Response to Anonymous Bar Owner Letter

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Yesterday I posted an anonymous letter that a bar owner put on Tampa Craigslist outlining his philosophies on the bar owner-musician relationship. A member of a musician’s forum online originally posted it, and I reproduced it here for my musician friends to see. My expectations were that perhaps a couple of hundred people might look at it half-amusingly and carry on about their day. Instead, the piece received 20,000 hits in less than 24 hours and elicited almost 70 comments. Contrary to what some readers assumed, the last thing on my mind was trying to increase viewers on my site. I wish I were that savvy. My main goal in having a blog is to practice my writing in hopes that one day I might get a published piece somewhere. I’m not looking for advertising or to otherwise make money on my blog; it’s purely for my own personal growth as a writer. The last thing I wanted, to tell the truth, was so much attention on something I didn’t write, which is the amusing irony here. However, it was admittedly interesting to see so much traffic from all corners of the world yesterday on this obscure little blog.

Most of the commentary on the letter was fair and balanced, with a bit of the inevitable mud-slinging that you normally see when anonymous people interact online. All in all it was a pleasure to host a debate on a clearly sensitive issue.

The bottom line here is that the bar owner-musician relationship is a contentious one at best. We heard in the comments section from both camps, and there are opposing viewpoints as to how this relationship should be negotiated. First of all, we need to keep in mind that this bar owner is obviously running a cover band establishment with a largely built-in clientele and not an original bar cabaret or coffee shop where the owner might have a bit more of a vested interest in the quality of musical material. We need to consider his points through this particular lens.

One overriding reality here that musicians have to keep in mind is that a bar does not owe you a living. If you don’t like a particular bar’s policies or practices, no one is forcing you to play there. If your band is popular and can draw a big crowd, rent a hall on your own and take all the profits yourself. The club will exist whether your band plays there or not. The fact that you chose the dubious profession of music as a living is not the responsibility of a bar. They couldn’t care less whether you’re using your pay to handle the rent or to buy a new ski-doo. And rightly so.

On the other side of the debate, bar owners have to remember that the onus is NOT completely on the musician to fill the bar, sell the booze, etc. A band is there to accentuate an establishment, that is to facilitate the selling of booze and entice people to come/stay. The bar needs to take care of its own advertising if it’s a cover band venue. Cover bands should primarily be there to retain an audience, not really to draw one as such. The bar should already have a good flow of people happening if it hires a succession of good cover bands. That way, patrons can go there each week confident that whoever’s playing is good. Some will come to hear one particular band, but many are coming anyway and relying on the venue to provide good entertainment. It doesn’t really matter to them what band is actually playing as long as the music is danceable and recognizable.

Where the bar owner and musician need to meet in the middle is where musical quality meets financial success. Sure, the more accessible the material the more familiar it will be to the patrons. But there’s no need to play “Brown-Eyed Girl” and every other common denominator hit song when there are many more very popular songs that people would enjoy hearing as a refreshing change. So the compromise here seems to be popular, accessible material that’s not been saturated by every single band on the scene. Sure it’s great to throw in a few of the biggest bar hits, but there’s no need for every song to be the equivalent of “Faith” by George Michael either. There is a ton of material to choose from that everybody knows. Don’t insult the intelligence of the clientele. Some truly are sick of the overdone covers.

The bottom line is that this letter has undoubtedly given musicians and bar owners something to think about. Hopefully it increases communication so that both camps know exactly where they stand in this business arrangement. And that’s exactly what it is. Business. We all know music is an art; however, in the cover band scene there’s little room for true creativity. You’re there solely to entertain, not enlighten. If you write and play your own stuff and have aspirations of success beyond this somewhat parasitic cover band scene, there are all kinds of venues out there to showcase your stuff for free until you build a fanbase for your originals. Until then, learn the hits and pack the dance floor. That’s why you’re there.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Response to Anonymous Bar Owner Letter

  1. tim

    LOADS of bands don’t understand this. They think the bars give crap about their music!
    I’ve always said if you’ve got the next Led Zeppelin coming into the bar but they only bring 15 people, who drink moderately versus Three Tooth Willie Backbeat Band, who really suuuuuuuck ass, but bring in 90 hard drinking fools, guess who’s getting the next gig………
    It’s business for bars but it’s business for bands as well. My band tends to stay away from bars that don’t pay. We’ve got strings to replace (mine are $40 a pack), equipment breaking down, gas, food, lodging, etc., so don’t think for a second that it’s not business to bands either (or it should be).
    The rewards should be mutual. The bar has lots of paying patrons but the bar better take care of the band with a drink or two per member and a decent payout (reasonable compared to the butts in the seats or bar) — if not, my business goes elsewhere to do business.
    Both bands and bar owners NEED to realize that it’s business for both parties.

