It’s becoming a common trend. Venues are now charging bands rental fees to play their venues. Here in Houston, this procedure is really catching on, and it’s becoming a very difficult factor for bands that are trying to build their draws. In our city, the venues I term “middle of the road” venues are disappearing quickly. It’s venues like these that allow us to build our draw the easiest. These are venues that hold around 100-200 people, and usually provide a very reasonable means to setting up a show, like a door split or in some instances giving the bands the entire door, with a small fee to the sound person. These venues are very supportive of smaller and developing bands, and some of them even bring in regional acts, like Rudyard’s British Pub. These venues have a fantastic reputation in our local musical community, amongst patrons and musicians alike, and they tend to do great business across the board.
Other venues, the ones that have slightly larger capacities (200-800 people), have started charging bands rental fees to play their venues. It is becoming more and more popular here, and across the country. I’m not a fan of this scenario for multiple reasons, but the biggest factor (amongst many others) is charging a local band with a middle of the road draw a high rental fee to play a venue kills the vibrancy and diversity of a burgeoning music scene, for the bands and patrons alike. The average local band typically just can’t meet the required numbers. Most local bands draw between 20-25 people per show on average. There is a venue here in town that is charging $700 to play one of its rooms, a smaller room that holds 300 people. This is absurd. How would any local band be able to cover this fee with a typical $5-$7 cover? Even if the bands booked a show and collectively drew 100 people, they’d all still be playing for free, because at that point they would JUST meet the rental fee and nothing beyond. In order to just meet the rental fee and then make any money on the flip side, local bands would have to consider raising cover charges considerably to play these venues. We must keep in mind that our friends and fans also are going to run bar tabs in addition to paying the door cover, and local bands really want these people to buy their merchandise. The chances of drawing more people out and therefore selling more merch get smaller if the door cover needs to become higher for a local band. So, essentially, now these local acts are playing for nothing or close to it and not selling as much merch. It’s generally a lose lose situation for the bands AND the patrons, but it’s a total pay day for the venues each and every time. They have essentially covered their bottom line NO MATTER WHAT. If the bands make out like bandits or make nothing at all, the venue doesn’t EVER suffer one bit. It’s a one sided deal benefitting the venues in most situations, and is a sketchy business model as well. What most of us local acts are seeking are deals that are mutually beneficial to the band AND to the venue. It cannot be one sided. We WANT our venues in our city to thrive so all locals have a chance to build our draws and get more publicity, but a one sided deal by a venue that sets absolutely draconian standards for rental fees for local bands will never garner any respect from the local music community, much less be a success, unless they mainly want to bring in regional and national acts. This scenario does not build the local community in any respect.
According to a local music critic here, this is a common practice across the country, and he really didn’t understand my objection to this payment schematic, especially when I brought it up in reference to a venue where he is very good friends with the people who run it. He viewed the rental fee they were charging me, which was $250, as extremely low and reasonable. In the past, this venue in particular did not charge rental fees at ALL, which was my objection to the fee in the first place. They used to run just like the more respected venues in this city, that charged a nominal fee for the sound person and door person, and then bands got to keep the rest of the door. This venue had operated in this fashion for YEARS, and only recently did they jump on the rental bandwagon. The REALLY interesting part of this is that one of my friends wanted to book a show at this venue, and they wanted to charge him $350 to play there. A promoter friend of mine wanted to set up a show there and they wanted to charge him $300. I also carried on a text conversation with one of the people who books shows there, and he readily admitted to me via text that if I was to book a show there, and the show did really well, that the venue would “skim some additional money off the top”, and also, that I am not allowed to hire my own door person and that they have not one, but TWO door people that we would have to pay out. Well. Isn’t that special? I also know for a fact that this venue has been struggling some financially, but why place that burden on the local bands? Now I know why more locals aren’t booking shows there. It’s too bad, because this place has a stellar sound person and a great room, but I’m sorry… when bookers began to practice shady business deals, I reject working with them under any circumstances, because my trust in their business model is destroyed. This is what is happening with more and more venues here.
Below, I will provide tactics that bookers use on local bands to convince them that this is the deal of the century. Then, I will outline the truths behind those tactics and how there are hidden factors involved that these bookers don’t tell you up front. I will also cite some methods you can use to work within this pay system if you decide you wish to do it. But remember, what the venue wants from the band is for the band to cover the venue’s bottom line only. Finally, I will provide alternative and creative solutions that local bands can use to do more sustainable shows that benefit them and the audience considerably, outside of playing venues entirely.
