It's Tough Out There
by Steve Sadowski
What we musicians sometimes forget is that musical taste is subjective. You may love thrash metal, I may hate it. You may love Steely Dan, I may hate it. However, in the music business there are tried and true practices that work to earn money. For a listing of what most people in the country think is good music, all you need to do is look at the record sales charts. That's what is popular, that's what sells, and that's what works. Places in the Boston area like Ned Devine's, Copperfields, Dick's Last Resort, Sugar Shack, etc. pay their entertainment very well to entertain by playing this music. These watering holes have built-in crowds because people know what they're going to hear: a band that plays covers of popular songs they all know and can dance to. It is music that you may not like, but that is the way it is.
If you don't want to play popular cover music then you are relegated to performing at the various places in the Boston area that allow original bands, project bands, rehearsal bands, and concept bands: All Asia, O'Brien's, TT's, Skybar, etc. But here's the catch, and this is what some musicians have yet to grasp: when Suzy, Heather, Britney, and Miranda decide to have a girls night out, they're most likely going to Ned Devine's not to O'Brien's. When all the horny guys go looking for Suzy, Heather, et. al., they go to Ned Devine's as well, or the Rack, but not to the Choppin' Block. Do you know how long the line is to get into a place like that on a Friday night? And they have a dress code to boot! But no one's standing in line at Harper's Ferry on a Tuesday night.
Do you know what the built-in crowds are at places that feature original music? You. You and your girlfriend, your roommates, and all your supportive friends and family. That's your built in crowd, along with the pals of the other four bands on the bill that night. As wrong as it seems, it's your job to deliver an audience to the venue at which you will perform your art.
The bar takes out extra insurance, entertainment licenses, pays for security, and fights with the neighbors to allow you to play in their establishment. Why? Because they hope your posse will bring some cash to spend at the bar while you perform. If you're good, then you'll get a following beyond your roommates and friends and play at better places. If you're really good, you might get signed. It doesn't help to complain that you can't get a following because the bar doesn't supply a crowd for you to play for. If your music is what the people want to hear, then you'll eventually get better gigs. If your musical vision is less accessible, you'll be stuck doing what you do at the Kirkland during the 9:13-10:34 p.m. slot.
I'm a working bass player. I cannot spend time with a respondent to my ad for work who replies thusly:
"Hi. This is in response to your ad. My name is Joe Schmoe and I'm putting together a project. So far I have a flutist, a dulcimer player and a conga percussionist. All we need is a bass player that can lay down some melodic yet percussive lines to compliment the other instruments. We hope to start gigging in September"
That band is unlikely to get work, yet they'll be complaining that some bar owner didn't spend $500 on marketing to get people to show up. If you don't believe me on how much it costs for advertising, just call one of the papers in Boston that advertise live music: Phoenix, Weekly Dig, Stuff @ Night, etc. For a 1/4 page black and white ad... $300! A bar owner cannot afford to take out an ad for all of the live bands that come through their place in a month. Bands like Mr. Schmoe's are shocked when people talk during their performances. They don't know yet that music is a Darwinistic business. Only the fittest eat and survive, and the unfit are usually eaten.
So how about you? Have you found a few friends to start a band with? Perhaps you've taken a big step and rented a rehearsal space. A space that smells like beer and weed. There might be unidentified stains on the industrial carpet and duct tape to hold the air conditioner in place. For this Shan-gri-la somewhere in Brighton, MA you pay a slumlord $500 a month. Of course, this is usurious. So you go in on the rent with two other bands, which knocks the monthly nut down to $250.00 per month, but you have to stumble over all their useless crap every time you rehearse and you're convinced that someone in that other band has irritable bowel syndrome.
In conversations amongst your fellow bandmates, you chart your course: your band rocks, you will give your demo to a venue owner, and he/she'll be so amazed at how much you rock that they'll take out an ad in the Weekly Dig, Stuff @ Night, Phoenix, and the Improper Bostonian for a total coast of $3000 in order to advertise that they have a "rockin'" band coming into their establishment on a Thursday night during March Madness. Perhaps you and your bandmates fantasize about how a horde of patrons will be moved by your music and will sign your email list so that they won't dare miss your next upcoming show. You might have discussed which record label you'd like to sign with, the pros and cons of each and how you'll donate your royalties to your favorite charity. Who said this was hard?
