This is Going to Piss Some of You Off

Jazz Club
Photo by archerwl

UPDATE: I wanted to clarify something…in this article I refer to my friend “Jeff” only based on the sentiment his Facebook updates – this article is NOT about him. There were some harsh attacks on Jeff in the social media responses to this article, which I feel were unfair. I know for a fact that Jeff works very hard to promote his shows and definitely does not go about his business with a sense of entitlement. I used his comments as a springboard to the ideas covered in this article. I too have shared the sentiment in Jeff’s FB posts in the past, and I know that many other musicians have as well, so it’s definitely a relevant topic. I just don’t want to give the wrong impression of my man “Jeff”‘s overall attitude or work ethic, since a good number of my readers know who “Jeff” really is. That is all.

As most of you know, this website is built on how-to articles as well as product reviews. But with this article, I’m going to do something a little different and offer my personal opinion on a topic that affects just about all musicians looking to receive money in exchange for live performances.

“You want me to do what!?

This article was spawned by a series of Facebook status updates that a musician friend of mine (let’s call him “Jeff” for now) has been posting over the past week. In this series of posts, Jeff complains about a request made by the promoter of a club where Jeff was booked to play. The club owner basically asked Jeff to promote the show to friends and fans in order to maximize turnout at the gig.

And this did not sit well with my buddy, Jeff. It was Jeff’s position that it’s up to the club to get people in the door. Now, I will say that Jeff ranks highly among the most talented musicians I’ve ever known. I also think that he would probably agree with a lot of what I’m sharing here. But his Facebook posts got me thinking about the division of labor between club owners and musicians when it comes to promotion, since I know that there are a lot of musicians who would respond very positively to the aforementioned Facebook posts.

But as someone who’s both a musician and a business guy, I have a perspective that you may or may not agree with, but I’ll throw it out there anyways.

“F-you, pay me.”

-Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas”

Do you know why jazz A-listers like Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea really play the world’s biggest concert halls and jazz festivals?

No, it’s not because they’re some of the greatest musicians in jazz history.

It’s because they sell tickets. 

As brilliant as Sonny Rollins is, if his shows didn’t generate many thousands of dollars each night, you can bet your Bb7+9 that he wouldn’t be playing those top venues.

Simply put, Sonny Rollins is a safe bet for the competent club owner or concert promoter.

It’s Not All About You

But what about the other 99.9999% of the music world, that massive pool of artists who don’t have legendary status?

Of course, they deserve to be compensated generously for the value that they bring to the venue. But the venue needs to be compensated as well, otherwise, there is no venue, and one less place for musicians to actually earn money doing what they love.

Most full-time professional musicians are under a lot of pressure to keep themselves out of the red each month. But a club owner is also under a ton of pressure. They’ve got a lease constantly hanging over their head. They’ve got a kitchen and a bar to stock. They’ve got employees whose families are depending on them in order to make ends meet. They’ve got all sorts of miscellaneous fees, taxes, and other expenses that non-club owners such as myself have no clue about. In many cases they’ve got investors who are eagerly expecting a return on their investment. And after all of that, they still need to bring home enough money to keep themselves and their families financially afloat.

Of course, there are many club owners who are indeed greedy bottom-feeders, and maybe this is the type of club owner that my buddy, Jeff was dealing with. But in many cases, the club owners are just as passionate and generous with what they do as are the artists that they support.

Hosting Live Jazz – The World’s Most Devious Get-Rich-Quick Scam!

No matter which aspect of the business you’re coming from, jazz is a labor of love. Do you think that club or restaurant owners book jazz acts to make a mountain of cash? In some cases (such as a very expensive restaurant that needs live quiet background music to justify their prices), sure, but in most cases, I highly doubt it.

So while I definitely think that the club owner is responsible for as much advertising and marketing as they can reasonably afford, I also think that it’s fair to expect that the artists do their part to support the venue that’s taking a chance on them.

