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.