An Open Letter to Venues That Exploit Their Musicians

The below post has earned quite alot of attention over the last seven weeks.  Full-time saxophonist, Dave Goldberg, wrote an honest letter to venue owners addressing their disregard and exploitation of the working musicians.  The post is powerful and I asked David if I could republish this article on Grassrootsy. I’m hoping that you’ll read this and think about what part you play. Venues can take advantage of you, but only if you let them. [original post]

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As Ive been looking for gigs lately, I’ve never seen so many free and low paying gigs. Well the economy is bad, so I can understand that a little bit. However, it is no longer good enough for the musician to be willing to perform for little compensation. Now we are expected to also be the venue promoter? The expectations are that the band will not only provide great music, but also bring lots of people to their venue. It is now the band’sresponsibility to make this happen, not the club owner.

Just the other day I was told by someone who owned a wine bar that they really liked our music and would love for us to play at their place. She then told me the gig paid $75 for a trio. Now $75 used to be bad money per person, let alone $75 for the whole band. It had to be a joke, right? No, she was serious. But it didn’t end there. She then informed us we had to bring 25 people minimum. Didn’t even offer us extra money if we brought 25 people. I would have laughed other than it’s not the first time I’ve gotten this proposal from club owners. But are there musicians really doing this? Yes. They are so desperate to play, they will do anything. But let’s think about this for a second and turn this around a little bit.

What if I told the wine bar owner that I have a great band and we are going to play at my house. I need someone to provide and pour wine while we play. I can’t pay much, just $75, and you must bring at least 25 people who are willing to pay a $10 cover charge at the door. Now wouldn’t they look at you like you are crazy?

“Why would I do that?” they would ask. Well because it’s great exposure for you and your wine bar. The people there would see how well you pour wine and see how good your wine is. Then they would come out to your wine bar sometime.  “But I brought all the people myself, I already know them”, they would say. Well maybe you could make up some professional looking flyers, pass them out, and get people you don’t know to come on out. “But you are only paying me $75. How can I afford to make up flyers?”

You see how absurd this sounds, but musicians do this all the time. If they didn’t, then the club owners wouldn’t even think of asking us to do it. So this sounds like a great deal for the club owners, doesn’t it?  They get a band and customers for that night, and have to pay very little if anything. But what they don’trealize is that this is NOT in their best interest.

 If you want great food, you hire a great chef…It needs to be the same with the band. You hire a great band and should expect great music.

Running a restaurant, a club, a bar, is really hard. There is a lot at stake for the owner. You are trying to get loyal customers that will return because you are offering them something special. If you want great food, you hire a great chef. If you want great décor,you hire a great interior decorator. You expect these professionals to do their best at what you are hiring them to do. It needs to be the same with the band. You hire a great band and should expect great music. That should be the end of your expectations for the musicians. The music is another product for the venue to offer, no different from food or beverages.

When a venue opens it’s doors, it has to market itself. The club owner can’t expect people to just walk in the door. This has to be handled in a professional way. Do you really want to leave something so important up to a musician? This is where the club owner needs to take over. It is their success or their failure on the line, not the musician. The musician can just move on to another venue. I’ve played places where, for whatever reason, only a few people have walked in the door on a Saturday night. The club owner got mad at me, asking, “where are the people?” I turned it around on him asking the same thing? “Where are all the people? It’s Saturday night and your venue is empty. Doesn’t that concern you? What are you going to do about it?”  Usually their answer is to find another band with a larger following.This means the professional bands get run out of the joint in favor of whoever can bring in the most people.

But here’s where the club owner doesn’t get it. The Crowd is following the band, not the venue. The next night you will have to start all over again.

Eddie Mechanic, who has slaved all week fixing cars at the local dealership, also plays guitar. Not very well,but he’s been practicing once a week with Doctor Drummer, Banker Bass Player, and Salesman Singer. Usually they just drink beer between rehearsing a few tunes in Eddie’s garage, but this week they answer a craigslist ad and line up a big gig. Well they don’t sound that good, but they sure all work with a lot of people everyday. All these people can be given a flyeron Monday and after being asked “are you coming to my gig?” everyday all week, will most likely show up on Saturday night. So mission accomplished, the club owner has packed his venue for one night.

