The rock club business model

One thing I’ve alluded to a bit here but not really gone into detail about is the business model that many of the rock and roll clubs seem to follow.  I only know it from the outside- as a performer in said clubs, so take this with a grain of salt.  I’m just relating what I see.

There seem to be several levels of rock and roll clubs and we can roughly divide them into three- the places that host (relatively) well known bands, the places that are destinations in their own right and the places that rely on bands to bring customers.

San Diego has a couple of marquee clubs.  They regularly have well-known bands.  The bands draw crowds.  They make money.  I don’t know much about these places because we almost never get asked to play them and we rarely try to get on bills at any of them.  From what I hear, if you do get on a bill, you can expect to be paid well, have a set time that does not change and have to submit press packages* beforehand to get approval.  They have professional, top-notch sound systems and soundpeople who will make you sound good.

What I term destination clubs are places that people regularly go to without checking local music listings.  They’re hangouts that occasionally have bands.  For bands, these are some of the best places to play- they have a built-in crowd and the crowd and bartenders haven’t been blasted with music every day of the week.  Sound systems vary, from one that’s almost completely DIY, to another that has a very good soundman.  These too tend to have higher requirements to play- you probably don’t need a press kit, but you’ll be expected to be pretty competent and not drive away the crowd.  These are also some of the best places to see live music.

AND FINALLY

The places that expect bands to bring their friends.

Let’s be real for a minute- I do not get this business plan.  Let’s say you’ve got up the nerve to take out a big loan to open a bar.  You’ve spent months getting it built out to your satisfaction.  You hired bartenders and now you’re in business.  Your first move… rely on the flakiest bunch of people you can find to bring in customers.  Does this make any sense to you?

It never has to me.

Bands are notoriously flaky.  Shit, most bands have trouble meeting up with each other to practice once a week.  I’ve had people cancel auditions for the dumbest reasons possible.

“my bike got stolen bro”

“I can’t afford guitar strings”

“I was in jail”

“Sorry, I forgot”

But hope springs eternal!  So you open your club and you start booking bands to play.  Since your club may or may not have many other reasons to go there, you have to keep the calendar full.  Which means every night of the week you’re getting bands to play.  Even in San Diego, a fairly large city, there aren’t that many quality bands that want to play more than once a month or so- bands don’t want to ask their buddies to show up 3 times a month.  That’s just not going to fly.  So the best bands are going to ration how much they play out.

The worst bands, however, are happy for any chance to play, ever.  So monday night you’ve got three terrible bands, that have nothing to do with each other, grinding out terrible music to the five friends they each managed to drag along.  Again, what kind of business model is this?  I think you’d have better luck with a pool table and a juke box.  Neither of those will make people want to leave.

Of course, even the worst bands have some pride, and most will want to get paid.  We like getting paid.  I know I’m thousands of dollars in the hole now on my rock and roll career, so playing for free isn’t a big deal if it sounds like fun.  But again, a few bucks is nice.  But how to pay for that?

Well, you could just pay out of pocket.  Say $50 a band.  Or $25 a band, plenty would take that.  Hey, it’s better than nothing.

But you probably don’t want to do this because what if the three bands you booked don’t bring anyone.  Then you’ve lost money.  So you charge at the door and give that to the band.

The thing is, this turns people away.  I’ve seen it many, many times.  It’s probably happened to my band, though I can’t confirm because I’m usually on stage when my band is playing.  But I’m standing outside and someone will come up and the doorman will say “Five dollar cover”.  Five bucks right?  Big deal.

“Oh I don’t know man, why?”

“Live bands bro”

DA DA DAH DAH DA DA CHUGGA CHUGGA WEEE WEEE

“Uh, nevermind”

That person might have spent money on drinks.  Now they left.

And for the people who pay the $5- are they gonna come back?  Are the gonna tell their friends that your place is fun?  They just wanted a beer, now their ears are blown out by lousy music.  Shoulda just gone to the place with the juke box.

I don’t get it.  I don’t get why this is a plan people have, but they keep trying.  I don’t want to single out any clubs because we may want to play there someday, but it just makes me wonder.  Why not put some effort into making a place that’s fun to be in its own right?  Why not screen out the crappy bands a little more ruthlessly?  Why not limit shows to a few times a week, have the bands play at set times instead of letting them push off playing until 11 PM because they don’t want to play to an empty room?  And why not try a little harder to make at least the genres of bands fit together?  Why not just pay a small amount out of pocket instead of turning people away?

There are places that do these things, and do them well.  A lot of places don’t.  It’s frustrating.

*A press package usually includes a professional looking CD, professional photos and a bio.  One club that I know of requires you to submit one, even if the headliner requests that you open for them.

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3 comments

  1. The venues in your third scenario are probably run by inexperienced owners who have no idea what to do and no money with which to do it. Back in college, a couple of friends — I married one of them eventually — opened a music/coffee house. It was the 1960s and they got a lot of groups that went on to be various degrees of respected and/or famous. But they had not a clue what to do about what.

    The place was too small, there wasn’t enough room for a halfway impressive crowd. And the wait staff were people like me who were going to school at the college around the corner. They kept trying things — serving food, serving exotic coffee. No liquor license butt everyone was stoned on pot anyhow. Mainly, they were clueless and went out of business; I’m betting things haven’t changed all the much.

    1. I could see that. There’s one club that has changed hands at least five times in the last 7 years. Every other year they have a new plan and it doesn’t work out. I don’t think I’d do any better, there’s a lot of competition.

      1. A LOT of competition. My friends kept trying different ideas. They had some great entertainment. But the club was too small, so even when it was packed, it wasn’t enough. They were music lovers, not businessmen. Seems to be a repeating theme.

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