I have played over one thousand shows in the past decade, both here and abroad, both in a band and as a solo performer, doing both originals and cover material. I have often stood on stage looking out at the handful of people present and wondered, where are all the people. I have talked to club owners who blame it on the bands, and the bands who blame it on the clubs. And I’ve heard everyone blame it on radio. I’ve seen clubs shut down due to lack of revenue and bands who gave up playing live because they got tired of playing to ten people and making nothing for all their hard work. And I’ve seen the people disappear, walk right out the door, never to return. “Houston, we have a problem.”
Recently, I was contracted by a local club to determine what might be the best course of action to improve their business. This club can hold two hundred people at capacity and has never seen more than about a hundred through the door. This club is in a college town of about one hundred twenty thousand. There are about twenty thousand students at the university in this town, and about twenty five percent of them are of legal drinking age. The club is, however, pretty far removed from the college scene area and the market is saturated with live music venues. Within an additional thirty minute drive of the club, there are another one hundred fifty thousand people and another dozen venues.
I just completed several months of research for this club and the results, while not completely surprising to me, re-enforced my views that it is not the audience who has given up on us, but rather we who have given up on the audience. What you ask??? How could you say that??? What do you mean we have given up on the audience??? We play our asses off for them, we write good music!!! It’s radio’s fault for not playing our music!!! It’s the club’s fault for not promoting us!!!
The truth is folks, it’s our fault. We have forgotten the number one reason why we are in the business of ENTERTAINMENT; to satisfy the customer, not ourselves. With no audience we make no money. With no audience we don’t do anything at all … we don’t exist without the audience. Hey, I’d be the first to tell ya’ll I’m all in favor of exploring new music, but the public isn’t. And the research speaks for itself.
First, identify your demographic audience. Is it 18-24, 25-34, or 35+ … if it’s thirty five plus, don’t even think of playing your music in a bar … if it’s 18-24, also, don’t play in bars … no one under 21 can get in which leaves only 21 to 24. If you’re playing in bars, your market is 25-34.
Now that you’ve identified what age group it is you are supposed to be playing for, ask who those people are. Are they middle class white collar? Are they blue collar? Find out what radio stations they are listening to and what recordings they are buying locally. Women control the entertainment dollars and they want to dance. Women control the radio in the car; that’s why radio programs more to women 25-34, then to men. And women want to dance to music they KNOW, not original music they’ve NEVER heard before.
Here’s another way to look at it. An average 25 year old woman was 15 in 1991. Her peak record buying years (15-24) runs from 1991 to 2000. It’s a very well known fact among the record industry and radio types that new record sales fall off pretty dramatically after age 25 among the general public. People tend to settle down, have families and have greater responsibilities. Ok, so this woman, who is 25 now is nostalgic for music she listened to during high school and college. Now the high end of the demo is 34. This person was 15 in 1982 and was 24 in 1991. As her prime record buying days were ending in 1991, the now 25 year old was just beginning.
As a professional programmer and club consultant, I’m going to program music that is pretty heavy from 1985 to 1995, with a bit of stuff thrown in from either side of that. I am going to look for bands whose music ranges from 1980 to NOW. “Now” because I’m also going to draw a percentage of audience under 25, and 1980 because I’m going to draw a small percentage of audience over 34. I am not going to book classic rock bands whose repertoires are 1969 to 1980. They are NOT relevant to today’s audience base. I am also not going to book original acts that are NOT known well by the general local public, because experience has taught me that doesn’t work in general with a 25-34 audience.
I was scouting some bands in Denver a couple nights ago and came across a band the likes of which I haven’t heard in many years … a metal band that does everything from Ozzy to the Deftones, with a healthy dose of 80’s classics … and guess what … the show was tight … the music was note for note perfect and the room was full of enthusiastic fans, even when the band played every original song from their cd … the floor emptied when the originals came up and the people danced when the “hits” were played. The band sold hats, shirts and cds. Incidentally, the band sold cds at $5.00 each!! I watched them sell half a dozen right after the first set alone.
Playing cover music the way it is meant to be played has become a lost art. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to play covers … you have to learn the guitar riffs the way they were originally played … you have to learn to sing like the original lead singer sang them to begin with.
I had a “friend” in my market say to me recently, “so, if I put together a band that does Replacements and stuff like Petty, you’ll give me a gig?” “Yes,” I said to him, “as long as it’s done right.” His comment back was “well as long as the chords are in the right place and the melody is the same that would work.” This has become the overwhelmingly popular sentiment of so many musicians today, and we wonder why the crowds have left … we wonder why people go to the discos.