But here’s where the club owner doesn’t get it. The Crowd is following the band, not the venue. The next night you will have to start all over again. And the people that were starting to follow your venue, are now turned off because you just made them listen to a bad band. The goal should be to build a fan base for the venue. To get people that will trust that you will have good music in there every night. Instead you’ve soiled your reputation for a quick fix.

I think we as musicians need to fight back. Sure You can get mad about it, but that won’t do anything.We could all agree not to play those for the door gigs, but you know that isn’t going to happen. But what we can do, is explain to the club owner that it’s not in their best interest to operate their business like this. There is too much at stake for them not to be truly interested in the music presented in their venue. Convince them that if they think that live music is important to the demographic that they are trying to reach, then they need to reach out to that demographic in a professional way. [Read "HOW TO NEGOTIATE WITH A VENUE THAT SAYS THEY CAN’T PAY YOU"]

If you asked a club owner, “who is your target demographic?”  I doubt they would answer, “the band’s friends and family.”  But yet clubs operate like it is.

Would you expect the chef’s friends and family to eat at your restaurant every night? How about the dishwasher, the waitresses, the hostess? You see, when you start turning this argument around, it becomes silly.

Another example, I answered a craigslist ad for a nice looking place in Beverly Hills. The ad read… “looking for a high energy jazz band, if you can bring the band and have a following, I will put you on stage.” That logic seams to say that they think musicians in a jazz band know lots of people living in Beverly Hills. And the people those musicians know, have lots of money to spend. Those are two pretty big assumptions. Good luck finding the combination. Even if you find that combination, are you going to find it every night?  Friends and family of a professional musician won’t come out that often. They can’t. This is what we do every night. Would you expect the chef’s friends and family to eat at your restaurant every night? How about the dishwasher, the waitresses, the hostess? Or how about the club owners friends and family? You see, when you start turning this argument around, it becomes silly.

I’ve started arguing with club owners about this. It happened after I played a great night of music in LA. We were playing for a % of the bar. There were about50 people there in this small venue, so it was a good turnout. At the end of the night, I go to get paid, and hope to book another gig. The club owner was angry.  “Where are your people?” he asked.  “All these people, I brought in. We had a speed dating event  and they are all left over from that.”  I pointed out they all stayed and listened to the music for 2 hours after their event ended. That was 2 more hours of bar sales, because without us, you have an empty room with nothing going on. He just couldn’t get over the fact that we didn’t walk in with our own entourage of fans. Wasn’t he happy that we kept a full room spending money? Right when we were talking, a group of people interrupted us and said “you guys sound  great, when is the next time you’re playing here again?” The club owner, said “they aren’t, they didn’t  bring anyone.”

I went home that night bummed out and sent him an email telling him most of what you are reading here and how his business model and thinking is flawed. After a lot of swearing back and forth, because I’m guessing that musicians never talk to him as a business equal. He eventually admitted that what I was saying made sense. BUT, that’s not how LA clubs and restaurants work. And he has bands answering his craigslist ads willing to do whatever it takes to get the gig. It’s been a couple of years now since that conversation. I called his bar, and the number is disconnected.

So there you go, LA club and restaurant owners.The advice is free. But you’ll most likely ignore it because “that’s not how it works”. But if more musicians kept telling them the same thing, perhaps it would start to sink in.

