By Tim Kane
In this economy, landing a steady paying gig in a club can be akin to outperforming Buddy Rich in a drum battle, unless you have some solid negotiating skills under your belt.
Drummers “paying to play” has unfortunately become the norm the farther away from music-centric cities you drive, leaving many career-oriented musicians unemployed or performing for free. And that downward trend takes even more potential work away from the majority of drummers who work part-time or as weekend warriors.
Playing music is certainly not about the money for most of us, but gig pay does help pay for gas, food and replacing broken drum gear. At Gibraltar Hardware, we thought it might make sense this week to offer our advice, garnered from musicians we know and from our own experiences, to give you more of a fighting chance out there in Gigville. And we hope you too will share your insider tips with us as well.
Don’t sell yourself short
Golden rule: It is difficult (seldom a reality) to get an increase in pay once a band has admitted how low they will stoop to get a gig. The opening offer is often the best opportunity to negotiate; regardless of what the “optimistic discussion” is while the club is getting a bargain. Bargaining points like “if we draw a crowd” might sound good, but are so nebulous that it’s hard to actually ever hold a club to the specifics of it. The club will typically keep the band for as long as they can at the lowest price and if push comes to shove will play the “business is slow” card followed by the “we’ve decided it isn’t working out” and let the band go “for now”. We can thank the rise of DJs for that disaster in American music club management protocol.
If club management doesn’t make a reasonable financial commitment up front, they tend not to feel any need to properly promote it because they don’t have much to lose by not promoting it. So our advice is to “get it while you can, as soon as you can”, because there is no guarantee that it will ever increase to what you’ve allowed yourself to hope it might become. When the thrill of playing for (almost free) wears off, it also slowly wears down morale, one player at a time. That packed club with rosewood bartop and large stage that actually had a powered monitor for the drummer may have seemed glamorous at the time of negotiation, but not if morale destroys your band in the process.
WHAT SHOULD YOU EXPECT TO BE PAID?
A minimum of $75 per player and, yes, free unlimited drinks is a reasonable place to start for 2-3 sets of music. It would also help to renegotiate later if you set a timetable for renegotiating in advance, say one month or six weeks and revisit it, rather than wondering when and if it’ll ever change in your band’s favor.
The point is, it’s just like any other job, sort of (except many out of work musicians are willing to play for free – it’s hard to compete with that), and if you consider your own employment situation you’ll notice that raises are harder to come by than we all hoped they’d be.
HOW TO REASON WITH CLUB MANAGEMENT
To a bar, we are like beverage sales – a means to make a profit. If Brand X (no, not Phil Collins’ former fusion band) is offered at $5 dollars a case today, it is perceived as a cheap beverage and a good deal. If the price goes up, the owners will look for another cheaper beverage to fit the same niche. If brand Z is promoted as a “better beer”, it is considered to be a good value even at twice the price and the club “buys into it” and offers to put up flyers and banners and promote it heavily by word of mouth to “help themselves” recoup their added expenses. Both brands probably cost about the same to manufacture. The main difference is mainly the “perception of higher quality” and a commitment to significant promotion by the manufacturer and the retailer. Keep in mind, those two items are actually not the main ingredients in the beverage at all, and there will always be a cheaper brand waiting to “sell for less” and hope to make up for losses “in volume”, someday.
So it comes down to negotiation skills, marketing, and, oh yeah, the product can’t suck – at least not for very long. Having a nice demo CD, band picture, and online social page helps get you into a meeting – a lot. But not if you can’t stand your ground on gig pay and know how to say thanks but no thanks.
The fact is most live music clubs outside of major US cities – and plenty of ones inside of them, too – don’t have the long range vision to commit to building a good paying band scene and weathering the ups and downs of the bar/band business – even if you drew 50 of your own beverage drinking fans on opening night. There are so many reasons that people don’t show up in subsequent weeks – sporting events, the weather, the holidays, schools in, schools out – which have nothing to do with the band, but the band gets blamed, because at that moment in time they are perceived as a bad investment.
CHOOSE YOUR POTENTIAL VENUE WISELY
Clubs who haven’t done lots of bands before tend to bail out after a month or so when the anticipated instant cash cow doesn’t meet their immediate expectations, so the short-term deal is all you’d get. So start first by targeting the clubs that have been in the live music business for a long time. And when that avenue dries up, there are ways to entice local civic clubs and smaller acoustic act venues to host once a week or twice monthly rock and blues jam nights with your house band holding down the first and final sets, and inviting guest musicians up to play in between. More often than not, those same guests will keep coming back to play a few tunes with you for free and drink bar beverages. And you create a “scene” out of virtually nowhere.
Formulate a negotiating strategy with your bandmates first, ask other bands what they are earning, and perhaps consult with a promotions agent in your area.