Why Paying Rent to a Venue Is Generally Bad For Local Bands And How Bookers Will Convince You It’s A Great Deal
What the booker of the venue will tell you: “By paying the rental fee, you are able to keep 100% of your door profits.”
The truth: Sure, of course you will. The issue is are you ABLE to turn a profit in the first place? Bands, you REALLY need to examine this factor when a booker tells you this. Consider what you typically draw at your shows. If the rental fee is $500, then would your draw be able to justify paying $500 to that venue and then be able to turn a profit for yourselves at the end of the night? What kind of door cover would you need to set in order to accomplish this? Would that cover really be fair to your fans? How many people do you reasonably expect to bring out with the cover you plan to charge? Would that door fee, plus the bar tab your fans will run, leave them much money afterwards to buy your merch? You really have to start thinking in these terms if you are going to consider paying any rent to a venue. Think about YOUR bottom line as well. Remember, the venue’s bottom line is covered NO MATTER WHAT, BY YOU. Think of yourselves and what is truly reasonable for you to do. I would never recommend playing any show for free, but if you’re hell bent on playing that venue for whatever reason, and you don’t mind just breaking even or barely making a profit after paying rent to play there, that’s ultimately always your choice. Maybe making a profit at a particular show is not an issue to you. All bands operate differently and have different goals. It is my stance that NO musician should EVER play for free, EVER. You set your own standards and believe me, people in the music scene take notice of it. If they know they can get you to perform for free, then they will ask you to do it again. If they know they can get you to pay to play, then they will ask you to again. If they know they can get you to pay them rent to cover their bottom line, they will use you for that purpose again. Just keep those factors in mind. The choice is always yours.
What the booker of the venue will tell you: “For the rental fee, you will get: the room fist and foremost, the PA system, which is top of the line, the production team, you are getting the barstaff, the security, the ticket girl, the ability to sell your merch, our promotions in the newspaper, and local websites.”
The truth: Okay, great. Many smaller venues also offer this package and they don’t charge bands rent, either. Personally, I’d just go play at a smaller, more respected venue that provides all the above services and does a door split, or where I play for the entire door AND pack that place out AND keep more of my profits at the end of the night, but then again, it’s up to you to decide if the rental fee scenario is worth it to you. Are you putting on a special show like a CD release party? Maybe this particular scenario is worth the rental fee, then. However, you need to ask the booker exactly WHAT they will specifically do to promote your event and what percentage of the rental fee actually goes to promotion? What kind of promotion is it? Will they be printing handbills and having a street team hang up posters all over town, or will they only be placing those in the venue itself? If they are paying to place the ad in the newspaper, you need to ask which newspapers (how many and which ones) and will the show be listed in a quarter page ad, an ad that takes up more space like a third page, half page, or full page? Or, will it just be listed in the back of the paper in a list that includes what’s going on at that venue and all the other local venues in town? It never hurts to ask. Does the venue have a website? Will they list your show as a bullet point in a large list of other shows, or include more elements, like a photo or event image and then talk a bit about the bands on the bill? Also, ask what local websites they plan to feature your show on. Will it be on prominent websites that get a lot of hits and attention? As far as I am concerned, if I’m shelling a huge rental fee out of my pocket, they’d sure as hell better be. ASK THESE QUESTIONS. MAKE SURE YOU ARE GETTING WHAT YOU ARE PAYING FOR. Now also, keep in mind, as a band, you should ALWAYS be promoting your own shows (this means printing your own posters and handbills, handing those out personally to people at shows, hanging up posters all over town and at the venue you are playing at, using any and all social media to promote it, if you have your own website, placing that show on your MAIN WALL, using an email list, texting and calling your friends and fans, and using every resource at your fingertips to bring people to your shows), but keep in mind, THE EFFORT SHOULD BE SYMBIOTIC. THE BANDS AND THE VENUE SHOULD BE SHARING PROMOTIONAL EFFORTS, and the venue should REALLY be stepping up to the plate on all fronts if they are charging you a high rental fee to play there.
