How To Negotiate With A Venue that Says They Can’t Pay You

Its a topic we return to time and time again on this blog. Payment. And by the way, we really loved hearing your comments in Do You Really Expect To Get Paid” a few months ago!

My approach to payment is continually changing on a case-by-case basis…depending on whether an event is a benefit concert, a friend is asking me to do the gig, or a number of other factors. As it relates to venues and their no-pay policy, I’ve found that most places that require negotiating are the non-traditional spaces that don’t generally charge cover or see themselves more of a food service than an entertainment service.  Here are a few tips. Your suggestions are also welcome.

When a venue says they can not compensate you, consider asking them to contribute a percentage of sales to you. A coffee shop near Pittsburgh used to do this and it worked great. They did not want to charge a cover for shows but held events in their store every weekend and wanted to respect the artists who played. So instead of charging patrons, they gave a percentage of each sale (coffee/sweets/sandwiches/everything), to the night’s entertainment.  It encouraged musicians to promote the show knowing that the turnout would directly affect their income for the night

“Do you feel like the live entertainment adds value to what your establishment is doing?” It might be direct, but it will help a booker to take a second look at you the musician. If they feel live entertainment encourages an increase in patrons, or encourages patrons to stick around longer, then it is only fair that they pay artists who are contributing to their spaces success. If they don’t feel it adds value, then why book live music?

I’ve come across spaces that exist, not to make money, but to offer something of value to their community. I’ve often felt that community events give life to a community and make music more meaningful. And so gigs like these might be something to consider doing pro bono. Just a thought (an opinion).

Be candid and straightforward. If making music supplements your income, tell them that. Explaining this changes how they view you and how they view what they are asking you to do.

  • Syd

    What are your suggestions when they respond with “There’s a hundred other acts willing to showcase for free”?

  • grassrootsy

    wow, good question :) Thats where you the artist take it into your own hands to build your reputation and resume to a point where interested parties know and believe you when you say you are worth being paid.

  • emay

    @ Syd – Tell them they’ll get what they pay for. Sure, there are plenty of other acts willing to showcase for free, but most of them are amateurs/beginners/kids/not very good. If they want a professional musician, and you are one, let them know you’re worth what you’re asking. Then the ball’s in their court. If they don’t respect musicians, treating them like something that can be stuck in the corner, ignored, and not compensated, then you don’t want to play there anyway.

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  • Jordannah

    Great post.

    As a professional booker, I work out a cut at of the door charge. It is unacceptable for a club to charge people to get into a show and not pay the bands. If a club puts on free shows, then drink tickets, the allowance of bands to sell merch, and providing a tip jar will help the bands.

    Some venues are not really worth dealing with if they are going to hoard money from musicians. Touring is the number one way bands can make a living with their art. I think bands and booking agents should be selective when it comes to where they play. Having to haggle with a crap bar without an inset following is a waste of time.

    Nonetheless, your points are valid and understandible. I work closely with clubs and empathize for them because pleasing an establishment’s quotas a booker is difficult.


    Think Like a

  • Al

    To be honest, i think the situation is usually obvious. If you are a band who’s going to be bringing enough people througha venues doors to put them in profit for the night, you’ll know it, they’ll know it, they’ll know you’ll be charging them, its just a case of working it out (an overly complicated process filled with deception and bullshit).

    If you’re an out of town band with little to know local fanbase in the place you’re playing, you shouldn’t be expecting to get paid really. The truth is like someone said, if you don’t play for free someone else (someone shitter than you probably) will. You need to take these gigs in order to have a chance at actually BUILDING the fanbase that will eventually allow you to charge.

    Looking with disdain at a venue charging for entry but not paying you is not the right way to look at things, live music in general is poorly attended at the moment. Sure maybe they’re making a couple hundred quid the night you’re playing, what about last night when they had to pay “Megastarz band X” 2 grand and only 50 people showed up? Our local venue is glad to have a good gig because it means they can pay the water bill.

    As you say though “case by case” is without a doubt the best way to go for underground bands who i suspect are the ones reading excellent blogs like this :)


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  • Ivan Skinner

    If an owner wants the musican to do the advertising and promos, that is a seperate business skill and task, and gets a separate billing. If you hire a carpenter to hang a new door, you cannot include that he also wash your dog for the same price. If you are hired to do music for an agreed price, the advertising and promos (bringing a crowd) is the washing of the dog, is a separate task, and gets a separate pay check.

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  • gbass

    I am reading all of this commemtary aand and can’t believe that any business person would look themselves in a mirror and think its ok for clubs to pull this crap. Not only am I a musician, I am in sales and know plenty about marketing and running a business. The job of marketing the venue is on the venue owner, not any vendor including bands they hire. Any bar owner who attempts to pawn off the responsibilities of marketing their venue on a band is an idiot. However, bands should be promoting their gigs as well. An acceptable ratilo of venue patrons to band patrons is 80/20 with the 80 in favor of the venue. If tbe band is anti-ing up more than 20% of the patrons the club owner is not marketing enough, if at all.