Take Your Destiny Into Your Own Hands

This doesn’t mean that artists should have to go out and pay for ads in magazines and high-traffic websites. But I do think that it’s in everyone’s best interest if musicians get aggressive about promoting their gigs and bringing in an audience – preferably an alcohol-purchasing audience (ie: folks other than broke fellow musicians) to come check out the show.

Yes, I know, Bird and Trane didn’t have to collect email addresses and maintain websites. But rather than lamenting the fact people nowadays are too lazy and ignorant to dig jazz, I believe that musicians have to face the reality and wear the entrepreneur hat along with their musician hat.

And the truth is, it’s cheaper and easier than ever to figure out who your audience is and then build a relationship with them.

For any musician out there who isn’t getting good turnouts at their gigs, or isn’t getting any gigs at all for that matter – have you done the following in an effort to find fans who are not your friends or family?:

  • Put up a website using a point-and-click mobile and tablet-friendly non-Flash website solution such as, Squarespace, or HostBaby (And kindly skip the intro pages and auto-playing music while you’re at it).
  • Create an email newsletter using a free service such as MailChimp.
  • Set up profiles on social media platforms such as Facebook, Soundcloud, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc (you don’t need to be on all of them, but I would say pick at least one or two to be fairly active on).
  • At your gigs, talk to people who offer you compliments on your performance. Do you know what about your performance that they liked? Do you know what they didn’t like? Do you know what kind of music they listen to? Do you know what clubs they frequent? How about what they do for a living? These are things that can be gleaned in a casual conversation, and you can even tell them that you are asking these questions in an effort to get a better sense of your target audience.
  • Survey your email subscribers (using a free tool like Survey Monkey) and social media followers asking them the same questions that you ask admirers at your gig.
  • Post 3 or so recordings of tunes on a web page and ask people to pick their favorite.

Who knows, maybe you’ll discover that your ideal fans like fine wine (yipee for the club owner!), or cigars, and that they frequent “The Blue Room” and love your uptempo tunes. Regardless, I think it’s great to get inside the heads of the folks upon whom you’re counting for at least part of your income.

“But don’t you know, I’m an ARTISTE!”

Now, you might be thinking – isn’t this the epitome of “selling out”?

It depends on how you look at it.

There’s more to performing music than simply playing the notes, rhythms, and harmonies that you want to play. I think it’s also very rewarding to “play the audience.”

Of course, you can block out the audience at your gigs in the hopes that they happen to respond to what you’re doing. But when you’re making a conscious effort to be aware of the audience’s “energy” (manifested as clapping, vocal participation, dancing, and/or an overall “vibe”), then you can engage in a conversation of sorts, and as many of you know, this is one of the most exciting experiences you can have as a musician.

And if you still think that’s selling out – then I say, what’s the harm in compromising a little bit every now and then in order to build up an audience that will fund those musical endeavors which involve absolutely zero artistic compromise?

Look at folks like Michael and Randy Brecker, Snooky Young, Eddie Gomez, Bill Watrous, and the legions of other jazz titans who played on countless “unhip” commercial jingles, pop tunes, and entire concert tours in order to have the financial freedom to play “the hip stuff.”

What’s wrong with having a little bit of extra cash to put on that jaw harp and saxophone atonal duet concert that you were going to rent out that photography studio for?

It’s also nice to have a larger following in general, since out of that following will be a subset of folks who are open to your more adventurous stuff, so the bigger your overall audience, the bigger the pool of sophisticated listeners you’ll have to choose from.

Wait, what were we talking about?

Anyhow, I’m getting a bit off-topic here, but my point is, getting people to show up to a gig is a responsibility that should be shared between the performer and the club owner. I suggest that musicians focus on collaborating with those club owners who are honestly doing their best to be fair to those of us on the bandstand, and for musicians to consider dropping the suspicion where it’s prudent to do so.

Therefore I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the club owner to check with the musician to make sure that they are doing what they can to get people through the door, since everyone benefits from a packed house.

So that’s my take on it, what do you think?