Now, let’s look at the other factors. The barstaff. This one has always baffled me beyond recognition. THE VENUE SHOULD BE PAYING THE BARSTAFF THEMSELVES AND THE BARTENDERS ARE ALSO MAKING TIPS FROM YOUR FANS!!!! Why should YOU be paying the venue’s barstaff additional fees? The secret that you don’t know is that the bartenders aren’t actually getting any of that rental money you’re paying out anyhow. That money goes directly into the hands of the venue itself. This is just a tactic used to convince bands that they are getting something that in reality they are not. The venue pays the bar staff, and the bartenders make tips off the bands’ fans. The rental fee is going directly to the venue and booker. Trust me, this one is complete bullshit. Don’t EVER let a booker tell you that your rental fees actually goes to pay the barstaff. It doesn’t. If that comes up in conversation, take it as a red flag that that booker is doing shady business.
The production crew. What crew are we talking about? A single sound person? Is he a quality sound person that has a solid reputation in the community and some good experience? Do they have someone running lights as well? Is it a team of people? What are the services they will be providing to you? Is this production crew a bunch of interns from a local college or a team of people who have worked in the field for some time and have some experience in the real world? YOU NEED TO ASK THESE QUESTIONS. AGAIN, YOU ARE PAYING THEM RENT TO PLAY THIS SHOW. MAKE SURE YOU ARE GETTING YOUR MONEY’S WORTH. I cannot state that enough.
The ticket girl. Oh. You mean DOOR PERSON?? This needs to be well defined and clear cut. How many door people will there be? One that sells the tickets and then one who checks IDs, makes sure you have your ticket in hand, and puts armbands on? Is there a person who actually works behind a booth in the front of the venue where people go to purchase a ticket before the show? If that is the case, will each ticket be scanned and documented accurately in a computer program, so at the end of the night, you, the musician, are able to go into their office, sit down with the booker, and get a printout from that computer program of your door sales? If tickets were available online, will that information also be accurately entered into this same program and be included in the printout? This way, you can actually see a point by point breakdown of your attendance. If the venue is charging you a rental fee, but does not have this kind of system in place, then I would ask the booker if I could hire my own door person, have my rental fee lowered for that, and make sure that my door person has a clicker with them to tally up attendance. In any event, the ability to hire your own door person should be able to be part of the negotiation if they don’t have a reliable system in place of tallying up attendance that can be shown to you, the musician at the end of the night. As I discussed earlier, there are venues that will skim additional money off the top of your door sales. It actually happens more frequently than you might think it does, and you would never know a thing about it. Only YOU can make sure you take preventative measures from this happening to you. You MUST negotiate what is reasonable for YOU, and if the venue does not have a reliable and transparent system of showing you your numbers at the end of the night, and they will not allow you to hire your own door person, I’d seriously think about playing somewhere else that is more trustworthy.
“Ability” to sell merch. Umm. okay? Yeah, I would sincerely hope so! What you need to ask the venue here is DO THEY TAKE A PERCENTAGE OF THE MERCH SALES? If they don’t, then great. Then whatever you sell goes right into your band fund or pocket. If they do take a percentage of merch sales in addition to a rental fee, I’d call it a day and go book somewhere else. More and more venues are doing this, and it’s COMPLETELY unfair. YOU paid for the merch, and YOU should make every bit of profit you can from that merch. For a touring band, selling merch is one of the main ways they survive on the road. So really, ask yourselves again, WHAT VALUE AM I GETTING FOR PAYING THIS RENTAL FEE? Remember also, YOU HAVE ALREADY COVERED THE VENUE’S BOTTOM LINE FOR THEM BY PAYING THEM THE RENTAL FEE. You MUST think of YOUR bottom line. PERIOD.
What the booker of the venue will tell you: “the strategy for smaller bands would be to hop on already existing shows so that they don’t feel the pressure of being responsible for anything they don’t think they can handle.”
The truth: They are asking you to play for free. This is a red flag right off the bat. I actually asked a GM of a venue here whether this meant the band would have to play for free, or of they were able to hop on that show and get paid based on how many people they drew, and he told me flat out that it would be “a free gig for exposure” and they could bring merch to sell. Hey. If you, the band, is fine with this, and you feel that the show you are hopping on is worth it to you, by all means, take the show. HOWEVER, please do keep in mind that you are setting your own standards by doing this. Like I said, if you play for no payment even once, you will most likely be asked to do it again. You need to set your standards from the beginning. I would at least attempt to negotiate some form of payment other than just selling my merch, but that’s just me. Others of you may not feel that getting direct payment after playing this type of show matters. You just want to glory of being on the bill with that particular band, or you feel that you can draw more fans because this band has a big draw. Okay. That’s understandable, but I would still try to negotiate some form of reimbursement just so that I didn’t establish a reputation around town of someone who will play for nothing at all. Just a thought.
