A Commentary on the Business of Live Music

It was about five months of not booking anything before my most recent show on Feb. 2nd with Gypsy Wig, Able Hands, and Young Legs. The show prior to Feb. 2nd (Delicate Steve, Gypsy Wig, and Dad Brother) was a memorable and fun night, which has been the case each time I’ve booked Delicate Steve and Gypsy Wig. In fact, one of my favorite shows happened to be on my 24th birthday and was also the last show I hosted at The Stanhope House.

I had decided to quit booking there because after 90 shows from Nov. 2010 to Aug. 2011 I had not only burnt myself out but found myself at odds ideologically with the vision of the owner. For him it was about short-term gains, but on my end I wanted to build something sustainable. Basically I wanted to make Northern New Jersey a hot spot for local music as well as touring acts.

That August night back in 2011 would forever change my perspective on booking, on life, on a lot of things. It was a night of fun, bonding, and moving on. Crowd surfing while having Happy Birthday sung to me was a highlight and something I won’t soon forget. In general the connection between myself, the bands, and the crowd that night was something magical.

Then on the flip side, I spent the end of the night screaming like a maniac in a teal paisley blazer, looking like a cross between a coke dealer and a used car salesmen, after the owner tried to get out of paying the band I was managing at the time—after a sold out show. He flashed a contract that had my signature photocopied on it with a deal I would never make for a band in general let alone one I was managing. After I pulled out a copy of the original contract, the owner began making threats about not paying Steve. I simply lost it and some ugly words were exchanged, but ultimately the bands got paid what they were promised.

Once things cooled down a few days later, the owner apologized and we made peace with the situation. But still, I had decided I was done. No more booking for me. After all, I had been doing it since I was 15 and it still seemed the greed was as strong as I remembered. For something like music, the holiest of arts, I never understand that side of the business. I mean, I understand bands and venues need to make money, but I never understood why so many venues took adversarial attitudes towards bands. When it comes down to it, no one is going to a venue because it exists. They are going because bands will be playing there.

At the same time, it’s unfair to say venues are the only ones Scrooging it up. While not every booking agent is this way there’s plenty of them out there that simply do not believe in fairness as far as the venue is concerned and this in turn creates a general sense of negativity and opposition. Rather than work together for the common good of spreading music and giving communities something to build around, it seems to be all about the money.

So when I had decided to quit booking I spent a lot of time reflecting on everything on both the macro and personal level. Clearly, the music industry works in a strange way. Clearly, money is a necessary evil. Without it bands and their various agents can’t survive and neither can venues. Couple that with the fact that we’re a pretty selfish species and it makes sense that bands and venues often find themselves at odds for the sake of self-preservation. However, it doesn’t need to be that way.

Venues will most likely have larger expenses than bands. This is inevitable because maintaining a building year round is much costlier than maintaining a band. So taking this into account, what I think would be a fair way of going about handling deals would be for bands to submit their expenses (what it costs them to eat, sleep, and get to the gig). The venue should guarantee them the cost of their expenses and then the venue and band split the money made from the show 50/50. If the venue has a bar then maybe they take less of the door or they give a percentage of alcohol sales to the band, again depending on their own expenses. Obviously, there are other variables and this probably isn’t the ultimate solution, but I feel it’s a step in the right direction.

Now you might be asking, what about promoters? What’s their role in this whole mess? Personally, after doing this for ten years I’ve decided there’s no point to expect money as a promoter. Sure, I’ve made money from shows but never because I shorted bands or a venue. The shows simply did well enough that there was money left over after everyone got what they were promised or deserved.

I hear horror stories all the time about promoters stiffing bands and I know why it happens. Most promoters put money out of pocket to rent a space, pay a sound guy, hire security, and even cover guarantees for the bands. When a show doesn’t go so well, all they see is debt, and a lot of it. So for the sake of self-preservation they screw a bunch of people over. It’s inexcusable behavior and I never understood how some of the slimiest scud buckets survived as long as they did. Oh right, they just found new bands to take advantage of.

So for promoters the best piece of advice I have is don’t put yourself in a position where you’re in debt before a show starts. Also, never under any circumstances make a promise you can’t fucking keep—but that’s just as much a rule of life as it is a rule of booking.  I’ve never once paid to rent a space in my entire time doing this. Yea, I may have sold tickets in advance at the mall or something, but that was when I was a teenager. Usually any venue that makes a band or person sell a certain number of tickets or face a penalty is a place to be boycotted and avoided.

