As I have many interests, I don’t always write about technology. However, this friendly rant could be applied to a successful web development shop as well. The gist of this post could be boiled down to this: your talent is really your clientele. Without great talent, who also know other talent, you will never get off the ground. When a friend recently asked me for advice on booking musical entertainment. She admired the work I did with Soupçon Salon, a successful local supper and music club that I ran for over five years. We experimented and tweaked our approach throughout Soupçon’s lifespan, but much of the formula for our success was influenced by my experiences over the years as a working musician. It’s a dream of mine to be able to book quality acts for an awesome venue, so here are some crumbs of wisdom I’ve gathered over the years. If you could care less about live music, but manage a team of web professionals, swap out “musician” with “developer”.
It may seem paradoxical, but when running a music venue, your clientele are not the patrons, the musicians are. Musicians get treated like crap. I can only imagine the thinking behind this is that we are a dime a dozen. Everyone plays music these days, and many folks will play for free just to get heard. The idea that musicians are expendable is the kiss of death for any entertainment venue.
I have showed up to gigs where we didn’t go on until 1:00am (even though we were supposed to play at 10:00pm). I have played gigs where our payment didn’t even cover the gas it took to get there. I have played bars where we didn’t even get a free drink. I might understand if we didn’t bring anyone through the doors, but these are shows where we actually had decent turnouts. Not only will I never play those venues again, but I will make sure that none of my friends play those venues.
At Soupçon we always treated the musicians with the respect they deserved, whether they were just starting out, or veterans of the local music scene. One of the banes of a gigging musician is all the gear they have to lug around. To free our performers of this burden, we made sure that the PA was set up in advance, so they could just arrive “Chuck Berry style”, with nothing more than a guitar in hand. Other things that made a difference were making sure that someone was there to greet them and orient them when they arrived. There was always food and drink set aside for them.
Because we let folks eat and converse for a while, and we marked the start of a performance with a heartfelt and informed introduction, there was no talking during the performances. This level of intimacy is a lovely surprise to many local musicians who are often competing with an indifferent and loud bar crowd.
Even though the musicians were always paid by tips alone, they often made more at Soupçon on a Monday night than they did in other venues on weekends. This is because they did not have to ask the audience for money. I, as the MC, would always wait for a good time to make an appeal (usually lightly rehearsed and customized) to the audience on their behalf. Because there was a sense of camaraderie and a real community, the audience jumped at the opportunity to throw money in the hat.
If you have just a few quality musicians who trust you, and you make their experience great, then you will never have to seek out another band. Quality acts will be banging down your door. The reason for this is because good musicians hang out with other good musicians, and word travels fast in those circles. Your reputation in these circles is your greatest asset.
Music is everywhere these days. Anyone can see great performances on YouTube. But what you can create in a club is a unique experience, and this is what you are selling. Live music is so valuable because there’s an element of danger that cannot be edited out or curated away. That creates energy in the room and often leads to magic. Many musicians, even those who have played live for decades in front of sold out crowds, frequently told me that Soupçon was one of their best performance experiences ever.
At one point we had to move from an intimate, artsy French restaurant, to glorified deli. While the owner of the deli was a wonderful person, incredibly accommodating, and really got the community aspect of it, the venue never felt like a great fit to me. Despite the red curtain that went behind the musicians, the owner (who had fallen ill when we started) was not able to be there to oversee details and the staff was often reluctant to change things like lighting, or shut off the refrigeration temporarily so folks in the back could hear the music over the hum. While we still filled most seats and had magical performances, something was lost about the experience. Your reputation to deliver an incredible experience is almost as important as your reputation among musicians.
How to Select Musicians
The Musicians you select will depend on the size of the venue. You want the venue to be packed, not (only) because it maximizes profits, but because the audience feels grateful to be there and generates energy – this is the best place to be at this moment, and the packed house reinforces that perception. On the other hand, you don’t want to turn people away. It only takes a couple of times of being turned away at the door before folks write it off. So, the right balance is important.
But there are advantages to a small intimate space. You can book people who are just starting out. People love to be in early on someone’s career, to feel like they’ve discovered something, to have their finger on the pulse. If you book someone who doesn’t have an audience yet, you have to be sold on them yourself, and then help sell them to your clientele.
The benefit of booking local musicians at this level is that they often bring out fans. In fact, they should know how many people you expect them to bring (if they want to play again). But you should never rely on musicians to bring out more than half the potential audience. This is a collaboration, and it’s not only a service to the musicians to relieve some of the pressure of “the draw”, but it ensures you don’t have all your eggs in one basket and will make money even if the musician didn’t do a great job of promotion or is just starting out and has a limited audience.
As with the event experience, details in the promotion matters. At this level, you will be lucky if the bands have their own websites and tracks online. The way in which you describe the musician needs to convince an audience who has never heard them that they are worth the trip. This requires quite a large breadth of musical knowledge so that you can make appropriate comparisons and pique some interest. If it’s a walking town, posters go a long way. Offer to post flyers if the band prints them, or find other ways of sharing the promotional labor.
Cultivating an Audience
As mentioned earlier, many venues depend on the performers to draw the audience. While I agree that performers should draw their share, the experience and reputation of your venue should get people to show up even when they have no idea who is performing. The value that you are providing is much more than entertainment and nourishment – it’s community and a connection with the underground zeitgeist. With the growth of a more secular society and waning of religious communities, this has often been called a “Third Space”, which is where people go to meet with others outside the formal context of work or the intimacy of home. The MC has the responsibility to introduce herself to any new faces and make them feel welcome.
The Price is Right
Remember, your clientele are musicians. You do not want to price out the artists. The artists are what give your venue its edge and life, so if they can’t afford to be there on a regular basis, you are going to become a crusty old sell out. I won’t judge if you want to take that road, but just know that you will lose many of the benefits you get from having artists in your audience and you will have to work twice as hard to get your audience out. When you charge a small amount for dinner and allow the artists to tip the other artists, you don’t get complaints when things aren’t perfect, and if you do… well, what do you expect for $15?
Tickets or Not?
Furthermore, I would not sell tickets unless you are expecting a lot of out of town guests. You don’t want people to have to drive even a short distance only to get turned away at the door. Tickets really complicate things. You have the overhead of the ticketing system, lost tickets, refunds, and you don’t get that nice line outside the door that serves to alert others in the community that something cool is going on here.
As I think back over my twenty years of being a musician and performer, the places that are still around are the ones that care about musicians, treat them well, and show respect. Being a gigging musician is hard work, so the little breaks and gestures you can offer go a long way towards cultivating the kind of relationship you want. The musicians are not working for you. They are working with you, in harmony.