So you cut your demo, get your girlfriend to snap a group photo of your band, which she tweaks on Photoshop, and your nerd friend puts together a website for you because he loves your stuff you played him on your Epihone acoustic. You have no problem registering your name because you've called yourselves something so bizarre that no other band, company, or porn site has thought of the emulsification of nouns that you've constructed. With a skip in your step, you walk into O'Brien's and ask if your band can bring your artistic expression to their establishment. The daytime bartender puts down the Keno cards, takes your demo, and promises to give it to the "booking manager." You then repeat this process to the other 25 venues in Brighton, Boston, Somerville, Cambridge and Jamaica Plain. Now you just have to wait for that phone to ring, baby, and gigs will come aflyin' in!
And then, there it is, the phone call. It's the booking agent from All Asia Café. They have an opening on Thursday because a band cancelled. "Cancelled?" you ask yourself. "Why would someone cancel when they have a foot in the door?" You enthusiastically accept, although you're cool on the phone, and immediately call your bandmates to insure their presence and strategize over your set list and what to wear. You then head off to Kinko's, where your lead guitar player works part-time, to make posters and buy some tape. Afterward, the City of Cambridge is wrapped like a Christmas present with all the posters you've taped to every light post and telephone pole within 5 miles of All Asia.
"Blood's Nuclear Waste," appearing @ the All Asia Café with special guests, 'Love's Ice Cube,' the "Freedom Captives," and 'Network Zero,' Thursday, March 31st. Doors open at 8:30. $5.00 cover."
You tell your girlfriend. You call your sister. They'll bring all their friends. If your buddy Jeff can get off from work, he'll be there too. All the people from your job have promised that they'll come as well and you're apprehensive that the All Asia might not have enough capacity.
Your shining moment has arrived. This is where all the rehearsal and arduous songwriting will finally payoff. You take the stage and look out at the "masses." There's your girlfriend and a friend, your buddy Jeff, and twenty people that you don't know. During your first song, people are pointing at you and to their ear while shaking their head. Uh oh, the audience can't hear your vocals, which means that they can't hear your lyrics, which means that your message of being alone on an island of corporate greed and deadly fascists isn't getting across. You begin to sweat and try to adjust the mix while still putting on a show. During your second song, the band playing after you begins to show up. Although they can't help it, they are a distraction to your audience as they hold open the door, freezing the patrons with that chilly March wind, and knocking into tables with their amps. During your fourth song, all attention has turned to the University of Hoshposh vs. U.N.O.P. basketball game on the T.V. By the time you've gotten to your finale, your drummer has missed three fills and your lead guitarist played a solo right in the middle of your verse… twice. Note to self, schedule more rehearsals. By the time you're saying, "Thank you all for coming," the dance floor is crowded with amps, guitars, and other people's PA equipment. It doesn't matter because there are more musicians than patrons in the place and you just saw the doorman put $20.00 into his pocket.
After the show, you're dejected because your plan fell short on execution. What happened? Maybe the venue is to blame.
You think, If they would just advertise. The crowd was thin because they didn't have enough faith to invest in us. We could have made them so much money if they would've advertised.
"Doesn't anyone believe in the music scene anymore?"
"Don't worry baby," your girlfriend comforts, "you were wicked awesome."
"Yeah," her friend, Rosemary, adds, "my friend Derek has a band and you guys are waaaay much better than them."
Your girlfriend has promised Rosemary that after your "gig," they're going to go to Ned Divine's to dance. Out of sympathy they ask you if you'd like to tag along. All you want to do is drink, and you figure that "jack and cokes" are "jack and cokes" anywhere, right? So off you go. Drop off the equipment and then head over to Quincy Market where you stand in line for a half an hour with people who have left their cars without their coats. The ten bucks you made tonight gets you the right to walk through the door. Your girlfriend, Rosemary, and you make your way into Club Parris where some cover band is playing "Bryan Adams." You hate Bryan Adams, the movie St. Elmo's Fire. Every girl from high school that you hated is there dirty dancing and doin' the vogue. Everyone is freaking happy. Even the band is jumpin' around and high fivin' the bachelorette party in the front row. Disgusting commercialism at its worst. You'd like to take the whole place and burn it to the ground along with Molly Ringwald and the band Aha.
You can't believe that this is what most people want. You're disgusted that this is what draws a crowd and that this is what you'll have to do if you want to do music for a living. Somewhere down the road you're going to have to make a choice to do what you've been doing, or come over to the "dark side" and make a living. Thank God that Ned Divine's takes credit cards, because your "jack and coke" costs $8.00 and tastes like the bartender used an eyedropper to pour your shot.