Back in March, I wrote a post about my experience with the business of live music in Seattle, outlining the frustrations many musicians deal with when working with local venues, the terms I think are fair when performing, and the clubs I support and avoid based on the relative fairness of their relationship with musicians. My goal was to let the live music audience in on the actual business of live music and urge them to support venues that give musicians a fair shake. My personal list was met with lots of feedback from other players, venue owners and staff, and people who go out to see music, many of whom agreed generally but had different experiences with the venues I listed.
With that in mind, I distributed a survey to Seattle’s working musicians asking them to list the clubs that do the best and worst job of compensating bands fairly and working with them to put on successful shows. The goal was to get beyond anecdotes and personal opinions to really uncover which venues are musician-friendly and which ones aren’t. The survey was shared on social media and emailed between musicians for about 6 weeks, resulting in 128 responses from what I feel is a group of players that represents accurately the average working musician. Here are the results of that survey:
Question: In your experience, which venue or venues do the BEST/WORST job of working with musicians to put on successful shows and compensate musicians fairly? (See the full survey here)
Of the 128 respondents, 82 of them agreed to have their name published along with the results:
|Aaron Ameen||Dave Dolengewicz||Jason Gray||Megan Lueck|
|Aaron J. Shay||David Balatero||Jason Parker||Michael Martinez|
|Alex Henry||David Marriott, Jr.||Jeremy Serwer||Michael Owcharuk|
|Art Brown||David Wayne||Jess Hart (MC-3PO)||Mike Day|
|Ben Krulewitch||Doc Doolittle||John Wilson||Nate Bogopolsky|
|Ben Thomas||Donovan Pfeifer||Jon Hansen||Nathan Vetter|
|Bill Jones||Andrew De La O||Jon Lanman||Nick Auckland|
|Birch Pereira||Ed Vance||Jose Gonzales||Nick Molenda|
|Bob Baker||Edward Paul Ferguson||Josh Klopfenstein||Nick Mattson|
|Brad Chodos-Irvine||Elliot Gray||Josh Rawlings||PK|
|Brandon Thomas||Emily Ruth||Josh Wilson||RL Heyer|
|Brent Amaker||Emmanuel del Casal||Justin Froese||Rob Pastorok|
|Cameron Peace||Eric Tollefson||Karl Olson||Ron Hendee|
|Chris Klimecky||Eric Verlinde||Katrina Kope||Ryan Moore|
|Chris McCarthy||Evan Woodle||Katy Bourne||Shawn Mickelson|
|Chris Symer||Farko Dosumov||Lauren Hendrix||Skerik|
|Claudio Rochat-Felix||Greg Spence Wolf||Leah Julius||Tarik Abouzied|
|Collin Andresen||Ian Sheridan||Levi Fuller||Tarik Bentlemsani|
|Conor Apperson||Jacob Zimmerman||Matt Ashworth||Tim Kennedy|
|Danny Quintero||Jake Amster||Matt Watson||Tim Carey|
There are some things to note about this survey. First, there’s most likely a selective bias at work. Though there are a substantial number of respondents I don’t know personally, I created this survey and distributed it to the musicians I know and work with, who are likely to have had the same experiences with venues as I have. Second, I’m not sure how many votes out of 128 responses it takes to cross the line between the opinion of one circle of players and the broad experience of Seattle’s musicians. From what I know it seems like only the first three to five venues of each set are statistically relevant, but maybe someone smarter than me can help out with that. With that said, I do think these results are an accurate representation of the rock and jazz music scenes that provide most of the live music in the city.
Based on the results of this survey, my conversations with venue owners and staff, and my own experience, here’s what I take away from the past few months of thinking about this:
Musicians, until a utopian paradise takes shape where we all get paid a worthwhile guarantee regardless of the amount of booze your fans drink, we have to decide for ourselves what we’ll accept and what we won’t. I don’t mean collectively (although that’s worth talking about), but on an individual basis. If I walk away at the end of the night with less money than I’d like, I have nobody to blame but myself. With few exceptions, venues are very clear up front about what they’re offering musicians. Bands should look at the terms, be realistic about what the club can really afford given their level of business, do the math, and take it or leave it. Also, terms are negotiable, more so for established bands, less so if it’s their first time at a club, but that makes sense when you realize that being a working musician is about building a mutually beneficial relationship with the venues that cater to your music. It’s not going to be great at first for either side, but if both parties are reasonable and put in the work, it will get better for everyone. That said, some venues are easier to establish a relationship with than others, and that fact is reflected in these results.
Venues, money is only half the equation. Are musicians making $100 every night they play at Seamonster? No, but Seamonster is rated highly because the staff truly cares about music, musicians, and putting on good shows. They’re attendant to musicians who need help loading in and setting up, they’ve invested in making the most out of their small performing space, and they make an effort to get to know the players and fans that regularly come out. They’ve developed a scene that supports musicians who work hard and put on a good show. My experience with the less popular venues is that, on top of not great terms, the staff often could care less about the music being performed and treats musicians and fans as a nuisance. If a venue was rated poorly, odds are it relates to that attitude just as much as it relates to fair compensation. That said, a smile and a helping hand won’t make up for ridiculous terms.
Live music fans, we love you. None of this would matter if you weren’t coming out to shows, and we thrive on the energy you bring, but too many of you just aren’t paying enough. If you’re going out to shows with no cover, watching three hours of music, and buying $6 worth of PBR, you’re not doing enough to support the countless hours of work and the many thousands of dollars worth of equipment it takes for clubs and bands to make that show happen. However, if that scenario sounds familiar to you, it’s really not your fault. Bands and venues have been doing a piss-poor job of communicating that reality to their patrons, mostly competing to have the lowest cover and cheapest drink specials to get people in the door, and then wondering why there’s not enough money to go around at the end of the night. It’s up to us to work on that, but keep it in mind the next time you’re at a show.
Finally, there’s the question of what we’re supposed to do with this information, and all I can do is tell you what I do. As a musician, I’ve made the decision to stop accepting crappy terms regardless of the “exposure” being promised. I’m playing more than I ever have and don’t miss playing those venues, so I can’t say that decision has hurt me in any way. When I have a night off, want to hear some music, and have to decide what I’m going to do with my money, I think about this list. I don’t go to El Corazon no matter what. Lucid recently added cover nights that have fairer terms for the musicians performing, but I won’t go to a no-cover night because the players there are grossly underpaid for free shows. I think twice about going to High Dive or Nectar, and often check in with the musicians I’m seeing to make sure they’re getting a fair deal. They shouldn’t be playing there if they aren’t, but it still happens a lot.
So that’s that. There’s a lot more that could be said, but I’m going to leave it at this for now and hope the conversation that follows is a constructive one. If you have something to add, please do so below. Thanks everyone.