  2. I appreciate this input, if only for those few among us musicians who don’t already know all this, which is precious few of us, since we are constantly in the environment. There’s just one really huge, elephant-int-the-living-room problem with this. You can say the exact same thing about every other input cost, but you only get one of them without paying, which is us. Your bartender is not unpaid, even if nobody shows up to drink. The guy from the beer truck is certainly not showing up if he only expects to get paid of the door does well. The newspaper or radio station where you run your ads don’t bill you only if the placement you paid for actually translates into increased traffic in your establishment. The landlord gets his rent whether business is busy or slow. The person who made the awesome sign over your bar that’s supposed to get everyone’s attention gets paid even if his sign attracts nobody at all. I could go on, but I hope everyone gets the idea. The problem isn’t that musicians don’t understand your business, or the role we’re expected to play in its operation. The problem is that everyone else in the same situation gets paid, and we don’t. We’re supposed to be happy to get “exposure,” to just get what we do in front of people, even if your bar doesn’t have any customers. When we call you for a date, you ask us “do you have a following?” But if I asked you the same question, you’d laugh, or sneer, and hang up.

    Believe it or not, I, too, am in business. I started music lessons when I was four. My instruments, amplifiers, microphones, and PA systems cost tens of thousands of dollars, and need costly annual maintenance to be functional on a professional level. I pay rent for rehearsal studios, and it takes at least 100 hours for my band to get a night’s worth of music to a level good enough to confidently present to people with our name on it. I entertain people, and that’s a product. Unlike your beer, I make my product myself. What I offer your bar up front is not customers (although at some point, after a few shows, hopefully that enters the picture), but a high quality product that can be associated with your bar’s brand, just like the types of beer you serve, or your food, or your super-hot waitresses, or your 27 simultaneous sports TV’s, and whatever else makes up the package of what you hope gets people to patronize you. You have no problem paying for all of that stuff at the risk of losing money, but you want me, and all I do, and all I’ve spent to bring it to you, for free. And you want me to be understanding of that. Well, unless you’re saying the same thing to all those other people, I’m not. If you can’t promise me your bar attracts at least 100 people on a typical weekend night, I have no reason to agree to work for the door, or for “exposure,” at your bar. I have bills to pay, just like you. You want live music as part of your bar’s customer outreach? Great. Pay for it, like you do with everything else. Otherwise, have a nice life. Your bar can be a place where people just get drunk while watching hockey on TV. That wil be your reputation, and you’re welcome to it. I have other ways of reaching an audience that doesn’t require that my family starve.

  3. Chuck

    Have to agree wGregg. Bars never advertise and expect a band to solve all of the problems by bringing a crowd. When it’s busy never any talk of more money. Slow always talk of taking the already 15yr old pay rate down. It takes a lifetime to be a good musician. Anyone can buy a bar. If you book bands at least have the courtesy to book good ones. Then be proud of the bands you book and ADVERTISE!!! People do care if the band sucks. Even when they don’t walk out right away it erodes the business till noone is there over time. Then getting it back is twice as hard. Cover bands job is to keep the people that THE BAR BRINGS, so they will yes spend more money. When they have a good time they come back. Thats how we contribute. Bars book good bands and advertise it. Band plays good music that the people in that bar like. Bands only real responsibility is to put on a good show so that people stay. Many bars charge cover and pay the band less than the door. But at the door when asked about the cover they say we have a band. One sided always has been always will be. Open mic nights generally suck as does karaoke. Everyone has the same liquor,but not the same bands.

  4. Gregg

    Like you said…the bar is YOUR business not the bands…they have there own career to look after, try hiring some not so ugly shot girls or waitress.
    that’s the problem with shitty bars these days…they’ve forgot how to build there own business and rely too much on the bands to bring in ALL the crowd, sell All the drinks and then they want to be cheap and complain about it…I don’t miss the bottom feeder bar scene AT ALL!

  5. From my experience, the first gig always seems to be a bit like a first date with somebody you don’t know very well: both the band and the bar are trying to maintain the image of being exactly the other’s needs, and neither is prepared to let their guard down first!

    I thought the bar owner who wrote that letter had a lot of good advice to give, to be quite honest. Just as I’m sure he wishes more bands followed the guidelines in his letter, I wish more bar owners showed the same level of clarity that he did! Any good band needs to learn how to work an audience, just as any good bar needs to learn how to keep its customers satisfied, and a good band and good bar could work very well together. The problem seems to come when either the band or the bar is expecting the other to solve its problems for them!

  6. Jen

    Played at places where the bar couldn’t even bother to put the name of the band outside…or the wrong band. If bar ower would advertize a little and not have crappy bands they would have a packed house all the time. We have played at places where there were more waitstaff then customers. I have spent many hours creating flyers formany bands and sent them as a PDF to the person who handles the entertainment’s email and they couldn’t even be bothered to print them out. I guess we should have drove the 60 miles to adverize for them. Bar owners want you to bring a crowd but it’s hard when you don’t play 15 min drive from the last place you played. The farest we drove was 95 miles. When you play all over the place you can’t expect customers to “Follow” you.

