page along with 30 other venue ads really going to do anything for anybody? Apparently, based on feedback, I’m completely wrong about this.
I’ve stated what I think is fair and why, now here is a list of the venues I do and don’t feel comfortable working with. You’ll notice the ones I support don’t meet all my standards in one way or another, but they’re the closest in the city and have a positive, cooperative attitude with their musicians. The venues I explicitly avoid have, in my experience, the highest in the city and have a negative, uncooperative attitude with their musicians.
Venues I Support:
Seamonster Lounge (20% of bar or guarantee for established acts, drinks)
Triple Door Musicquarium ($150 – $300 flat fee + food/drink tab)
Comet Tavern (95% of door, $100 room fee)
Owl & Thistle (??% of bar, compensation in line with attendance)
Vito’s (varying flat fees + % of bar, half off food/drink)
Bake’s Place (varying flat fees, a meal and drinks)
Tula’s (90% of door, $50 for door person)
Venues I Avoid:
(details are to the best of my knowledge, if not accurate let me know)
High Dive ($275 room fee weekends, $170 weekdays)
Nectar ($150 room fee + 30% of door weekdays, don’t know weekends)
no cover allowed, tips only, venue records band for Lucid record label without pay)
Lucid now has ticketed shows, with essentially a $13 food/drink minimum added to the cover, along with their tips-only shows. For example, a $20 cover would give attendees a $13 bar tab, with $7 going to the bands. Cover can be set to anything, but Lucid has a $13 minimum.
Studio 7, El Corazon, or any venue that asks bands to buy tickets in bulk and sell them
Got a call from Studio 7 saying they don’t charge bands for tickets. Bands are given tickets and are paid $2-$4/ticket they sell. Called back for more details but haven’t heard back. This weekend’s ticket prices are $8-$10, which means the venue gets at least 50% of ticket sales. Not the same thing, but still a terrible deal.
This is not an exhaustive or definitive list, but only reflects my personal experience. There are other venues I don’t have a strong opinion about, and choose to work with or avoid for other personal reasons. Other musicians may have had bad experiences with the venues I like, or great experiences with the ones I avoid. If so, it’s up to them to let their audience know. There are also plenty of venues I haven’t worked with that may have better or worse terms than the ones listed below. I can only speak to my own experience.
I’m interested mostly in hearing from venue owners and bookers. Am I being unreasonable? If so, why? What do we not know about the view from your side of the table?
If you’re a musician, let me know your thoughts on what I covered and what I left out. Let’s avoid a long series of “One time I played at _____ and they totally screwed me!” posts. Be constructive.
If you’re a live music fan, let me know what you love about your favorite venues or what you dislike about the ones you avoid. Musicians and venues like to think we know what you want, but chances are we have no idea.
If you’re a troll and just feel like posting something hateful, please do so here.
Thanks for reading. Let’s make this better.