Dignity and respect
I took up guitar again in 1999 after a twenty-year layoff. Fortunately, a lot of guitaring is based upon muscle memory, and that doesn't seem to fade over the years. Within a year of picking up the guitar again, I had formed a band and was playing original material in local bars and clubs. Portland has a large music community, although I'd hesitate to call it a "thriving" community. If you know Portland, you're probably wondering why a city with well over a hundred live music venues and perhaps a thousand active bands isn't thriving, in a musical sense.
The short answer is that live music is a business, and that business is bad. And because business is bad, everyone's suffering. But the ones who suffer the most, and carry most of the financial burden, are the local musicians. Musicians who will -- gladly, it seems -- sacrifice their dignity and respect for a chance to perform for an audience.
Club attendance is down. Whether attendance is down because the local economy started sliding with the dot-com bust (with the glimmering hope of a partial recovery squashed by the post 9/11 events and politics), or because Portland is filling up with 9-to-5 middle managers who can't be bothered to leave their comfy living room to see a show that starts at 10pm, or because the youngsters who have the stamina to go out at night and still put in a passable performance at work the next day are spending their time at raves, or ... who really knows?
Club owners, even the ones whose clubs still host live music, have pretty much gotten out of the live music business. Instead they farm out the chores to a freelance booking agent. The agent is responsible for finding the bands (not at all difficult) and handling the logistics of putting on a show. For this, they get a cut of the door. Well, that's fair... or it would be if they actually did something besides have a few conversations and collect their pay. The booking agent (or the club) also hires someone to run sound at the venue, and someone to collect money at the door. Now, here's the interesting part: the booking agent, the sound operator and the door cashier all get paid for their time. They show up, do their thing, get paid and go home. After everyone else gets paid, the bands (there are usually three or four crammed into one evening) split whatever's left of the take from the door. On a good night it's enough to cover gas and maybe a beer. On a bad night, there's nothing at all left for the bands after everyone else gets paid.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Most of the local clubs operate this way. The sad part is not that the clubs do this, but that musicians everywhere are used to being last in line on pay day. Just take a look at any label contract: the producer, engineer and all the support staff get paid first, while the artist pays (via recoupment) for the priviledge of making a record. It's pretty much the same thing in the club scene: the venue and staff get paid, while the band is responsible for promotion and all other costs.
That's right, the clubs don't even do promotion. Sure, they might run a two-square inch ad into which they cram three or four band names. But even that concession to the band is happening less and less, especially as clubs book with less lead time. So it's up to the band to promote themselves. On a gig income of essentially zero, few bands can afford to spend the $60 or so it takes to run even the smallest display ad in one of the local newspapers (and, here in Portland, there are two papers that arts patrons turn to for performance info). And even if the bands could spring for that kind of money, they never have the kind of information that their audience would like to see. For example, "what time is the show?"
If you want to know what time you're going to play, show up for the gig. The booker's role for the evening is to determine who plays first, second, third and fourth. The club doesn't really want the bands to tell their audience when to show up for your forty-minute set. The club does much better if patrons show up and hang around for the evening. Sure, the club does better because they sell more alcohol. But the band's fans and supporters have to hang around for up to four hours for a forty-minute event. (By the way, bands never get a cut of the bar. Clubs do keep track of which bands bring in the heavier drinkers, and feed that information back to the booker.)
So, what's wrong with hanging around in a club for four hours? Well, the clubs really aren't very conducive to socializing. There is literally no time during those four hours when you can hold a normal conversation. Sound levels are so high that the only way to converse is to yell into someone's ear or to leave the premises. And no, that is not the fault of the bands, because even the between-sets "background" music is played at levels that require the use of hearing protection. We have the "sound guys" to thank for this sorry state. When they sound-check a band, they start by amplifying the drum kit to levels that register on nearby seismometers, then bring the rest of the band up to match the drums.