Most venues don’t have the reach they need to fill as many dates as they have on the schedule. As a result you can often talk your way into getting a date to prove your worth. Sure, some venues will try to get you to pay them upfront because they don’t know you. You might suck at promoting and make them fail to meet their expenses that night or you might just have an off night. Either way, the venue will probably want some kind of assurance, usually money. If you can’t work something out that doesn’t force you to put money out of pocket, find another venue. It’s all about persistence and adaptation. Eventually, you’ll find something that works. You’ll provide a service to the venue and they’ll provide a space.

Even then it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that because you’re providing a service you should be paid. No, not really. Remember bands and venues have pretty high expenses. This is where we get into intent. A promoter, in my opinion and after a lot of reflection on this, should only exist because they want to help cultivate the music scene around them. That should be the only intention of the promoter. To help bands and venues find harmony with one another. If you can do that and there’s money left over, by all means you earned it.

When I was booking at The Stanhope House, having that pressure from both sides regarding money drove me nuts. I got into booking for the reasons I mentioned above, not money, but then I found myself obsessed with figuring out how to make the venue and the bands happy financially. Additionally, I wasn’t working a regular job because booking and promoting took up much of my time. So I had to produce good turnouts in order to put myself in a position to take home something at the end of the week just to get by—and when you’re booking 3-4 shows a week using primarily local or smaller acts good turnouts are not the easiest thing to pull off consistently. Nevertheless, it eventually just became about money, not quality, and that took a toll on me mentally.

But I think I’m a fiend for booking, man. In my head I was done booking, but as soon as I saw the potential for a cool show, I was back on it less than a week later. I found a VFW in Vernon, NJ, who wanted to get people into the bar so they could afford to stay open, and did a bunch of shows there. It was fun and there was no pressure at all, but it wasn’t generating big enough turnouts to pay bands and the sound guys what they deserved to be paid so I stopped. At the same time I did a couple shows at Mountain Creek resort, which were also fun. Bands and sound guys got paid, but it was an outdoor spot so once summer ended it was no longer viable.

Soon I found myself back at the place I first started booking after returning home from college: Bar 46 in Independence, NJ. It’s a little roadhouse kind of place and what I like about it is they do a $5 cover for shows and the money made from the door is split evenly amongst the bands. Plus they throw the bands a couple drinks, so it’s just a nice way of going about it. Not necessarily the most profitable for bands, but hey it’s a good time.

Even though I kept booking I realized my motivation had dwindled. As I said earlier I was just burnt out on everything, so I transitioned to a show once a month, then every other month, and then nothing at all until the opportunity for something special came along. It was that process that made me figure out the only way to go about doing this in a way that is fulfilling and low on the stress: Make it special.

After all, that’s all any generation or group of people wants: their special moment in humanity. It’s a big reason people move to places like Brooklyn or San Francisco, but these places have already had their moment. I’m a firm believer that pursuing potential and growing something is more fulfilling than going where something cool already happened. It’s better to add more quality to the world than to just migrate to places that have already done that. So I see it as this. If I can make every event I host special then that community vibe I wanted to try and build will happen naturally. Once that happens, anything is possible because in bizarre times like these the only thing that will get us through is a collective effort. Personally, I see music and the arts as the greatest way to bring people together because it’s people getting together for a good time.

And I felt that happen on Feb. 2nd at the Blairstown Theatre. I felt that positivity and the pure sense of enjoyment from everyone involved. Even though it snowed and sound check ran late, once the show started there was an awesome crowd in place and between them and the bands I couldn’t have asked for a better show. Even after it was supposed to be over, a bunch of the guys from Gypsy Wig and Able Hands just improvised a bunch of cover songs for the crowd, turning the show into a dance party.

It’s those shows that make everything worth it and it will always be those kinds of shows that make it worth it. Not money. So if money isn’t what makes a night fun and memorable then why does it always get in the way?

I’m just going to leave you with that because this ended up being way longer than I intended, and if you made it this far then thank you very much for taking the time to read this. If you agree, feel free to share your thoughts or this link with friends/on your Facebook/etc. If you disagree or take issue with anything written above, please comment below.

Also here’s some videos of the improv session that happened after the show. Apologies for the quality my phone was dying, and it’s a phone hah. There should be videos of Gypsy Wig’s set floating around the internet in the near future, though.

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