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Dave Goldberg is a professional jazz musician and is one-fourth of The Dave Goldberg/Duane Allen Quartet. For the past fourteen years, Goldberg and Allen have performed throughout the entire South Florida and Los Angeles areas to critical acclaim. The Dave Goldberg/Duane Allen Quartet currently have five CDs released with Tritone Records.
  • joshua

    bottom line is restaurant and club owners are fucking crazy. in todays day most average audience will pay for a download of crappy music and will frequent crappy shows. we as musicians shouldn’t have to handle our business our agent should. your absolutely best bet is to get strippers or women of any industry. to come to the shows. men follow and pay for anything. if that’s not your deal the weddings or corp functions are your best bet and for god sake form.any llc comp and write your losses off the club owners do. so get back to practicing work your craft and work smarter. cuz someone else is. jazz musicians and believe me I would back mingus if he were alive FOR FREE. have it the hardest. remember to play this game and without spite cuz only you will suffer. but it doesn’t mean to back down either. peter grant didn’t and neither should we. ESP. if you got the goods. if not go practice , pay your dues

  • Been there done that

    Been a musician for over 35 years. Late 70′s and Mid 80′s were great. But the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers stirred every thing up. Police started sitting outside of venues and arresting at every event. It doesn’t take much to be over the legal limit. People quit coming. When the people quit coming the venues wanted a cheaper route. So they went with DJ’s / Karaoke that underbid bands by half. 10 Years later the bands were gone and DJ’s / Karaoke raised there price to were the bands were. People got bored with them. Venues are having a rough time keeping doors open because they have half the volume of customers. Bands are hired for low money because crowds leave at Midnight or don’t come at all to avoid DWI’s.

  • miketheorganist

    You know, the bar owner AND the band BOTH ought to be promoting the gig. Especially if it’s on a weeknight. Especially if it’s a good original music band. There IS a clientele of people who are tired of 70s classic rock, 80s classic synth pop, 90s classic grunge, and God only knows what classic is about anything after 2001. There IS a way in every town to reach those people.

    It’s fine for a bar owner to only hire bands who sell liquor for them. It’s fine for a bar owner to pick the pockets of his customers be deadening their brains and putting in bands who are playing the stuff that other artists bled their hearts out to create and paying those artists nothing for using their music. I believe the term Ayn Rand used was “second-handers.” It’s fine. But there are other bar owners who want to be part of something special, even if it’s punk rock at CBGB in New York.

    It is possible. It has been done. If club owners AND bands will join together and promote together, well, maybe the drinks have to be $1.00 higher to pay for the posters and newsprint and calling the writers at the Style or What’s Happening sections of the city newspaper. Whatever it is. Start by giving and soon you’ll be receiving. And the people who patronize the forward-looking music scene in your town will be there for you.

  • adam

    Internet has killed the live music world…people rather sit at home in their undies then go see a live act. The crowds don’t have to to work for it anymore to find out about and listen to new music. You tube does it for them… really a shame, but it is the new face of music. I have been an active playing musician for 25 years. It Wil never be what it was…now just a bunch of cyrusses and beibers and a bunch of karaoke wannabees ..just saying. Long live metal!

  • Carlos Castillo

    Lazy musicians like Dave deserve to fail. He refuses to take any responsibility for HIS business. The truth is that to make a living as a musician, you have to treat your music as a business. Your responsibility does not end with making music. You have to take responsibility for putting on a show that draws an audience and engaging in marketing activities that bring that audience to the show. If now one shows up to your show, that’s on YOU (I’m talking to both the musicians AND the venues there). If you PROVE your value, you’ll get paid what you think your worth. It doesn’t work in the reverse order. It’s the same as any other business in any other industry. I’m not in the least way agreeing with venues that do nothing to promote their own shows. Venues like that deserve to fail too. The bottom line is that bickering back and forth between venues and musicians about who’s responsibilities are what doesn’t solve anything. And only those who actually step up and get things done regardless of what the people around them do will find success.

  • Reginald Holloway

    They also.the club owner is selling drinks at a hefty price and get a turn over in the time people are there spendind there money drinking.he making money every 15 minutes and less depening on the number of peopleMusician stop playing for peanuts please and the door.Like .Mr.Dave Goldberg just said!!! Peace,Music & Love.

