December 2005, the band I was playing in was offered a show at this venue in Tampa called The Masquerade. It was the venue in Tampa. I saw all my idols there growing up. Slayer, Down, Superjoint Ritual, Fear Factory, Cannibal Corpse, GWAR, Clutch, Lamb of God, Machine Head, Amon Amarth, Vader, Kreator. When I say I saw every metal band that came through the area while I was a kid... I saw them at that venue.
So, you can imagine my excitement when we got the offer to play at this venue. I was beyond stoked. Everyone in our band hated me for the weeks leading up to this show because I wouldn’t stop talking about it.
A couple weeks before this show we were told to head up to the venue to collect some tickets to sell. We were handed 50 tickets and told to sell however many we can, and bring the money the night of the show. Tickets were $7; we kept $3 out of each ticket we sold. On top of that bands got a split of the door. Four bands played. A solid amount of people showed up. My amp blew up during the 3rd song. Everyone had fun. It was a great experience.
Fast forward 7 years and I work with unsigned/independent bands every hour of every day of my life. 7 days a week I’m thinking about the guys I work with. What ways I can improve their merchandise. What shows we can get on. Things they can do to gain more exposure. Every thought I have somehow leads back to these bands and other bands in their same spot. Every single musician does this (hopefully) for one reason, to play live. In my opinion, playing live and stepping out in front of people and showing them what you’ve got to offer is the only true way to connect with people and impact them and make them a fan. Sure, we have Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but nothing replaces the impression people get from a band the first time they see you live.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Bands, obviously, must rely on venues to play in in order to get that chance to impact people and gain new fans. And this means that majority of my job is spent focusing on finding new venues for my guys to play in. Needless to say, I see a lot of venues operating in different ways. Yet over the past few years I’ve seen the advancement of “pre-sale” tickets seemingly skyrocket all over the country. It seems like more than half of the venues I come into contact with force bands to sign agreements to sell a certain amount of tickets for a guaranteed amount of time to play their set, and what time slot they get. If the band doesn’t sell the tickets, they don’t get to play.
Now, before I go into my honest opinion of this practice, let’s take a second to analyze some figures here. And no, I won’t name any names of venues, promoters, or anyone involved. The figures however, are real.
So lets say, generally speaking, you wish to play a 25-minute set. In order to play this 25-minute set, you must sell 40 tickets at $14 apiece. If you sell these 40 tickets, the total profit you have to turn in to the venue is $560. Now, thankfully, the system of payment for you is $1 for selling 25-49 tickets. Which means out of $560, you get paid a massive amount of $40.
Now, while I attempt to piece my brain back together after reading these number figures, I find solace in discovering that there’s another opportunity for your band to get paid. We’ve already established that the pre-sale tickets are $14 apiece, but the door price is $17 the night of said show. If you get a walk in that mentions they’re at the venue to see your band, you get $4 out of that $17 door charge. Which is obviously more than the $1 per ticket you sold, but remember, if you don’t sell all 40, you don’t get to play. And, since the venue is so thoughtful of your band, they tell you that you have to include a tally counter and keep track of every person who comes in and mentions your band name. (Wonder if the door guy is even told to ask?)
Obviously it’s going to be much more difficult to sell pre-sale tickets than to get people to just show up, which completely makes sense as to why you’d receive a DOLLAR per every ticket you sell instead of the $4 for a walk in at the door the night of the show.
Here are the last few parts of this whole “agreement,” if you fail to sell the 40 pre-sale tickets, you don’t play the show. Regardless of if you sold 35 tickets or not. And you’re required to turn in the money for every ticket sold. It’s a fail safe for the venue to ensure they still make money off of your shortcomings, even if it’s just by a few tickets.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, this 40 ticket pre-sale requirement is for a time slot of 6:30pm. The rest of the time slots are much worse. So while some of you may go, “40 tickets, that’s not actually that bad,” which I know for some bands it’s really not, but if you wish to play at a better time slot, you’ll double the amount of tickets, and for the best slots you’re coming close to tripling the amount of tickets you’ll need to sell. Oh, and by the way, the max set time you get to play under the most tickets sold is 30 minutes.