Of course, sound guys know that they don't have a leg to stand on. They do run small-venue sound at extreme levels, either because they're partially deaf from years of abusing their ears or because they get off on seeing how far they can push their gear. The standard response is to find a convenient scapegoat - in this case, the only other people in the room having control of sound amplification equipment, the guitarists. That's right, the house sound has to be loud enough to drown out the sound of the guitar amplifiers, lest the stage sound interfere with the sound operator's delicate real-time mix of a band he has probably never heard before tonight. Just how ludicrous is that? Never mind that the band has probably spent considerable time working on their dynamics and balance among the various instruments... someone who has zero familiarity with the material is somehow going to make it better by reinterpreting the artists' sound.
You'd be surprised at how much quieter most local bands would be if every instrument wasn't mic'd and reamplified. Certainly not library-quiet, but quiet enough so that patrons and bartenders don't have to communicate using gestures. All you really need for rock sound reinforcement in a small club is to mic the vocals and maybe the kick drum. Small-club owners, listen carefully (if you still have any hearing left). There are maybe two or three live performance vanues in Portland that really need a multi-kilowatt PA, and yours isn't one of them. Sell (or end the lease on) your giant-killer PA and pocket the difference. Your patrons and staff will thank you. Who knows, maybe word will get out and people will start treating your venue as a pleasant place to hang out instead of someplace to endure hearing a friend's band. And get rid of the damned sound guy. If he wants to act out his fantasy of doing big-time live sound, let him try to get a job with a touring act. Any band member can manage to mic a kick drum and a vocalist -- it's really not rocket science and certainly not worth paying someone $70 or more for an evening.
Let me restate the points I was making in the last few paragraphs. Lose the sound guy, downsize the PA, and get bands to play at a "naturally" quieter volume. You're inflicting pain upon your patrons and staff with excessive volume, and you're going to have that problem until you match your sound reinforcement system to the size of the venue and the needs of your patrons. Right now, people go to your club to hear their friends' bands play, and flee when the set is over because they really don't like being assaulted by the constant high volume. Drop the volume, and maybe they'll come earlier and stay later. Remember, people go out to be with their friends, not to be impressed by how loud the sound guy can make the band (and the between sets backround music). If you're going to run the music part of your business as if it were a concert venue, expect your patrons to come for the show and leave immediately afterward. If you want people to hang out for a while, don't force them to leave the premises in order to carry on a normal conversation.
But enough about live sound. That's only part of the problem. If patrons do make it out to most of the live venues operating today, chances are they won't be back unless they have a friend in one of the bands playing that night. The real problem is getting people to come out to hear live music in the first place. Which brings us right back around to the reason people go out at all, which is to be with their friends in a comfortable environment. If you're hosting live music, you want the music to be appropriate for the crowd you're trying to attract. If you're good at this, patrons will show up because they know they can depend on hearing music that they like when they visit your venue. Seems simple, doesn't it? If you can be consistent about the kind of entertainment that you offer, people will come to hear the bands no matter who's playing.
Sadly, few Portland clubs have a musical identity, unless you call 'eclectic' an identity. Seriously, I've heard folk, goth, electronica, rockabilly, blues and metal bands in the same club, sometime on the same bill. Who's the intended audience for the evening? Schizophrenics? People with no musical preferences whatsoever?
"Conventional wisdom" holds that having a variety of acts on the bill will bring in more customers during the evening. That "wisdom" only works for a market in which competition is limited. For example, it worked well in the early days of television. The Ed Sullivan Show, far from being a quaint anachronism, met the needs of the day because there were only two or three channels on the air in any market. How many wildly successful variety shows do you see today on cable TV? If you want to market your club successfully during this millenium, you're going to have to specialize. Which means that your booker is going to have to stop picking bands based upon word-of-mouth and start auditioning bands. You're going to have to get involved with the booker in crafting an identity for the club's entertainment. Instead of showing up for five minutes to tell the bands when they're going on, the booker is going to need to stay around and see how well the bands do with an audience, and whether the audience enjoys the show. Ever hear of customer service? If you're providing entertainment, those are the sorts of things you have to do. And you wonder why club attendance is down... Neglect, pure and simple.
And, please, stop treating the talent like second-class citizens. Musicians are waking up to the realities of the music business. It's not a huge leap for them to go independent and put on their own shows, especially in a city like Portland where co-ops and activism thrive. Club owners, this is your wake-up call. It's time to either pay attention to the business of entertainment, or look at alternatives. Bingo, perhaps?