  • Waz

    I like the point Dave makes when talking about the day job guys that don’t play very well, but can fill a room with their friends. What does the pay even matter to them? They can undercut the real players and not worry about it financially, and they’re happy to be just a backdrop to a drinking fest where the music ends up taking a backseat to the party (while the club-owner struts the joint with his chest out ). These “bands” use the opportunity to add a social element to their lives after a long week of work…and they probably sound as tired as they are when they hit the stage…just what people need after working hard all week; to go out and hear a tired-ass band. I always felt that people that work hard all week deserve much better than that, that’s why I stayed away from day-jobs and looked forward to giving the day-jobbers the fire they deserve when they go out to enjoy themselves on the weekend. Personally, I feel that by going the extra mile i.e. promoting, reaching out to fans, etc. always worked for me. Once people learned that my band worked/played hard and delivered consistently I made sure I put a cover on the door ( with MY doorman ) and everyone was willing to pay the cover. I remember doing so well with this that when I went to book a venue I frequently performed at, the owner said I would have to play for half the door. That was the day I took my business elsewhere.

  • Nortonchopper

    A couple of ‘change’ factors besides the lousy/VERY lousy economy. Major crackdown by the cops on drinking and driving. That scared a lot of people off. Making clubs pay royalty fees on music played by the bands – even their jukeboxes. Making it more and more difficult for clubs to even HAVE live entertainment (never ending permit requirements). The inundation of Karaoke. This meant that club owners could now set up a Karaoke mic, and let the people entertain themselves. The club owner gets free entertainment and his customers actually PAY for it. This was a job killer.

  • Guest

    Try getting your mechanic or plumber to work the “exposure.”

  • Timotee

    Unfortunate that the industry demands a devalue of self worth …. No other profession is experiencing this trend

  • Gun5linger

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but I do it because I love to play music. I could care less if somebody was paying me money, its my hobby and I love the chance to get in front of people and share what I have created. Now, understand that I also work full time and playing in a band is just for sheer enjoyment. I guess I can see if being a musician was a persons full time job, this would be an issue. But seriously, who treats playing in small clubs and bars a way to make a living these days.

  • http://www.tostmusic.com clay goldstein

    Good article. I have this discussion with venues often, from LA to Missouri to where I’m now based in South Florida. Get a reputation for being a fun place with great bands and people will always show up. I never promise a crowd. I promise a good show, long sets, short breaks, and to be kind to the customers, staff and venue. I also promise to do my part promoting with posters, social media, my website and an email blast for all of my shows that week. The landscape has changed. There is more competition for that entertainment dollar, driving after a beer is more risky, staying in the neighborhood more inviting. The key is “my part” because I feel the venues and the bands each have to do their part. Get a crowd and you can name your price and venue.

  • Bob Powell

    How about the venue that books you for New Years Eve 2 months in advance,then cancels you the day before the gig.Then brings an out of town band in.

  • adholst

    I have been preaching just this sort of thing for years. Trouble is, just as with the escalating gas & diesel prices, nothing will ever be done in the way of organised positive protest to reverse the problem – no one understands or appreciates / observes solidarity or has the conviction and fortitude to stand in numbers to make positive changes. Everyone simply sits around and cynically pokes at issues. Talk, talk, talk. Laziness and weak personalities like that leave those of us (apparently so few and faaaaaaaaaaar between) who do have the pride, guts and verve to effect change standing on our soapboxes alone and preaching to fearful ears. There is strength in numbers of voices, not numbers of words spoken by one voice.

  • Daniel Longbeard Fuentes

    in the end its all about the money..the self entitled stupid dave is so entitled..hes not even fucking famous..hes not adding value to the venue.. why fucking hire this shit whiny mofo..fuck you bitch youre a sham and a shame

  • Daniel Longbeard Fuentes

    it just sucks for him because reality bites.. saxophone days are over haha

  • Daniel Longbeard Fuentes

    youre a fucking idiot dave…people do business with people who can bring them to the next level which is someone who adds value..its not your job as a musician to bring a crowd right..but he owns the venue and he needs to make money..what would i get out of your great sax playing? nothing…it doesnt matter if youre great at playing..if your not adding money to my pocket.. im gonna kick you out and get someone who does.. your so stupid to be self centered and ven think that youre being exploited…are you a fucking idiot? this is what happens when youre so into your shitty music that you forgot how to play in the real world..it is a business

  • WiltonSaid

    Many bands complain about the venues only thinking about the bottom line, but then turn around and complain themselves when they end up not making money. Hypocrites. For a venue or booker, it all comes down to how many people you can either bring out, or how many people you can keep in the venue. If your cover band sucks and can’t get people to drink, dance and have a good time, the venue won’t wqant to pay you and will probably not be interested in asking you back. If you’re in an original band and you can’t draw enough people to drink, you also won’t be asked back.

