August 28


Musicians — Take Your Power Back

By Keith Livingston

August 28, 2016

email, fans, live show promo, live shows, playing clubs, record labels.

Recently a group of musicians I know was discussing the cover charges at local clubs. Some clubs are charging a $5 cover, and that’s just not enough to support 3 bands on the bill.

The gist of the conversation was that clubs should charge more, and pay the bands more. “The clubs have all the power”, was another common complaint.

And I hear the same thing about record labels. Musicians want a shot, but in today’s environment, they’re not even sure what a record label can do for them, or if it’s necessary.

Take Your Power Back From Clubs

Well, here’s how to take your power back.

Look at it from the club’s point of view. . .

While many people who own clubs want to support music, they also have to make money. They have rent, employee expenses, liquor expenses, insurance, and they’ve got to keep the lights on. It costs thousands of dollars a month to keep a club running.

That means they need to make at least several hundred dollars a night in profit, to keep the doors open. Unless they take a huge cut of the door, they probably make the majority of their money from liquor sales. That means they need people to come in the club.

And that means, they want to charge less at the door — so they can get more folks in.

Is It All About The Music?

So, you may be thinking about yourself this way: “I’m a musician, I’ve worked hard to get good. I deserve to be paid for my time.” And they’re thinking about you this way: “How many people will they bring through the door?”

You think your job is to play great and put on a show. They think your job is to bring in a crowd. But bringing in a crowd is really a joint venture. The club has regulars, and a draw. So do you.

The balance of power is dictated by how much of a draw you have, compared to the club.

If your draw consists of your significant other, and that guy from work that makes you uncomfortable, then you’re going to have to take that Tuesday night slot at midnight, that pays 1/3 of the $5 cover.

When you can pack a room @ $20/head, your fans will be happy to come see you at any venue in the area. You don’t even need a club. You can rent a space and throw an event yourself. You have the power.

Your Job

Your job, if you want to play clubs, is to build your audience to the point where you can pack those rooms. How do you do that?

  • You get good musically
  • You put on a great show
  • You consistently engage fans and potential fans at gigs, on social media, on your web site — you draw them into your world
  • You systematically collect  fans’ contact  info, and you follow up with them and engage them

If you do these things, and people respond to you, you’ll get better and better gigs. In the early stages, consider taking gigs based on the level of exposure to potential new fans. For instance, opening up for a bigger artist who plays a similar style of music might be better than a headlining gig you do on your own.

Taking The Power Back From Record Labels

‘Record label’, could mean anything, these days. It could just be a guy who calls himself a label. It could be more of a distribution deal (although there are services that can do that for you, now). Or, the label could provide money for recording, advertising, promotion, tour support, access to high level producers, etc.

In general, the ones that can provide more for you, want more from you. They’re going to invest time and money in you, and they want to know they can recover that, in sales. It’s a big risk for them.

You might think then, that their biggest concern is how good you are. And that’s certainly in there. But think of it another way. . .

Track Record

Let’s suppose you wanted to buy an already existing restaurant (this is related, I promise), and you have several restaurants from which to choose. You know that about 60% of restaurants fail in their first year, and 80% before 5 years, so it’s risky. It’s going to cost you a couple hundred grand. What would be the things that would put you most at ease? What factor would most influence your decision on which restaurant to buy?

If you said a proven record of attracting customers and being profitable, give yourself a prize.

If they’re profiting $10k/month, you know you can probably make your investment back within a couple of years.

Well, a record label is going to look at you the same way. They’re going to look at the size of your fan base, and how many copies of your last CD you sold out of the back of your van. They’re going to want to know how big your email list is. They’re going to make calculations based on your list size, about how quickly they can recover the money they’ve invested.

The most important factor in mitigating their risk, is for them to know that what they want to do for you, on a large scale, you’ve already done, on a small scale. They want a track record.

They’re going to look at how you’ve built your audience locally, and know how you can do it world-wide, with their support. They’re going to look at how many people you get signed up to your email list when you play gigs in front of 150 people, and project how many sign-ups you can get when you play in front of 2,000.

Your Job, Part Deux

So, what do you have to do to get all that in place?

  • You get good musically
  • You put on a great show
  • You consistently engage fans and potential fans at gigs, on social media, on your web site — you draw them into your world
  • You systematically collect  fans’ contact  info, and you follow up with them and engage them

Does that sound familiar?

And guess what? If you have a proven record (no pun intended) of building your local fan base, collecting email addresses, and playing better and better shows, you are in a much better bargaining position with a record label. You don’t need them. You get to decide whether you’d be better off with, or without them. Just type “Turned Down A Record Label Deal” in the big G, and you’ll see lots of stories.

So, here’s my point. Whether you want to get better gigs at clubs, get signed by a major label, or do it all on your own, your job right now is pretty much the same. Get good, engage fans, and collect their contact info.




Keith Livingston

About the author

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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