  7. Andy

    Some bar owners don’t care whether you’re the best band or the worst…the pay and treatment is the same. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years and the day a bar owner will ask me to play for free is the day I retire. Nobody with good talent should play for free, unless…he or she is looking for “exposure” which means you’re playing for nobody cause the gigs you’ll get is the bars that ain’t happening. The band’s job is to entertain the crowd and get the bar to make money. The bigger attraction they are…the more money they need to be paid.

    • Actually ,I have found just the opposite .1. experience,2.business acumen,3.Knowing what you can deliver, for a fixed price.When get called by a venue or music person wanting to hire me ,I ask one question about the venue,caberet or pickup ba long the artist pipeline is .r. depending on the answer will determine what m to y show will be and how much I charge,If am being asked to solo, $ 75 for 1 hr show and I GET it!Plus I get fed.I dont like the way many performers have allowed wages to fall to ridiculous rates,my solo gigs me ,pa and guitar for 2 hrs. =$175 .At 53 I seldom get treated like cra I need to to get the job done I do what p! because I only work with agent and owner who know the business.I have a good Reputation and have had for 30 yrs. If a owner wants me he pays what I want .He up front knows it’s business.If I like him I may extend my show because I truly love performing. Do I care about following owners rules no , If they make sense then,yes ! never had that come up because as I said most owners know I know whats needed.those who thought they were king of the hill and tried to rule and take advantage , learned about how quick a message can get out about who not to work for. Basically , I know what and for whom I will work for ,I know enough about the business to get what I want.I dont care about my ego or the ego of my employer,Most will say ,I do what I need to and I work hard to always give my employer a little bit more without him expecting it. best of luck to all.I have been retired for a few years by choice .i recently decided to start playing again ,nothing really has changed,So build a good Rep and you’ll be respected and usually get what you want.

  8. Fearless Frank

    Like Mellencamp said, I’d trade in my ambition for a warmer place to sleep. Of course, he also said, forget about all that macho sh*t and learn how to play guitar.

  9. g cass

    What is wrong with you people??All i hear is complaints about bar owners Musicians etc..First and foremost without those bar/venues where would you showcase your talent and be heard by other than your friend.You choose to be a musician for the art the craft and the love of music but at the same time there is also the business side of it..It is very difficult to make a living playing bars and manage ourselves.That is the reason why most of us have a day job to supplement our income.. 30years ago we were able to do it successfully,That was then and by the way the pay scale was the same as it is today..As to the bar owners that’s their day jobs,their business and they also have bills to pay..Unless we understand that we need each other it will not work..I play in a 4 piece bar band and i play for the people that’s why we are booked and re booked on a regular basis..If you want to to play your own material,get your foot in the door first…
    You cannot start from the top (you have to walk before you can run)..
    As to the bar owners..People in general do like to hear live music, so if you want to sell more booze and or food.Work with the musicians.Hire the appropriate band (Rock, Blues,Country etc) for your establishment. Make sure to mention your rules before the gigs (Dress codes etc) We do need each other. So lets work together rather than criticize each other and make enemies of each other…Cheers all…

  10. Alf B

    Vocalist for 30 years…cover and original. Bar Owner was dead on. Make the Ladies DANCE.

  11. Very well put .Their is always a controversy between playing music for it’s artistic value or selling out to corporate intities. I personal have no problem ,feeding myself by offerng my services to the highest bidder.I would take a bet , that if offered a sustainable chunk of dough, most would take the dough.people really arent that altruistic when their stravin

    • Thanks for reading, Don. I agree with you 100%.

      • This is not a reply to chris. this is a reply from a working musician/entertainer. this bar owner is dead on at points and staright up clueless/rude as fuck at others. This business is like any other. You hire me and,i bust my ass to get people dancing,drinking,fucking in the bathroom…whatever. On that note,I expect something in return. I expect promo about the show,outside of the posters and cds I send ahead of time. Im spending money to get to your place. time and effort as well. This is how I make MY money. If I’m expected to be there,only on the purpose to sell booze for you, that’s not in the contract.You hired me to play music and entertain. period. I have no problem giving props to the bartenders and asking patrons to tip. I have no problem letting people know that there are drink specials. I also deal with YOUR drunken patrons who want to come up on MY stage and fuck with me because they are hammered on YOUR booze,which you continued to serve them after they should have been cut off. All this aside. You open the doors and hire me,it’s not up to me to serve the drinks. Just as it isn’t up to you to keep idiots from fucking with my band. I can deal with it. just as I have for over 30 years. Bottom line is that,you want booze sold,sell it. I’ll do what I can to help. You want good live music,book it, They should both sell each other. PS. Yeah man,no problem.”license number xxx-xxx your lights are on”. I never charge for public service announcments. AJ http://www.facebook.com/thunderosa

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