Bookers and clubs
I've been thinking about the role of bookers and clubs in the music scene. I've reached the conclusion that the former are not doing the latter any favors.
My focus, being based upon what I've observed here in Portland, is necessarily narrow. These observations and conclusions are based upon clubs that primarily offer showcase gigs for unknown local bands playing original material. You also need to know that, despite the large number of such venues in Portland, the band-to-venue ratio has been a fairly large number for a long time.
The booker's job is to get people through the door of the club in order to sell drinks. The cover charge in most clubs is skimmed by the club for "expenses" and by the sound tech, who is often acting as an independent contractor supplying both gear and time to the club. (Some clubs purchase or lease their own equipment. Even so, the sound operator is retained by the club and paid before the bands.) The bands divide whatever is left of the door proceeds after the club and the sound contractor are paid. On a weeknight gig, most bands are lucky to cover their food and beverage expenses incurred while they're at the club.
The booker is either an employee of or contractor to the club. There are a lot of bookers in town. Their success is predicated upon how many people they bring in. (Or more precisely: how many thirsty people...) The best way to succeed as a booker is to book (I refuse to write "hire" in this context, based upon the aforementioned payment arrangements) bands that have a large draw. Most bookers will be quite honest about this. If you can bring 30 to 60 of your fans to a show, they'll be happy to let your band play a 40-minute set.
The extent of the venue's expenses, over and above any payments made to the booker, sound operator and equipment lessor or financier, consists of (at most) a small ad running in one or two weekly newspapers that have low ad rates. The ad mentions the club's name and address and listing of bands for the week. Since the number of bands is large (typically 20 per week) and the number of column inches is small, each band is listed in a miniscule typeface. Frankly, I don't know that anyone actually reads these ads to find a show to attend; I think the ads mostly end up filling pages in band scrapbooks.
In other words, the venue really doesn't do any promotion. There's no need since the booker is expected to fill the club with fans reached through the bands' own promotional efforts.
- Bands play for a percentage of the door after the club and the sound operator have extracted their payment.
- The booker expects the bands to have a built-in draw.
- The club mitigates risk by not offering a guarantee to any band. (Or as far as I know, to the booker or sound operator.) In the worst case the club makes no more money than if it did not host live music at all.
- No meaningful promotion is done by the venue to position itself as a preferred live music destination.
The last point bears emphasis. These clubs are rarely a destination for socialization. The vast majority of patrons come to see a particular band. Fans may stay to hear the band that appears before or after "their band" if the genres and performance aesthetics aren't too far out of line.
Without live music, many of these clubs would not remain in business. The clubs have become dependent upon the music scene to provide patrons. Furthermore, the vast majority of clubs fail to foster any kind of communal sense amongst bands and fans. Few clubs provide an experience that is predictable enough for their patrons to make the club a destination for a musical night out on a regular basis.
Indeed, most clubs give the impression that live music is an afterthought, perhaps no more important than sweeping broken shards off the floor when someone drops a glass or bottle. There's no sense of anticipation or excitement. No emcee announces acts. Band members take and leave the stage via the front of house since there is no green room. No one bothers to use the stage lighting (if any) to dramatic effect. Forty-minute sets with a twenty-minute changeover provide neither continuity nor time for a sound check that would help the bands get a reasonable FOH mix. Monitor mixes are limited and haphazard, but the FOH is usually so overbearingly loud that monitors are irrelevant anyway.
Yes, this is a sad state of affairs. You'd think that in a city like Portland, known nationally for its music scene, we would be able to generate more enthusiasm for the scene amongst individuals not already part of the scene. We have no filters, no impresarios, no promoters. (We do have quite a few slime bags who call themselves promoters. All they do is prey upon hopeful artists with pay-to-play schemes. Like the club owners, these so-called promoters do nothing to promote their own shows or to help create a scene.)
Bands are routinely booked without auditions. Bookers frequently rely upon their network to select bands. Bookers frequently will allow one band to book the other three bands for an evening, thus further abdicating any influence over the quality or style of the music presented in their venue.
Demo CDs are churned out like clockwork by the burgeoning small studio operations in and around Portland. These CDs, while nice for fans, frequently overstate the bands' ability to deliver a compelling live performance.
Who benefits from the status quo?
- Clubs get free entertainment without risking any significant financial exposure.
- The supporting industries - musical-instrument sales, maintenance, recording, mastering, CD production, printing, sound reinforcement, lighting, etc. - all benefit from the thousands of artists living and working in Portland.
- The hopes and aspirations of artists and performers are routinely exploited by a network of part-time bookers and promoters who line their own pockets while giving nothing in return to Portland's music community.
These things are possible only because of the support of artists and performers. Slick marketing and sales pitches compel the premature purchase of professional products and services in support of underdeveloped musical visions, which in turn compels the supporting industries to seek further growth. Lazy booking policies at small clubs ensure that virtually anyone can get a gig. The lack of artistic filtering and oversight creates an environment which drives patrons to prefer the predictability of sitting in front of their DVDs, televisions and computers rather than going out for an evening of live music.
Those on the front lines of Portland's music scene - the small clubs, bookers and promoters - need to take things to the next level by creating an promoting an identity that will set an expectation for patrons. The reasonable expectation of a predictable, enjoyable and entertaining evening is the only thing that's going to get people out of their houses and apartments to listen to live music. You don't have to have the best bands (although someone will) or the hottest genre (although someone will snag that, too). You do have to create an expectation of consistency and a sense of the musical performances being a special event. Patrons - once you discount the hipsters who are far too cool to be hang out for the sake of hanging out - appreciate a bit of pageantry.
We're lucky: the infrastructure is already in place. But it's going to take a change in the way bookers and promoters think about live music in order to expand the scene beyond immediate participants and their friends.