A couple of months ago, I lambasted local musicians with a list of 10 things they should never do [“Knock It Off, Rookie,” March 21]. This week, I lower the crosshairs on club owners and promoters — who, since the advent of the nightclub, have been notorious for not just a few crimes against humanity.
A club owner’s job is not an easy one. Nor is that of the club’s bookers or promoters. But one thing has remained constant and reliable throughout the decades of changing tastes and marketing strategies is that live music — actual musicians playing their instruments — always sells. And it should be respected as such. So, here’s a list of 10 club owner don’ts, from a working musician who has spent the better (and worse) part of his life both performing and writing about music.
1. Don’t pay the band less than you promised. Ever. I don’t care if you “didn’t sign a contract.” I don’t care if “the band didn’t bring in the crowd they promised.” I don’t care if your “liquor sales have been tanking lately.” You made a deal, now pay up. Yes, musicians are used to getting screwed because they are horrible at doing business. Most local bands don’t have the luxury of a savvy manager, and when it comes to protecting themselves from shyster club owners, they have little or no recourse. Don’t be that shyster.
2. Don’t pay bands with “stuff.” Sure, a bar tab is great, and more than a few bands will play for free booze. But like you, band members are running a business (or at least they should be). They have expenses that need to be covered, and until crumpled beer cups are considered legit currency, the preferred method is still cash. Some of us consider this a career, and though a free meal might get us through the evening, cash fills up the tank and pays for sticks and strings.
3. Don’t pay the DJ more than you pay bands. It’s an effing insult. In fact, hiring a DJ is an insult to begin with, but since the late-’80s, when house music became a staple in nightclubs, club owners realized instead of paying two or three bands to carry the evening — and risk low numbers — they could pay one person a lower sum and guarantee a horde of mindless zombies drinking and dancing till the wee hours. These days, even the largest festivals have DJ tents, where these masters of musical integrity “spin” songs on digital turntables. It’s the opposite of music. And it’s certainly not “live.”
4. Don’t tell bands to turn it down. This phenomenon is especially prevalent on the cover circuit, but I’ve experienced it in a couple of original music venues as well. The logic is flawed. Hire a band that plays rock-and-roll through amplifiers, then ask them to “bring it down just a bit, because the bartenders can’t hear to take the orders.” Go to any real city, and this does not happen. Bartenders know the score. The band is loud because people like it that way. Otherwise they’d be in some down-tempo hipster dive chatting about their skinny jeans.
5. Don’t not promote your acts. (Sorry about the double negative, but this is a list of don’ts, is it not?) Too often, club owners forego real promotion of locals, thinking the bands are primarily responsible for promoting themselves. Again, flawed logic. Yes, bands should be passing out fliers and slamming social media with their event invites, but this is a shared responsibility. Scribbling a band’s name in dry erase marker on the mirrored marquee behind the bar is not a viable promotion method.
6. Don’t play faves. Sure, you’ve got your winning bands, the ones that always bring a crowd, the ones that always play your favorite song, the ones whose lead singer cuts your lawn for free. That’s great. But don’t put them in to open for every national act that comes through town. Give an unproven act a chance every once in a while. Who knows? The lead singer might even pet-sit for you.
7. Don’t promote your nephew’s band as if they were GWAR … unless they are GWAR. Nepotism stinks, and in the music business, it stinks like a rotting corpse. Unless your family members or friends are superior to the others on the bill, treat them just like the others on the bill. They need to earn it, just like the rest of us.
8. Don’t trash talk bands to other promoters. If a band has somehow screwed you over — is a consistent no-show, broke expensive equipment, stole a case of beer, etc. — then put the word out. If a band isn’t up to your personal taste standards, fine, don’t hire them again. But just because a band hit your club with a style or swagger you didn’t appreciate, don’t talk smack about them around town. It will bite you on the ass.
9. Don’t hire an unknown band and expect a turnout. All the promotion in the world won’t bring people in to see a brand-new local act. But they depend on you to help them gain a following. So do that. Help them.
10. Don’t hire crappy bands and expect a turnout. Look, some bands just suck. In fact, when they're young, most bands suck. Either help them out and keep your expectations low, or don’t hire them at all. But don’t bring them in and complain when no one shows up — or worse, people walk out. And if you promised them $200, pay them $200. Period.