Now that I’ve presented you with some information regarding the tactics that venues use on bands to pay rental fees, the truths behind these tactics, and points for musicians to consider when they are presented with this arrangement, I’d like to close with some alternatives to playing these kinds of shows that operate completely outside the realm of the venues and their middle men. These may help those of you that are struggling to book shows in your city, when the middle men and their ilk have taken over the majority of the venues, and are making it almost impossible for us that have middle of the road draws (around 20-25 people per show) to develop our draws and our live performances, and of course, make any kind profits for our services.
- Host a house concert. I will personally be hosting my first house concert in December. In this situation, I am DONATING my home, where my band practices, as a space for other musicians to come in and play an intimate show for their friends and fans. We have the PA, and even amps and instruments if the bands want to cut down on the amount gear they want bring. They can just use our gear. I’m donating that too. I will be providing food to the guests, and they can bring their own alcohol. The door cover will be $20, which goes almost entirely to the bands playing (in this instance I have two bands playing). In this instance, if 50 people were to show up, pay $20 per person, that’s $1000 total, which the bands would be getting most of. I will take a small portion out to cover the food, and to pay the sound person as well. I will also be obtaining a sound permit from the city, and running music from 7pm-10pm (the permit expires at 10pm). We will also be live streaming the music on Periscope, and will have someone interviewing the bands and guests about their experiences at the event. If musicians want to go but don’t have the money for the door fee, they can volunteer by helping us set up for the event and clean up after. No music critic, no middle man, no “scenesters” will be exempt from the $20 cover. All the “perks” they get at every show and event in town by getting in free and constantly being on guest lists do not apply here. If they truly want to SUPPORT their scene, they will help CONTRIBUTE to it. It’s ALL community run and organized. This is a win win situation for the bands and for the attendees. Most people spend an average of $50-$75 when they go out to see a show. They pay to get in, they run a bar tab, they tip the bartender, then they buy merch. Sometimes they have to pay to park if it’s downtown, or parking may be difficult depending on which neighborhood the venue is in. Then, who knows how much of that door fee the bands are actually getting at the end of the night, so did that door cover really pay the bands or did it go mostly into the hands of the venue? Our house concerts will absolutely give people more perks for their money. Here, our street parking is ample, they spend $20 to get in, bring their own alcohol, and get a meal too. Then, of course, an intimate concert with two great local acts. I even have a friend bringing laser lights and fog. The bands will play in the garage which we will soundproof, and we will also be inviting all our neighbors. I personally think this option is fantastic, because it puts the power back into the hands of the local music community and its fans, family, and friends. It helps foster RELATIONSHIPS. Damn. How super cool is that? There IS no “rent” to even worry about because the space is DONATED. We will be booking more of these next year and looking to work with local businesses and even studios to expand this program even more. In any event, I do not want a band to even think about having to pay a rental fee to play one of our house parties, EVER. I want them to make GREAT money and be able to sell all the merch they can. Again, it’s a win win for EVERYONE.
- Busk. Just set up and play. It’s that simple. One of my friends had a very creative way of doing this and actually made a ton of money. Check this out: “One of my old bands used to rent a Uhaul truck and a generator and played shows on the beach during spring break and the summer to sell merch and make cash. Cost about 150 (250 if we brought a keg and sold cups) and we’d leave with a G or so in our pockets. The venue is in your heart. Take it with you wherever. No one can confine music!” BOY, do I LOVE THAT. He’s right. NO ONE CAN CONFINE MUSIC. Remember this, and you can always come up with creative strategies to busk and STILL make some money. Let this open the door for your own ideas.
Also, in conclusion, I’d like to add that playing the smaller venues and packing them out is ALWAYS a better strategy when you are either starting or are middle the road. These venues typically offer a better payment system for the bands, and again, are more respected in the local community. Start there and also consider booking out of town as often as you can. You don’t want to overplay at home, EVER. Remember, playing for the entire door or doing a door split with the venue is always the best payment system to have, and try to hire your own door person when it is possible for you to. Establish your reputation in an honorable manner from the beginning, making sure you are reimbursed for your services in some way. I would never advise playing for free under any circumstances but then again it’s all up to you in the end and what you think you are worth and what is worth it to you. When a venue offers a rental deal, be sure to ask the questions listed above and don’t sell yourselves short on that type of deal if you do decide to take it.
Thank you all for reading and I sincerely wish all of you the best out there. I hope this information has been informative and I welcome your input and comments.