  • Matt Sick boy

    I’ve been in local bands for 14 years, been a show promoter for 10 years, worked my way up to owning my own club which is the best live music venue in our city for 2 years now, and have begun throwing large festivals for 3-10k people this year as well. I’ve played shows for gas money and pizza, door deals, and 1k guarantees, and now book bands that I pay 15k guarantees and take care of extensive riders for. Point being, I’ve been on all sides of the fence.

    To you gigging cover bands who make a living playing every night, yes, you are looking for places who already have a large crowd and your only job is to play good music and keep them there. There are plenty of places like this and it’s easy to find ones who pay $300-1k. These are long running and a lot of times corporate bars and restaurants, NOT VENUES. Find and play those places, don’t play the ones who can’t pay what you’re looking for, and quite complaining.

    To you local original bands out there, YOU ARE IDIOTS IF YOU THINK YOU DESERVE TO BE PAYED MORE THAN THE CROWD YOU BRING to a real music venue which is the place you want to play to build your crowd. EVERY BIG BAND THAT YOU LOVE AND LISTEN TO IS PAYED SOLELY ON THE TICKETS THEIR NAME CAN SELL. Whether it’s Dave Matthews, Metallica, Rancid, Jay-Z, Foo Fighters, Social Distortion … you name it, they get payed per gig solely because X amount of people will pay X amount of dollars to come see them. How did they get to draw so many people who will pay that much? They all started somewhere playing local venues for door deals like you are. To build their crowd they practiced hard and made good music. They practiced and developed their stage presence to be entertaining beyond just standing there and playing. They damn sure shamelessly self promoted and made sure their friends and family came to shows. Instead of just playing and leaving, they stayed around and talked to new people to make new friends and increase their fan base, including the other bands they played with. They were polite and respectful of the venues they played to become friends with the staff, bookers, and promoters who in turn, along with an increasing fan base, will give them the opportunity to open for bigger headliners which put them and their music in front of bigger crowds. Instead of dividing the money they made among the band members to keep, they invested it in the band for banners, merchandise, and recording to continue producing new music to put in fans hands so they remember them after a show and come back to the next one. They all worked real jobs and invested their own money into the band to do these things. They saved up money to pay for their own DIY tours, and they booked the shows on these tours so that gas money from one would get them to the next, and slept in vans or on peoples floors. After all this hard work, when they’ve built up their fan base themselves and made their name actually worth something, then a label saw they could make some money off of them and decided to pick them up. LABELS ONLY WANT YOU IF THEY CAN MAKE MONEY OFF YOU. That is how this works. That’s how it’s always worked. That’s how it always will work. It can be done, I see it everyday with both our biggest locals, and the touring bands who have played here for gas money the first couple times, and now are able to make decent money because they’ve built a crowd. If you disagree, I don’t care because your band’s not going to go anywhere and you won’t last much longer. If you let this type of thinking poison you, your attitude is going to kill any chance you have. But if you want to do something with yourselves, get on board and get to work.

  • Gerard1

    He is spot on . . . but in the Akron, Ohio area, there are some great venues that pay the bands fairly (if not well), don’t charge a cover, and help with the promotion equally with the bands. I prop these places all the time because they understand how to run a successful business. I will not deal with cheap owners or pathetic venues that expect everything from the performer but have no accountability for themselves.