    The poster of the original pist abot clubs doing this not being in tbeir best interest has it exactly right. So many bar and club owners fail because they fall into the same trap that many of my former collegues who fail out of the insurance business.


  • G. Edwin Craig

    Many a musician needs to read this article! Nicely done.

  • E

    Something along the lines of, “That’s a hundred other acts that shouldn’t be playing music.”

  • Hoggy

    “Sure, there are a hundred bands that will play for nothing. But how bloody good do you think they’re going to be?”

  • MKD

    “I got some housepainting quotes lately, all reputable companies who do excellent work; the prices were in the $5,000 (USD) range. Now, I could go out on the street and hire any guy to paint my house for $1,000. Imagine this is your bar, which one would you hire?”

  • plain45

    On #1 there is no way to know their sales. Are you expecting them to open up their accounting books? A percent of the gross or net? They are not going to give you a percent of the gross without factoring in their expenses This is one of those nice ideas that is difficult to implement in the real world.

  • Shane LaVigne

    If a band wants the ability to demand real money for a performance, it is their responsibility to bring the full package. Bringing a well performed show that was promoted properly, resulting in a good number of “fans” in attendance and you can demand more money. In the end, everyone wants to make money. When you bring the full package, you earn the club more than bands that don’t. If you’re smart, you will use this to your advantage and continue to renegotiate with a club owner as your shows increase in attendance. When you continually bring a great crowd, a regular patrons of the venue recognize a night for fun and continue to attend your shows as well. Now you’ve managed to absolutely pack the place and can really use this to your advantage. I’m aware most musicians aren’t exactly solid businessmen so remember, you can only push this so far that both parties are continuing to make decent money.

  • Ryan D.

    Not really, I have sat down with club owners at the end of the night and factored % based on sales for the time our group occupied the venue. I made them print it out and we broke out the calculators in “real-time”…it works, but only if you know how to approach them in a business sense and set it up that way. Good luck out there!

  • Frank Fullerton

    Bars exist for one reason. To sell alcohol. Not to entertain people. The only reason they have entertainment is to sell alcohol. If you’re not helping them sell alcohol you have no value to a bar owner. I’ve seen great musicians play to empty houses. I’ve seen crappy bands pack the house. If you’re goal is to play great music, just forget about making money. If you are truly great the money will come. If you want to play in bars and make money your job is not to play great music (if that happens along the way that’s cool), your job is to make sure the venue sells alcohol – whatever that entails. Sorry, but as much as we’d like it to wish otherwise, that’s the reality of playing bars.

  • nicktann

    If a venue sets out that they are not going to pay me I tell them that I will pay for £1 but not nothing. I might sound mental but I have had 100% success in asking for this and have ALWAYS been paid more than a pound.

  • Ken Fink

    Does the carpenter advertise to get business?

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  • Mario Grillo

    You guys are forgetting performance rights groups :-(

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  • Earthboy

    So you expect a fledgling band to bring their fans to possibly two gigs a week every week! I wouldn’t hire a chef and then expect his family to come and eat in my bar every weekend! It’s up to me as the bar owner to fill the place. That why I use sales and marketing or more to the point employ an expert to do it.

  • OAG

    My following (just me, not including any other members of the band) ranges from 3 to 30 and there is no way to tell which gig will be which. I cannot walk into a venue and promise them a packed house because even my own wife won’t come to every one of my shows. Maybe I just don’t know the secret to having a crowd follow me all over town regardless of what the venue offers but I don’t think any band does. There are clubs I will never book again because my 25 friends and family had to come to a shit hole and get bad food and lousy service and I won’t put them through that. We’ve played awesome clubs that none of them came to because they all had their own gigs or whatever. That’s the business. The bar hires musicians to play music. They are taking the gamble on what kind of night they will have and THEY need to do everything they can to sell their alcohol, including scouting good bands.

  • Smokie

    As a solo guitarist I charge $50 an hour with a two hour minimum. I recently moved to Vegas and have had no problem getting my fee. When we lived in New Mexico everyone pleaded poverty (surprise!). The gigs I play are usually dinner parties and receptions, mostly at country clubs and private restaurants. When they plead poverty I usually ask them if they would work today for free and of course they say no. I then remind them that playing music is my job, and they called me – not the other way around. I then make them this offer: I will play for $50 an hour against tips. In other words they make up the difference. The manager usually checks the tip jar and makes sure the staff encourages the clients to leave a gratuity.

    I get asked all the time by musicians who are better than me how I can get $100 for a two hour gig and they get handed a roll of tickets to sell to their friends, or play for tips. My answer? Because they know they don’t have to pay you because you have already played for free. You set your own pay scale. BTW I am a senior and have been a paid musician for over 50 years and I can count the number of times I have played for free on my fingers, and I average 70+ events a year!

