Booking gigs - how far do you listen to the "you have to fill the room" demand?

Old Drummer

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I think there are two very different business models operating, both from the band's and the venue's perspective, and which is chosen depends largely on the goals of both.

In model #1, the band is simply hired at an agreed upon price by the venue to entertain customers the venue expects to draw anyway. The quintessential example is a wedding reception. The customers are going to be there anyway, and the band is hired to entertain them. Some bars are like this too. They may have live music every weekend, for example, and hire different bands. If a band is popular with their customers, it will be booked again. If it isn't popular, it won't be booked again. The venue takes all the risks and does all the promotion, and the band gets paid no matter what. However, the band may not be booked a second time, and a popular band may not get a fair cut of the money it brings in. Yes, over time a popular band can probably raise its fee, but likely not as high as the revenues it generates because it also enjoys the security of a fee even if the venue loses money.

In model #2, the band is a star (or wannabe star) band with a set of fans eager to see it perform more or less anywhere. At the extreme, a band like this bypasses existing business venues and simply rents a concert hall or the like, handles all the details (including promotions) and makes all the money. In the middle, the band plays a bar or the like that has limited loyal clientele for perhaps a cover charge or cut of the drink sales or some similar arrangement. It's therefore up to the band to draw the crowd, not the owner of the venue, and obviously the owner of the venue is not going to want or re-book a band that doesn't draw much of a crowd. The venue owner is really only providing the space, the liquor license, and the support personnel, such as bartenders and bouncers.

The issue to me from the band's perspective is what its ambitions are. If it only aspires to play covers and the like for "fun and profit," it should stick as close to model #1 as it can. Come on, you're not going to build a huge fan base playing "Johnny B. Goode" for the millionth time, and it's a huge hassle to make and hang posters. Plus, friends tire quickly of being expected to be cover-paying fans (when they come they want to get in free). But if a band's ambitions are to "make it" with original material, model #2 is the way to go. It's a lot more work, but goal is higher.

What has concerned me over the years is the trend of venue owners to embrace model #2 when in reality they're mostly hiring cover/party bands. There is kind of the star mentality about musicians these days such that venue owners assume that every band aspires to stardom (while many musicians, especially younger ones, do aspire to stardom). It's also frankly cheaper and easier for a venue owner to slough all the work and responsibility onto the band, and given how many bands are will to accept these one-sided deals, the owners can get away with.

If you're forced to accept model #2 without having existing stardom or perhaps even aspiring to that, a situation many bands are in these days, I think you can make an educated guess about specific new opportunities by studying the venues. Some venues have reputations for almost always featuring good bands and therefore have a built-in customer base inclined to come out for a new band. Not much promotional work on the band's part is therefore required. Other venues though don't have that reputation and no customer base can be counted on. These are venues to steer clear of.

For my first 10 gigging years, I only played under model #1 and didn't even know model #2 existed (except for the touring stars). After I moved elsewhere and encountered model #2, it was a rude awakening. There were even a couple disasters involving empty halls and angry venue owners. However, at least three venues operating more or less according to model #2 worked out OK. These venues had regular customers but different bands, so as a new band we could get a half decent crowd by hanging only a few posters, and in fact we were booked repeatedly at two of these venues. I preferred and still prefer model #1, but model #2 can work out about the same, depending on the venue.

To the specific issue of whether to accept a new booking in which the owner tells you that "you better fill the room," I would personally accept the booking while privately reasoning that I might cancel it later if something better comes up. You can accept and get out of it with few repercussions (as long as you cancel early enough). As for whether it's worth following through and playing the gig, that depends on your band's ambitions and the importance of the venue. If your band is ambitious and the venue is important, you'll probably want to put the work in required to get the room at least half full. But if your band isn't that ambitious and the venue isn't that important, what do you care if you play to an empty room? The owner after all hasn't offered much support, so who cares if the owner loses money? The issue, I think, isn't whether to accept the booking, but whether to cancel it later.
 

shuffle

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A lot of our gigs we're hired as enployees of the venue.
So,that expectation of filling the bar never presented itself,the clubs were happy with the results.
Now,getting the owners to book ahead is another story!
Irresponsible owners that talk outta both dides of their mouths were axed from the circuit for us.
 

deepsoulradio

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"Fill the room" is a vague term; you need to ask for specific numbers. From my experience, if you're bringing 30 people consistently then that's great for a small club. Moving up from there...50, 100, 200...

If you can "fill the room", then any club/venue is going to have you. Your music is secondary; the amount of sales your band generates at the bar/grill/door is what really counts.
 

retrosonic

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This is a huge problem here where I live. The venue expects you, the band, to heavily promote the show and bring in people. I am from the old school, I believe that the bands job is to be at the venue on time, look presentable, and put on a well rehearsed and professional show that entertains the crowd. Thats it.
 

xsabers

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This is a huge problem here where I live. The venue expects you, the band, to heavily promote the show and bring in people. I am from the old school, I believe that the bands job is to be at the venue on time, look presentable, and put on a well rehearsed and professional show that entertains the crowd. Thats it.
I would say both extremes have their problems. With some exceptions, where venues are always packed, I've found a good balance between a healthy regular crowd on top of those actually following a band is a winning combination. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all ratio, but we should be promoting to our fans and encouraging them to show up. The venue must also take responsibility by cross promoting and just as importantly, building a reputation as being a place people have a good time and can count on hearing good music. If they allow sucky bands just because for one night, The Suck Brothers band will bring their friends and fill the place, they will earn the reputation of being a sketchy venue where you can't depend on there being a good show each weekend.
 

Hop

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I don't see much live music these days, but the "Fill the room" thing brings right back to the days seeing (i.e. Sunset Strip) clubs transition from paying bands that were bringing in crowds to the shift for "pay to play" (pre-selling $500 worth of tickets).

I thought it was a pretty good deal to pay a few bucks at the door, get to see two bands do two sets (well worth it if the bands were good) but not really worth it to pay more to see four bands doing one set (it seemed like a lot of lower quality original bands were featured at this point). I think an interesting correlation was that CA lowered the legal DUI to 0.08% and many of these clubs took a severe beating on the bar revenues, thus the driver to have the 4-band pay-for-play thing.
 

retrosonic

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I refuse, then and now to EVER pay a venue to "let me work there". I find that insane, personally. I will play for free for the sheer joy of playing, but thats as far as I go.
 


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