Self promotion for the DIY musician has always been an uphill battle. You write record and promote your original music the best you can, but nobody is listening. You spend years honing your craft so that you can constantly grow and improve, and that alone takes hours, days, weeks, months and yes, decades to master. It’s mostly a solitary existence when you are creating, and when it comes time to gig you hope somebody out there wants to listen. So what are you doing to create awareness around your music and how much energy are you putting into promoting your band?It takes quite a bit of time and creative know how to gain fans that really listen, come to shows and want to support your career. There are millions of bands to choose from so it’s a tall order to get people to choose you. However, this is the path you chose so it’s time to get to work!You do have a responsibility to gather friends and fans from all over the world if your goal is to be a serious professional musician. But what about getting fans to come to your gigs…is that your responsibility or the venues?
This dilemma has been talked about fought about and debated for decades. Club owners typically take the point of view that they are giving the musicians exposure, a place to play and a chance to make a little money and gain fans by booking them into their venue. They don’t feel the need to provide a guarantee that is equal to cost of living wages nor to they usually care if the band makes any money at all. Some regions of the country, LA being the biggest offender, uses pay to play as the standard for gigging. You essentially have all the responsibility of selling the tickets to the show and ensuring that enough people show up to make the gig beneficial for you and the club. That’s a lot of pressure when you are an unknown Indy artist. There are several booking agencies across the country that will get you lots of gigs providing you sell the tickets ahead of time, meet the minimum number required and then the agent is happy to take 80 or 90% of the door. Great deal!Well it’s a gig and you think, it’s better than nothing. Is it? What if you valued your talent more than that and played at open mic jams instead, building up your fans and your buzz until you are ready to get a good paying gig?What if you weren’t willing to accept $50.00 to play a three-hour gig and just said, “No” to the agent when you know that the gig has paid $150.00 per man in the past. When you undercut the scale at venues just to get the gig, you set a precedence that hurts your fellow musicians and you let the club get away with murder. Watch and see how quickly you are the most hated musician in town. So how do I change the situation and book my band for a reasonable fee?
First of all find out what the going rate is at venues and don’t undercut that rate just to get a gig. You have a responsibility to your fellow musicians and you need your colleagues and your music community. Ask the venue what THEY are doing to promote the gig, such as listing it on their website, putting up fliers and posting on social media. Offer to re-post and promote their club if they comply. You can continue to bitch about what the club isn’t doing or you can go straight into solution mode and get the word out. If you have built a solid following, agents will see that and be more optimistic that their clubs will be filled, people will be spending money and they can line their pockets. That’s the bottom line for them. Will your band bring a crowd that will stay all night, spend money on food and drinks and bring in lots of cash for the agent? They didn’t book you because they love your music, grow up. This is a business. Why should an agent book your band with no following, when they can book a band that has built a following of thousands of loyal fans for many years?But if the club promoted my gig you say, then people would come to the show, love the music stay all night and everyone is happy. Perhaps that’s true, but which comes first, the band building the fans who may then go to the gigs, or the venues promoting the bands so that the venue gets filled and then the band can play there again for an even bigger crowd?
If we were talking about any other business the idea of providing a service for the “exposure” would be laughable, but for some reason in the music Industry its common place. Maybe your dentist should give you hundreds of dollars of free dental work so he can feature your winning smile on his website. Or perhaps your mechanic could fix your carburetor for free so that he could post his awesome work on facebook to gain new clients. And shouldn’t Nike be paying YOU to walk around decked out in their attire, advertising their fabulous products?What’s the difference between those ridiculous analogies and being asked to play a three-hour gig in a club for the “exposure?”Alot of this is a continuing problem because musicians allow it to be. They just want to play, so they agree to go into a club for nothing and sometimes lose money because of paying for gas to get to the gig or equipment rental fees. If you don’t value your time and skills why should anyone else?
There have been many letters flying around over the years from musicians to club owners about the quandary of playing for exposure. CD Baby featured one that I found particularly compelling and eloquent written by Jazz musician Dave Goldberg. This is a great letter and one worth reading for sure. One of my favorite parts of the letter speaks to the shortsightedness of the club owners when booking any band just because they played for free..
“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 of 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.
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? Or how about the club owner’s friends and family? You see,when you start turning this argument around, it becomes silly.”
Goldberg brings up some great points in this open letter. It would be interesting to know how this played out for him and what type of response he got from various club owners. Dave did finally get a positive response from the club owner he wrote his letter to, and now the club is out of business. It’s fabulous that he fought back and he encourages other players to do the same in his letter. After you read Dave’s letter, think about it and let me know your thoughts. I have a feeling this battle is one for the ages. But if you want to make a change, you do have to start with yourself.