  • Alex

    Yes… and that’s the part where the Venue (aka you) hiring the band (aka the carpenter) ends the part where the band is advertising themselves because you have hired them to do a job at your place of business. It’s not on the band to bring people into your establishment.

  • Dan Denney

    Because venues don’t want to pay, working musicians are an endangered species. No one seems to want to mention the dirty word “DJ.” Yeah, they work cheaper, but these are not musicians, especially outside entertainment hotspots like LA, Vegas and Florida. Many are just tech geeks who surround themselves with every kind of music, but have no emotional connection to any of it. I’ll bet few of them will haul and load all that equipment for a 2-hour gig for $75. Many bands, even cover bands, are composed of musicians who are dedicated to their craft. They take time away from family and other pursuits to rehearse and refine their sound, not just the 4 hours they play for a venue. Some are talented and some are not. That’s for the public to decide. Venue owners need to know their target demographic and their reason for providing live music as well as checking bands out live or on demos before they hire. Customers can hear a DJ every day on their car radios. Why would they want to hear that again at a nightclub?

  • Dylan

    Yes, but does the carpenter advertise for people to come to the building where the door was hung?

  • Robert Days

    The carpenters advertising in this scenario would be directed at the club, the customer. Then the club/ customer tells everyone to come see the great work done. If it was up to the carpenter/musician then everyone would leave once the carpenter/musician was done and the club still hasn’t solved the long term problem of filling the club.

  • Ken Fink

    My point is this. You guys (and I) were right to say everything that has been said. But that and a dime won’t get you a cup of coffee. I’m 60 and have been gigging classical, rock, jazz and R&B since I was a teenager. Life is not fair. Carpe diem. Abandon the club owners who go low bid. You’ll never get what you want. Remember that a band can never sell itself cheap if you really want to make money. At least here in ny, word gets around and your earning power is shot.

    Get an agent if you don’t want to do the dirty work but remember…James Brown was a great businessman. He did all the booking and took care of the advertising as he came into each town, even after he became a superstar. This is a business. If you are an artist you’re probably playing originals. That is covered by a different set of rules than a bar band that plays covers.

    At my age I say what I feel. Why do all musicians call themselves artists? Sycophantic self-flattery. Working musicians can be artists, bu hell…I I’ve been to japan with top acts and the only artist was the headliner. We were in the backup bands. I could name drop but suffice to say that the guys working full time with rare exceptions go out and get gigs. Artist shmartist, no one cares. While we stand on our pride someone else gets the gigs. That’s the way of the world.

  • Brian Bullard

    Having a full time job puts my reply in a different vein. Why is it that some venues treat musicians like crap? I don’t negotiate with a plumber, electrician, doctor, Giant Eagle, etc. when I need or want their services. Here’s my price. Either pay me or have a nice day.

  • Brian French

    yup, that’s called a portfolio. and they all come to look, and then they go to see you next piece of work

  • Brian French

    that’s to base of a perspective for most people and most bars. Yes, turning the till does butter the bread, but nowadays the bar owner and the bartender can be sued for selling too many drinks to a person and letting them drive home. So there are limits to the till, and you don’t you don’t want a bar full of drunks every night, because you will spend all your profits fixing the holes in the walls and broken urinals keeping the place up to code. You want a good atmosphere, and good people to be your regular customers out to have a good time, Not a bunch of drunks with issues and sticky fingers turning your place into a dive bar. That requires good entertainment. nuff said

  • Brian French

    My Dad is a Professional Musician, and has been since before I was born, in the 1960’s. Back then it was a Trade, a Profession. You could play the same place 5 or 6 nights a week, just like somebody at an auto manufacturing plant, or any other job, or you could travel like an Iron Worker or an Oil Rigger. Part of being a Professional meant knowing a long list of “STANDARDS” and playing those during the dinner crowd. Another part was knowing how to work a crowd, which a lost art these days, as many of the BIG bands now are busy selling stadiums and arena’s, which is not the types of venues being referred to here. Imagine Soundgarden or Nine Inch Nails playing the same 400 capacity bar 5-6 nights a week for years… actually that sounds interesting, they should try that, but I digress, my point is, THERE IS A MUSICIANS UNION, just like an Ironworkers union, Carpenters union, etc. If it’s a Trade, and music is and should be treated as an Honorable profession i.e. A TRADE, then there will be reliable venues that supply great entertainment for great compensation, because the venue have the clients that pay them to AUDITION and bring in the great talents to an intimate setting. you get what you pay for, so find an owner manager ATMOSPHERE you like and become a good regular, this will bring good bands, not punk kids willing to slice their own throats for a slave contract

  • Nicholas Skinnell

    Well said.