This realization came to fruition recently as I watched the top “cover” band in the area develop … they pack the clubs they play in and they do the music with soul and verve … they live the songs they are playing and they play to the crowd. Conversely, I have watched many a great original act die in rooms because, a) nobody knew who they were, and b) nobody knew the songs they were playing … I’ve literally watched people come into a club and walk out after one set because they “didn’t like the band.”
Now, to be fair to everyone, I’ve also seen the exact opposite occur lately. I walked into a club the other night that had over 200 people in it … they were sitting and talking quietly and NOBODY was dancing … the band was a bunch of over 40 year old guys playing classic rock to a room full of people who were under 30!! The band and the club owners obviously did not understand what drives their clientele. We stayed for thirty seconds because the band was that bad at what they were doing … the same old tired classic rock blues, playing the chords in the right places but not really playing the song.
My partner walked into a club last night to check out a local band, since we’re prospecting for new talent to book. The club was packed with over 400 people having a great time … and his evaluation of the band was that they were doing songs from the mid to late seventies and they were doing them terribly … so bad in fact we wouldn’t even consider them for a development slot at our club … BUT … there is NO OTHER VENUE in this town to go to, so this restaurant clears floor space for the bands … hell if it’s all ya got it’s all ya got … and many local markets don’t have access to many bands or the people come in because it’s the only place in town and whether the band is good or not it doesn’t matter so long as they are playing songs they know.
Folks, I’d be the first to admit I prefer original music to cover tunes, especially cover tunes done badly. However, as a promoter and booking agent, it is my job to fill a room with people. That’s how I make money, the club makes money and the bands make money. People in the room, buying drinks makes us all money. It’s all about the party.
Bands come up to me all the time and complain they aren’t earning what they think they are worth. Well, let’s evaluate the economics of that statement. Let’s assume that the room holds 200. Let’s further assume that the band has a following of 30 people … reasonable if you realize we each really know 6 people who will support us … and the club has a following of 30 … which is also reasonable based on research where club owners admit to having 30 people who actively support the bar. Now, that’s 60 people in the room … for many of us that is a great crowd, right? Ok, 60 times an average of $15 spent at the bar is $900 … but the band wants $100 a man a night, so a four piece just cost me $400 or roughly 45% of my take that night … factor in liquor costs of roughly 30%, labor for one bartender and three servers, a bar back, a door man, the mortgage, lights, sound, etc … what’s left for profit? Nada, nothing, not a damned red cent. Matter of fact, the bar lost money that night.
The club owner then questions whether it’s even worth having a band. “What’s the point” he says. “If I charge a cover, the band makes $180 and complains that they aren’t being paid enough. If I pay them what they want, I take a loss. So, you know what? Screw it, I’m not gonna have a band anymore, I’ll hire a dj or put in karioke.” Does this sound like your market? Have you too noticed fewer places to play in the past ten years? So, what’s the solution for both the bands and the club?
There are only five reasons people don’t buy something. No trust, No want, No need, No hurry, No money. If your average customer can’t trust the club or the bands to provide them what they want, the customer simply won’t be there because they don’t NEED to be there, there are other places to go. They won’t be in a hurry to get to your show and not having enough money to do something you want to do is rarely an objection. People will spend money they “don’t have” to do something they are in a hurry to do, if they want to do it, even if they don’t need to, as long as they trust in what they are going to get. It’s that simple.
Clubs need to promote aggressively to their target audience, but only when they have put together the venue specifically targeted to their core demographic. Bands need to target their show to the desired demographic audience and not be so egocentric about what they are doing. There are plenty of styles available to play in within that 1980 to now range to make any group sound diverse. Just keep it all neutral. Don’t do a ton of obscure “b” sides that nobody knows. Don’t saturate the audience with original music. Play an original or two per each one hour set, but no more than six per an entire night. And, play the same originals every single time you go out. The same six songs over and over and over again. This breeds familiarity. After six months or so people will begin to recognize your originals as something they are familiar with and may even begin to request them. Work the originals into the set in such a way that each original falls between two very very popular songs that you know pack the dance floor and don’t stop the set to change songs … do a smooth seque into the original. Do not pre-sell it as an original; that will surely clear the dance floor.
In many parts of the country today more and more bars are getting away from booking bands and more into putting back the dj. More and more bands seem to be focusing their energies on doing original music than focusing on putting the right music in front of the customer in order to insure their own survival. Neither bands nor clubs are making the money they want and they seem to be blaming each other or the radio industry. The average aged club patron has been shifting their attention away from live music clubs and moving towards going back to places that feature recorded music. The overall solution to the dilemma is simply to provide the customer what they are asking for and the only way to do that is to ask them first what they want. When we return to providing the customer what they want and not trying to be self serving, then the customer, the bands and the bars all come out winners.