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The BIG Reason

Music, opinions, and portfolio of Mark Eagleton, musician and web developer in Northern CA.

Rock Star Scabs

I've been playing in moderately professional bands off and on for about thirteen years now. In that time I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to how musicians are treated on the "Rock Star" circuit. I have also seen the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of how "rock stars" treat everyone else. This year, in particular, has been very enlightening.

It may or may not come as a surprise to a few of you that I play bull fiddle in a rip-snortin’ honky tonk band. We put out a CD earlier this year, and have been pretty active with the live shows in an effort to promote its sale. By pretty active, I mean about four shows a month on average since March 2k5.

I’ve been playing in moderately professional bands off and on for about thirteen years now. In that time I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to how musicians are treated on the "Rock Star" circuit. I have also seen the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of how "rock stars" treat everyone else. This year, in particular, has been very enlightening.

The kinds of gigs we’ve had this year are about as diverse as they come: festivals, block parties, radio shows, weddings, rock clubs, company picnics, restaurants, etc.. Because of this, I think I’ve become even more jaded and disenchanted with the "Rock Star" scene than I was previously. To put things in perspective, I took a three year break from playing live because of my previous level of disenchantment with the scene. Granted, it’s 1000 times more tolerable with a band to share it with than it is as a solo artist. This is how I am able to continue.

Before I get too far, allow me to clarify what I mean by "Rock Star" scene. I mean the circuit of musicians that perceives a professional musician to be one who puts out a record, and then goes around playing rock clubs to promote the record. From what I’ve gathered, this seems to be the most popular idea of what a professional musician is. Whether it’s ignorance or intolerance (my guess is primarily the former) to gigs perceived to be more sell-out oriented like weddings, block parties, casinos, teaching, session work, song writing, etc., this ideal seems to actually be ideal to this group of people.

I believe this mentality is the root of my disenchantment. I also believe that if it were corrected, everything I hate about playing the rock star circuit would be magically reversed.

Did you know in most small to mid sized cities (population 50k to 500k), the club that is considered to be "the coolest place to play in town" usually holds about 100 to 200 people, has an average cover charge of $7, and puts at least three bands on the bill every single night live music is featured. The musicians are paid a percentage of the door, sometimes based on the order of appearance, sometimes an even split.

If the sound man, booking agent, door man and bouncer have been paid from this same pot, bands usually walk away with $40 to $60 on a bad night, and maybe $100 to $140 on a good night if other staff is paid from other funds—like a cut of the bar, for instance.

Yes, this is $40 to $140 to split between the 3 or 4 or 5 members of the band. After you add the 4 to 6 hours of loading, driving, sound checking and waiting around to play and be paid for the 30 to 45 minutes of actual music you play, this can easily average under $7 per hour. Gas, tolls, food, lodging and drinks at the show all contribute to the likely hood of breaking very much less than even.

Compounded by the low pay are any or all of the following pains in the ass:

  1. Lots of heavy lifting
  2. A single FREE pitcher of PBR or other cheap beer
  3. Socially retarded sound man drama
  4. Pressure for YOU to have "a good draw"
  5. Bartenders that don’t know the names or order of appearance of any of the bands that are playing
  6. Having to stay until closing (2AM) to get paid
  7. Lost cables, adaptors, stands, and drum keys
  8. Starting and finishing the set before you have warmed up

By this time it’s easy to see why this is often referred to as a labor of love. Granted, this is the average situation for an average gigging band. Well know performers usually command guarantees to the dollar amounts they are paid—as they should.

What I think a lot of these average rock star bands lack is the understanding that this is bad, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Consider for a moment, the opposite of the rock star scene: "the sell-out party scene." While you have to be open to playing songs that may not be entirely to your liking, you do get to set your own rules before the booking even takes place. These rules can include an amount of pay that will make it worth your trouble to actually go, access to food and drink to make you comfortable, and when and how you will be paid.