  • Andy Pratt

    thanks Dave, hopefully some will listen
    bless you
    Andy Pratt
    Youtube Wiki itsaboutmusic bandcamp etc

  • lightenup

    This is stupid. If you musicians are unwilling to promote, chances are you will not be around for very long. And you will not be getting the high paid spotlight gigs. The market is super saturated with bands, you can book many who are decent and will play music. That’s why the bottom of the barrel is low pay. What makes your band any different?

    There are gigs where your job is to promote. The venue is opening doors for a place for you to play and gather your fans. If you don’t have any, you’re not going to get paid much. Don’t expect the venue to have a steak in his hand and let you come up and eat it. They have usuals, but they don’t need you there to have them there, and don’t need to give away their profit for you to come out and get exposure. In fact, you potentially could pull their customers away from their bar. Your community is your asset. If you have no community, you don’t have anything.

    If you’re not going to promote, then you’re going to have to become a season player if you want to get into money quick. Find someone who is promoting and doing something where people will come out to see the show. You will be hired by other musicians, not by bars as gigs for yourself. If you can play a gig and pick up fans, great! Take ahold of them, but don’t expect to get paid much if you are just showing up and pulling the venues usuals. You don’t have anything you are leveraging. Later you can get good paying gigs if you stay in touch with those fans you’re picking up, but just like anything else you’ll be in almost apprenticeship mode before you prove yourself, no matter how good you are.

    You can play for other musicians, or you can play for crowds. That’s who’s signing your paycheck. And if you can’t get either to come out and drop a dime on you, your check is not going to be anything big. You can complain “ITS NOT FAIR!”, >:’(( or you can find a way that works. Pay your dues. Plain and simple. The bottom will drop out and be butthurt, placing blame on someone else. It’s no different than anything else. The ball is in your court.

  • threeleggedchair

    In business it doesn’t matter how good a product you have. If you don’t have anyone that is buying the product (IE: YOUR FANS showing up at gigs), you will fail. Every business has to have content and community. The bar has drinks and their usuals. That will float them. You have your music, if you don’t have your own community and your usuals, it will not sustain you. If you don’t grow you will not become more successful.

  • Tattatu

    My son was in a jazz band – Venice beach and Hollywood, great music – he finished at Musician’s Institute, the lead musician graduated from Berklee. For three years they were together and played gigs every week. No one paid them – except for drinks. They moved on. I call it abuse and I will never eat in LA ever again.

  • ThunderJunk

    Back in the 90′s, The Road was THE place to see bands. Now . . . it’s a shadow of its former self . . . the food’s still pretty good, the PA systems (upstairs and down) in there are MASSIVE and sound good too! But the place lacks any identity or definition anymore. In one night you can hear multiple genre’s of music. Upwards to SEVEN or more bands playing (upstairs and down) and at $7 or $8 a head?? Most people complain about spending $5 for one or two bands . . . but to spend more to hear music that you don’t even enjoy? Makes no sense.

    They’re lucky that they have regular business during the week to keep them afloat.

  • John Rechul

    I just Knew that this article would not be complete withought mentioning the “Penny”

  • Nathan Ponzar

    I don’t feel that art is a business like a coffee shop is a business. I’m not saying it’s a wrong way to look at it, it just isn’t my view of art. Maybe it’s because I distinguish art and entertainment. Entertainment is something done for the pleasure of the observer. Art is something that is done for self-fulfillment, self-expression, or therapeutic purposes. An entertainer has every right to treat his service/products as commercial items. An artist on the other hand, should never expect to make ends meet by creating works for self-fullfillment or other said purposes. Some artists do make ends meet like this, because it turns out that people love what they have created even though their tastes were completely unthought of in the creation process.
    If you want to be an entertainer, you gotta consider the business of entertaining. If you want to be an artist, probably best to have another source of income, because you will probably have to sacrifice your artistic integrity to be entertaining to enough people to make ends meet.

  • blueguitar

    I’ve been professional musician for 35 years now and I’d rather go and play in subways than in a club,I’ll make more money in 2 hours than in a club,so,let the club owners have the “DJ” which means” I know how to use to ipads” just my personal opinion…