After all of that is said and done I pose these questions, why aren’t venues being told this practice is uncalled for, unfair, ridiculous, and a downright scam? Out of $560 you turn in you keep $40 dollars!? You put on a four band bill all selling 40 tickets that’s $2,240 the venue is collecting, minus the whopping $160 cut to all four bands the venue is collecting a total of $2,080 for every band's hard work. Not to mention the amount they make at the bar.
Now, I completely understand that without the venue, the bands don’t have a place to play (sort of, I’ll get to the alternatives in a second). The venue obviously has to cover their insurance, their staff, their bar, the sound guy, light guy, the power bill, etc. So they definitely have bills to pay. And they rely on people to walk through the door in order to stay in business.
There’s no doubt that running a bar or venue is risky. There’s a lot that could go wrong. But with every service based business you have to rely on a loyal customer base that connect with whatever establishment they visiting. If you want people to remember you for having the best seafood restaurant in town, you’re going to hire the best cooks you can find. In any business, you hire professionals that can get the job done because they’re the best at their craft that they can be. Which means, if a venue is in the business of having great music, then it’s their job to search and find great talented bands that they can showcase. The music a venue holds is absolutely no different then the food a restaurant serves.
If a venue consistently booked solid acts, and everyone in town knew that this specific venue always had great music then people who are looking to go out and have a good time will already have in their head that that venue is where they need to go. Regardless of whether or not they know the band playing, they’re confident that the venue books good acts. Just like I know with confidence that Outback has really good steak. And if I want a good steak, I’m gonna go to Outback. And if I can afford it or not.
On top of all this, some venues even go so far as to take a very large (sometimes up to 30%) portion of your merchandise sales. All the while they offer zero promotion for the shows that are taking place. Because now, they no longer have to. Instead, they have you doing it for them.
This isn’t a debate on, “Well, we need bands to guarantee a certain amount of people to come in or we can’t function as a business,” it’s a debate on what’s fair. And in this industry, there are a lot of practices that simply aren’t fair. And the only people who get hurt in the end are the kids who are trying to reach a dream. Kids who are sitting in their room all hours of the night practicing scales till their fingers bleed. If a venue is going to require you to sell 40 tickets, do it, as long as what you receive in return is fair, and the venue is offering promotion for what’s going on in their place of business to help drive as much traffic as possible on top of the tickets bands are selling. Or better yet, promote the contact information of the bands and direct people where to go in order to buy tickets. When was the last time you saw that? Cause I haven’t.
Some of you might not have any issues with this, because a lot of younger bands are coming into this game under the impression that this is just the way things are, and just accept it as fact. But everyone needs to start opening their eyes to this, and start implementing changes in your community if this is running rampant in your area.
Local acts should start coming together and throw in the money to rent a hall yourselves. See if there’s local community centers in your area that allow you to put on your own shows. House shows if you’re able to. Five bands throwing in money to rent a hall, team up with a local promoter, set the price for the show, pay off all the expenses once the night is done, and every band split everything equally.
OR, if you really want to help fund more shows in your area, take a certain percentage from the profits of your show, and put it towards renting the venue again for another show to put on.
OR, if you really want to get crazy with it, set up everything like I just mentioned, play for free, take the money that’s meant to go to the bands, save it to rent for the next show your group of bands want to put on, and make money for your band entirely off of your merch. Which means, you have to focus on having GOOD merch, and are able to put on a good live show to bring people in to pay attention and want to buy merch.*
Bottom line, don’t focus on competing with other bands in your community for how many tickets you can sell to get on a local show, instead start working together to find ways for your bands to play your own show so everyone gets a fair chance and an opportunity to reap the rewards of your hard work.
Power always lies in the place people think it is. If every band in your community told venues with practices like the ones I’m mentioning in this post simply, “no,” then venues would have no other choice but to alter their methods of doing business to create a fair set of rules. YOU and your fans are what allow venues to stay a float, which means without you, they wouldn’t have a business. Don’t forget that.
*Yes, I know this idea goes against my entire argument of getting paid for your hard work and playing live, but if everyone in your band made sure you saved your money at whatever job you work and made sure you got good merch, you’ll see money coming in. Stop buying video games and beer, start buying higher quality merch. Again, this is just a suggestion if you wish to do it.
Justin Herring is an artist manager and booking agent that has over a decade of experience with the music industry, in both bands and business aspects. His strong and controversial opinions have grown out of a love of music and the desire to see musicians treated fairly. Find him on Twitter and Tumblr.