Everyone wants a free lunch, but do the bands?

I’ve often written, tweeted, and spoken about how bands might be able to get more compensation for their performances. Sometimes a paltry payout stems from a lack of promotion on part of the promoter, venue, or bands.  Sometimes it’s thanks to less-than-smart show scheduling.  There are a lot of potential reasons, really, and each show is somewhat different than the one before.  But there is one reason for low pay that is particularly troubling: these days, everyone wants a free lunch.

When you play a TWM show at Rancho Relaxo, I cap my guestlist at 6-8 people per band/act. My own list is usually 5-10 people, and they’ll be either people directly affiliated with TWM, press, or people who are in a tight spot for cash at that point in time, so I decide to give them a break so they can come out.  If I take the show on the road to a larger venue, I’ll bump that number up to 8-10 names per act.  But that’s it.

Why?  Well, there are a few reasons. One of those is that when it comes to the end of the night, drinks have been flowing, and it’s time for payouts, it’s hard for bands to understand if 40 percent of the people in the room came in on a guestlist — it’s good to have things as clear as possible up front.  Additionally, as a promoter I want to pay the bands fairly as I can.  Everyone is putting effort into doing these shows. Bands have jam spaces, repairs, gas, and alcohol costs. They are recording a lot of the time and getting merch made; in exchange they ask you, the music-minded patron, for a small amount of money, usually five to seven dollars.  I think that’s a fair deal — well actually, for the bands it’s a shitty deal, but for the patron it’s a hell of a bargain. Or you’d think so, anyway.

But more and more often, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Toronto.  Certain groups have got so accustomed to getting a “free lunch” courtesy of being on the gueslist at all local shows, making it harder and harder to get someone to want to drop a couple bucks on cover.  What is extra confusing is that many show are being run by promo companies themselves, and I figure if you hire someone to help get the word out about your band, you are doing so to improve your reach, your turnouts — and inevitably, your payouts at shows. Otherwise, you are just going further into the red. These groups get paid regardless, by the bands who are suffering the consequences of the dreaded free lunch.

Take these two scenarios as an example.

Option A:  Three bands play a show at Rancho Relaxo. Together with TWM, we promote the heck out of it — with no budget for advertising — and end up with 110 people paid through the door at a $7 cover. That equals $770 to work with at the end of the night. In addition to the paid attendance, the bands and I had another 20 people on the guestlist, so 130 people came through the doors for the show.

Off the top we need to pay our door person — yes, door people get paid, regardless of how well the show goes — so let’s say that’s $50.  That leaves you with $720. Typically, as a promoter on a good show I’ll take 10 percent for running the night — let’s round that up to $80, leaving $640 remaining. Say we share the door equally among the bands — that means you are looking at about $215 per band. The publicity for the show was done by the bands and also by TWM’s own publicist, which doesn’t come out of the door take, so the bands have their typical expenses but no additional ones to cover for this particular show.

The benefits of this scenario are that the bands are getting the vast majority of the door for themselves, and people are getting used to paying cover so it shouldn’t be a problem to get them to do it in the future.  The venue is busy for all of the bands, which is always good.

Option B: Three bands play a show sponsored by a promo company — they can get a lot of people out, but many of those people will be on the guestlist. The guestlist for the bands is limited, however.  I’ve often found that a lot of people who want guestlist and get in for free only stay for the particular act they wanted to see and don’t watch the others on the bill, or are there more to socialise than to hear the bands, which means they’re less likely to buy merch or pay to attend a later show by the acts on the bill.  That’s not always the case, of course, but I’ve done well over 1000 shows at a variety of venues and that’s my general impression.

Say you get 150 people into the venue, but at the end of the night it turns out that only 70 people paid and 80 people were on the guestlist.  For argument’s sake, let’s use the same $7 cover: that equals $490 bucks. You still have to pay your door person, so that costs you $50.  That leaves you with $440.  The promoter still probably wants to take some cash — let’s say because of the low paid total at the door, they only take $40.  That leaves the night with $400 to be shared to 3 bands. That equals basically $133 per band, despite having over 20 people more in attendance at the show than in the first scenario.  Additionally, the acts on this bill have the added expense of having publicity attached to the show through a company they’re working with (and paying).

The benefits? It’s probably a very hip show, with people who are in the know from the industry. That could quite likely result in getting additional press, hopefully from some blogs and publications that haven’t covered you before.  Negatives? Once people have got into your show for free, it’s less and less likely they’ll pay to see you in the future.  You aren’t making nearly enough money for the amount of work and cash you are putting in.  And in the end, the turnout was decent but could have been better, especially considering that many people who came for free may not have come if they had to pay.

Result:  This is a tough question, but it does highlight my concerns with the overuse of guestlists. There are a lot of bands in this city who can pack the Horseshoe Tavern, but can’t get 15 people out at any other venue.  Why?  Because everyone who says they are going to the show gets in for free.  That is something I’ve touched on before.

This is a different guestlist-related topic because it has to do with hiring someone to improve your team. I have and do manage bands, so I’ve been in this position. The idea is that spending an agreed-upon price to bring someone in to publicize your band’s music and performances will move your act to the next level. This is not a decision a band should take lightly, because the cost is a large addition to your band’s budget. However, if the publicist can help you reach a new, attentive audience who wants to attend your shows, buy your merch, write about your music, and get the word out about your band, then it’s totally worth it.

But what if the majority of the new people you’re reaching always attend your shows thanks to a guestlist spot — is it still worth it?  At the bare minimum, I think this is the type of thing that needs to be strictly outlined and agreed upon before any show is booked.

At the end of the day, it’s your choice as a band whether you think the second scenario I outlined is worth it; sometimes it may be. I just wonder if bands going that route really understand the full extent of the decision. People aren’t buying albums like they used to, so those covers you take in from the door are supremely important to all of the acts on the bill. I just wish the patrons who always want to be on the list at a show, or the people running these shows on behalf of bands, were cognizant of that importance.

Food for thought,

Dan Wolovick

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