In the last month I’ve heard at least three stories of musicians getting majorly fucked over by venue bookers and promoters. The disrespect and unprofessionalism to artists are symptoms of a pervasive culture that dismisses the monetary value of musicians – despite the fact that when musicians play at venues, they’re bringing people, getting people to buy drinks, and otherwise providing monetary value to the venue.
But I’m not here to rail at capitalism’s effects on the value of art. I’m here to talk about how to recognize shitty gigs and avoid them like the plague. We’ve all played shitty gigs. I’ve played shitty gigs. I’ve been solicited by promoters offering me shitty gigs. I’ve seen craigslist postings advertising some reeeeallly shitty fucking gigs. And each time I come into contact with one of these scumbags, I think to myself: “Am I really worth that little?”
If you’ve ever had that thought, I want to encourage you to know your worth. If you know anything about marketing yourself and your music, you’re worth money. So I’d like to invite you to join my New Year’s resolution for 2017: to avoid bad gigs that devalue our worth.
And without further ado, the list that will help you achieve that goal: four red flags of a no good, very bad, godawful, exploitative shitty fucking gig.
1. Ticket-selling/pre-sale deals.
“Hey, here’s thirty tickets. Go sell them to your friends.” The catch? You have to pay for those tickets upfront, and then recoup your “investment” by selling them. Pre-sale deals are pay-to-play in disguise. Few promoters or venues do blatant pay-to-play anymore, but ticket-selling is a pretty good indicator of a gig that is not worth it.
As far as the exposure value for something like this, think of it this way: you’ll be selling these tickets to your friends, who already know you. You don’t know the other bands selling tickets to play this show, and you don’t know if they’ll be working as hard as you are. Even the exposure you’ll get here is a wildcard, and probably not one that’s in your favor.
In any case, fuck pay-to-play. Say it with me one more time to the people in the fucking back. FUCK PAY-TO-PLAY.
2. “Great exposure” and other non-monetary promises.
This is an obvious one, and a good lead-in from the last one. I realize it can be hard to turn down an opportunity that promises you more eyeballs. But per my previous example, a promise of great exposure is often empty. A friend told me about a promoter who asked her to bring 30 people to a show where “there will be 50 people. Great exposure!” Right. Also, taking unpaid gigs may also have the effect of undervaluing the product you sell.
To clarify, unpaid gigs aren’t always the devil – for example, when you’re just starting out, when you’re playing for a benefit, or when you know for sure Pharrell Williams is going to be at the gig and sign you on the spot as soon as he sees you play, it makes sense to do them. But make sure that you’re evaluating the decision to play for free in a business context, rather than treating it as a necessity. Consider:
- How many new potential fans will be there?
- Will the audience fit my market?
- Can you meet new colleagues or collaborators?
Indie on the Move has a detailed guide about this exact topic.
3. It’s hard to get in contact with the booker/promoter.
This is a trickier one. It applies to both when you’re booking a show at a venue with a booker, and when you’re signing on to a bill being put together by a promoter. By no means should you freak out if you don’t hear from a booker in a week or two if you’ve sent them an email with a booking request. (Although you should probably follow up!) However, if it’s still difficult to get a hold of them after repeatedly following up through multiple channels, including phone, text, and/or Facebook message, beware: they may be disorganized, or they may just not care enough. Either way, they’ll be harder to establish a working relationship with, and getting a good show going may be more stress than it’s worth.
As for promoters, I can best explain the issue with an anecdote. A friend and his band worked through a promoter for a few shows. For each show, the promoter did a bare minimum amount of promotion – basically putting together an ad-hoc “bill” of random bands that had nothing to do with each other, and designing a really bad flyer – and when the friend attempted to reach out, he found that the promoter wasn’t even in the area. When your promoter is that out of the way, that’s not a good sign.
4. The venue has a bad reputation.
This can mean several things. It can mean that the venue has a bad business sense, a substandard client base (or none at all), disorganized logistics such as door or sound management, or is generally agreed to be not a great place to gig. I won’t name any names, and I’m personally not a fan of elitism in any form. But some venues are not as reputable as others. Of course, if you’re a great businessperson you can make even a subpar venue work for you, but it’ll be more work and more factors will be out of your control.
Or a bad reputation can mean that a venue has perfectly good management and doormen and sound people and fancy stage lighting and clientele dressed in suits and bow ties, but treats their musicians like shit. Horror stories I’ve heard include:
- Venues moving dates and time slots around without telling the bands.
- Venues that retract a show that has already been booked.
- Venues that let multiple people in for the price of one person.
- Venues that “waive” the cover charge for the sake of “bar sales”.
Yeah, not a good look. Of course, just because these guys have been assholes to other musicians, doesn’t mean they will be to you. You just run the risk of your show getting really screwed. You have been warned.
The four points listed are heuristic guidelines to help you determine if the show you’re booking, or being booked for, will be a positive, constructive, and financially worthwhile opportunity for you as a musician. All this said, you will always have the agency (figuratively OR literally) to decide whether to sell tickets, play a free show for exposure, book with a promoter living in Norway, or risk getting fucked by a problematic venue. The thing about the independent music industry is that it’s anarchy and there are no rules. Some opportunities are better than others, but there’s no surefire way to predict their quality or scope. Who knows? Maybe you’ll catch the attention of Pharrell sitting at a dive bar in the Mission. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
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