Let’s forget about your value as a creative human being, that’s immeasurable. You’re the apple of your parent’s eye, your teacher’s and all your friend’s. What we want to examine is the actual monetary value that you bring to the table. How do you enhance a venue, or an audience’s pleasure? This is the hard part to accept: venues, be they bars or performing arts centers, do need to put a monetary value on music so they can keep the lights on. We all know that creativity can’t be quantified, but we also freely admit some artists “sell out” and “go all pop for the money.” Sadly, without the money aspect, most music will never be heard.
Two things to remember here. The first is that, as mentioned previously, you’re part of a three-way team, you, the venue, and most importantly, the audience. If the audience isn’t happy, you’re unhappy, the venue is unhappy. Conversely, if everything goes well, everyone is happy, and most importantly, regardless of the the of venue, you’ve built that all-important sense of community.
The second is that different venues value music differently. A bar, for example, will place less emphasis on you as an individual musician, and more on the atmosphere that having live music creates. A small performing arts center makes their promotion all about you; people will come to see you. They may not know of you, but they’re interested enough to find out, and if the venue has a great reputation as bringing in great music, they trust the venue’s taste.
Let’s start with a bar. Most will view live music as an add-on to their regular draw. They’re in the business of selling drinks, and if you add to that, great. They may even ask how many additional people you can bring in. They’re thinking is this: If they can sell 100 drinks without you, and maybe 120 with you, is your fee higher or lower than the added profit of the extra 20 drinks they sell? If those drinks add $100 to the bottom line, and you’re fee is $500, they won’t be happy. That’s why the ambient-music type bars are tough to get gigs in that pay well.
Some bars are more music-oriented, and it’s wise to seek those out. They may charge a cover for the music, so they don’t lose the drink-buying profit. They’re usually known for having music, so people who want music go to those bars as opposed to others. The bar has a built-in customer base, so you’ll be responsible for upholding the reputation of the bar and providing a good show. The downside? Many people are there to socialize, and listen occasionally, so you may get a little frustrated with the lack of crown attention. A big plus: if you get the crowd’s attention, you’re doing a great job. It’s a good petri dish for both your material and your presentation.
Some places will really only have a small area set aside, and expect you to pay for tips. Many musicians frown upon this as it “devalues the worth of music.” I’m on the fence here. Again, it’s good experience for those starting out, and a good way to improve your performance skills and your ability to connect with an audience. Once you have a reputation, these sort of situations are obviously out.
This brings us to the big conundrum. Many musicians are stuck in the middle, too good and experienced to play for tips, yet can’t find bars willing to pay them adequately for a night’s work. The internet forums are filled with musicians whining about this, but the answer is one of two things: find better venues, or you’re simply not good enough for the good paying gigs. (As an aside, that should spur you on to playing better, and developing material and an “act” that’s unique enough that people will pay for your services.)
Moving up the ladder are the music-centric bar/restaurants, and the small boutique performing arts centers. Starting out, your best bet is the music-centric bar/restaurants, shooting for midweek gigs. Base pay may be low initially, but that’s part of working up the ladder. You’ll be at the mercy of what they pay, and how they pay. Flat-fee or percentage of tickets is usual, and that’s that simple. If you need exposure, it’s a good way to get a decent venue on your resume. The smaller boutique performing arts centers are tougher. Some cater to really good established talent, some to newer, rising talent. Either way, they usually have limited space each season, so just give them a try and don’t take rejection personally. Always email any begging for gigs, or follow the protocol on the website of that venue. Don’t call or message through Facebook.
The small boutique venues, usually all-volunteer, offer the best splits, either a guarantee with a bonus on top after you go over a certain number, or a good percentage of the gate, say 75%. That way, it’s pretty easy to see your worth: if you sell $800 worth of tickets, you’re worth 75% of that, at least that night.
The large performing arts centers you won’t need to worry about, your agent will. In the end, your monetary worth is closely tied to the venue type. It will change depending on location and size of venue.
What can you do to enhance your value? If we look at the basic tenet of economics, supply and demand, you as a supplier of “stuff” need to make sure your sound is unique. You want to be the only one who can supply your product, as that establishes scarcity. To do that, you need to be musically accomplished. All those practice hours aren’t over just because you’ve graduated. A number of seasoned pros I know still take lessons to sharpen their skills. They’re usually working with really great teachers on skills that don’t come naturally to them. Classical players are taking jazz lessons on improvisation, fiddlers are taking classical lessons to raise the level of their technical skills. It. Never. Stops.
Is your music unique? The greats have their own sound, their own way of arranging things. Every tune is a revelation, somewhere. I know I’ve found someone I want to present when I listen to their cd several times, and always hear something I didn’t hear before. There are layers to the sound. As examples, my all-time favorite Irish band, Grada, veered full-on into jazz, and even used horns on occasion. Give their CD “The Landing Step” a listen to see how unique their sound was. Or, their one cut from a previous album, “The Snow Leopard” shows the energy and drive missing from most bands. Crooked Still was another band that set the bar so high for originality and virtuosity in their approach to old time music that their fan base was huge. I remember one regular concert-goer coming up to me after their show and saying “I’ve never heard Darling Corey sound like that before!” He is a died-in-the-wool traditionalist, but had no hesitation in saying that the skills and presentation were so good, they won him over to the dark side of old-time.
Make sure there is variety in all your tracks. I get too many first-releases that show good skills, but boring arranging, and suffer the worst fate of all: all tracks sound the same. I can’t subject my audience to an hour and a half of anything that’s all the same. You need to stand out musically, so make sure you’re constantly working on that. Again, and this can’t be repeated often enough. Regardless of the type of venues you want to play, supply and demand rule, so you have to be the only one of your kind. Good luck. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.