Party goers, in contrast to rock club goers, are usually far more appreciative of the music and are often inclined to tip you for requests, bring you food and drinks when you’re looking empty, and buy your merchandise during breaks. I can’t remember a time that a bartender ever brought me a refill on stage because he/she thought I was looking empty. Alternately, I can’t remember the last time I played a party where I didn’t have at least two half full bottles of beer next to my amp at all times (tip: keep your equipment safe and appear more professional at high class gigs by not placing drinks in plain view of party guests).

For these kinds of gigs, my band has made as low as $300 and up to $3500 on the high end. That’s why I call it "the sell out party scene."

Private party gigs are often booked by single individuals who are willing to pay a premium to ensure their guests are properly entertained by quality musicians. All the way up on the other end of the food chain are large corporate businesses who budget for entertainment on an annual basis. If this wide range of people are so willing to kick down, why is the rock club scene the only circuit that is unwilling?

In the old days, a music club would seek out top-notch bartenders, award winning chefs, cute waitresses, and talented musicians to ensure their endless supply of patrons were properly entertained. In this day in age, the bartender and waitress themes still very much apply, yet many of these places use the musicians to pull in most of their business for the evening. Sure, even in the old days there was plenty of give and take as far as who (the club or the band) was responsible for drawing in the patrons, but that take still allowed proper compensation for work performed. Today, there is a high saturation of bad bands willing to play for nothing, or worse: pay to play. In union circles, these people are called scabs. In the rock club scene, all musicians are treated like scabs.

One way rock clubs could improve the situation for themselves and the musicians involved would be to simply book less bands. Not less music, less bands. Instead of three or four bands, book just two.

How the club benefits:

  1. More continuous music
  2. Less sound checking
  3. Less work for the sound man
  4. Less potential for bands showing up late
  5. Less people to comp on the guest list
  6. Better selection of bands to choose from (you eliminate 1/3 to 1/2 of the bands you book—eliminate the bad ones)
  7. Less gear for patrons to steel/trip over/block the bathroom door with
  8. Easier to find bands that will sound good together when there are only two to pick.

How the bands benefit:

  1. 1. They get to play longer
  2. 2. Exposure to more people during the sweet spot of the night (between 10:15 PM and 11:45 PM)
  3. 3. Less competition for merchandise sales
  4. 4. More pay
  5. 5. More thorough sound checks
  6. 6. More room for gear
  7. 7. Less chance of playing with vastly different bands

You may be thinking that less bands equals less people coming to the show. I can’t say that I completely know this to be untrue all of the time, but think about this... If you have three bands booked, what are the chances that one of them isn’t really going to have that big of a draw? Maybe a few girlfriends, a parent or cousin? In my experience, pretty often. The chances of all of them making it onto the guest list are pretty likely at this point, and whose to say that all of them will visit the bar?

Now take into consideration the number one complaint we hear from the people that come to our shows:

You’re going on at midnight? That’s too late for me.

If you don’t have a third band, the "headliner" will start durring peak time, rather than play clean up and tourture the people whose entention was actually to see them play.

A potential patron is also less likely to come see their favorite local band if they’re only getting 30 minutes of music out of it, or if they go on before 10PM.

Another thing to consider is that patrons don’t like to endure the chaos of the tear down and set up necessary to get bands on and off the stage. The less of this they have to endure, the higher the chances are they will stay longer and staying longer equals more drinks.

There is such a thing as band overload. Poor combinations of music, or just too much diversity and intermissions to sit through can also contribute to people not staying as long. That’s pretty much why I don’t go see shows myself.

The rock star scene’s one saving grace is exposure. A nessessary evil, if you will. These are still the places people are going to find new music. Still, it is easier for an honest band to make a better living by not booking rock club dates when they could be getting a few grand for a wedding.

Promoters, don’t contribute to the decline of the live music scene. By encouraging competition between bands, you end up with better bands with bigger draws and have more money to pay them, which attracts more good bands. Over all, it’s a healthier situation for clubs and musicians alike. Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to pick scabs? You should listen to her.

NOTE: I would like to give credit to my favorite drummer for coining the scab slang as it pertains to the music scene.