It has become an annual tradition for VCReporter to put the spotlight on our local music scene and the tremendous talent therein, but in 2011 we were so busy trying to instigate revolt with our Protest Song Project (check it out: www.facebook.com/VCReporterProtestProject) that we lost track of time, making this year’s Bands to Watch list a tad longer than usual. Typically we choose about 10 artists that we feel are either getting attention outside the 805 or so damn good they should be, but this year it’s a baker’s dozen plus a handful of school-age bands we felt deserved props. The bands were chosen by a panel of VCReporter music writers whose combined involvement with music spans three decades, nearly every genre and a variety of cities, inside and outside the Ventura County line. The list is not definitive. Some bands have been featured in our previous local music issues (see our recap of 2010’s Bands to Watch), others we’re keeping an eye on for next year. It’s entirely possible that deserving bands did not make our list at all, and for this we apologize — we’re human, after all. We also decided to explore the economics of live music, as the subject of musicians’ pay has been a hot topic of late, and not only in Ventura County. Last year the Atlantic online published an article about the state of live music nationwide, and Ventura County was rated the fourth (in the country!) most vibrant music scene, right behind New York City. We’re not sure why industry types haven’t begun flocking to our nightclubs to scout talent, but we expect to see our bands in at least one major music magazine in the near future. Until then and afterward, we will continue to champion live local music by providing the best coverage of it in the county.
“I can get a tip jar
Gas up the car
Try to make a little change
Down at the bar.
Or I can get a straight job
I’ve done it before
Never minded working hard
It’s who I’m working for.
Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gotta give it away.”
— Gillian Welch, “Everything Is Free Now”
It is the rare artist who pursues his dream with financial gain in mind, and it’s the rare venue owner who doesn’t. Different as their goals may be, when it comes to live musical entertainment, they need each other — though the relationship is not always a cozy one. Disagreements between the two over the economics of live music are nothing new. For as long as musicians have desired a stage and an audience, businessman have been finding ways to accommodate them, sometimes fueled by sincere love of music, but often driven by the desire for cash in the till.
Venue managers complain that the cost of doing business is making it challenging to stay open, much less pay bands, especially if they don’t have a big enough draw. Musicians believe they should be paid for providing a service, much like the servers, the barback, the sound guy and the doorman, who never go home empty-handed. The situation is complicated by an array of factors: professional vs. amateur musicians, covers vs. original music, bars and restaurants vs. dedicated music venues. But what it boils down to is that in more than three decades, musicians have not only seen no increase in compensation, their pay is actually decreasing while the majority of venues are assuming less responsibility for promotion and patronage.
Chris Longo, a Ventura bassist who has been playing live music in Southern California for three decades, says he is paid the same or less now than he was in 1980. “A guitar player friend of mine commented that $50 is the new $100,” he said. “If you’re lucky, you’re making the same money you always have been — chances are you’re taking some gigs for less. “
Indeed, when asked what they typically take home for providing an evening of live music, the answer is almost invariably $50 per man or $200 to $350 for the whole band, but it’s not all that uncommon for bands to be paid less and sometimes nothing — though occasionally more. What qualifies as an evening of music? Depending on the venue and musical style, it usually involves filling a three- to three-and-a-half-hour time slot (10 p.m. to 1 or 1:30 a.m.). If a band doesn’t have enough material, it often must share the night — and the money — with other bands. So if two bands perform (often it’s upward of four), each taking one and a half hours, and each band has four members, that breaks down to $37.50 per man or approximately $25 per hour. Not taking into account an additional hour for set-up and tear-down, $25 per hour ain’t bad in a full-time employment situation with benefits, but these are independent contractors who invest a substantial amount of time and money into their careers for the opportunity to perform fewer than 10 hours per week at best. Among their expenses are gasoline (at nearly $4 per gallon), rehearsal (anywhere from $250 to $500 per month), instruments ($300 to $2,000 each), plus miscellaneous costs for wardrobe, lessons and promotional materials. To be a performing musician may not always be a lucrative career choice, but from the viewpoint of many working musicians, that doesn’t mean they should be exempt from a fair wage, especially when it appears the bar is profiting — and it’s a problem not exclusive to Ventura County.
Jake Pegg, coordinator for Fair Trade Music in Portland, Ore., is in the same boat as musicians here, but he is actively working toward a solution. “A lot of times when I perform, I’m out $150 before I play a note,” he said. To prepare for a gig recently, he counted 15 to 17 hours spent performing various tasks, none of which had anything to do with standing on a stage. “The house invests as little as possible. The band has to fuel the entire economy of the evening and is guaranteed nothing. As I’ve been talking to people from other cities, it’s exactly the same thing,” he said.
And it wasn’t always this way. Longo remembers the 1980s when there were fewer venues, less competition, not nearly the number of entertainment options and much more money to be made. Cover bands would play five or six nights a week and take home up to $3,000. Toby Emery, who plays in Jackass and Whiskey Chimp, was a founding member of the wildly popular Raging Arb and the Redheads, who, along with Lion I’s, dominated the Ventura music scene in the ’80s. Because there were only a few other bands in town and they played danceable party music, they would draw hundreds of people to their shows. They didn’t rely on the venues for payment because their audience wasn’t opposed to paying $5 to see them. They’d take the whole door and let the venue take the bar revenue. It was a win-win with the band routinely earning $1,000 per night. “I’ve never done this for money,” said Emery. “It’s always been for the love of music, but there have been times when it did actually supplement our incomes, whereas now it just pays for itself.”
These days, venues are loath to charge a cover for fear that patrons will just go somewhere else. This creates a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby audiences have become so conditioned not to pay at the door that when they’re asked to, they recoil. Emery feels people should absolutely be willing to fork over what amounts to the price of one drink to subsidize the entertainment. Audiences haven’t resisted the rising cost of alcoholic beverages, food and parking, so why do they draw the line at the entertainment?
Pegg believes it amounts to training — audiences, musicians and venue management — and Fair Trade Music is all about education. “The toughest part is convincing musicians that they’re worth something,” he said. “It’s not fashionable for them to say no to lousy gigs. Everyone wants to perform even if there’s no money.”
Supported by the American Federation of Musicians, Fair Trade Music, is a national campaign concerned with building a future for live music by creating quality standards for venues and musicians. “We want the clubs to thrive, so we think investing in music is a good strategy,” Pegg said. “We look at the jazz clubs [in Portland] that have been around for decades, and their model is still working.” When venues agree to certain terms, they are given a Fair Trade Music sign to display in the window. It lets musicians and patrons know that they can expect to see excellent music performed by professional musicians in a quality environment run by people who value music and take care of musicians. Who wouldn’t want to patronize such an establishment?
One of Fair Trade Music’s promotional images shows a lone guitar being “exposed” to the frigid elements as a metaphor for what musicians routinely hear from booking agents. The promise of gaining exposure is almost always preceded by the words “we can’t offer you any pay.”
“The musicians performing today probably weren’t performing before the early 1980s, so they don’t know it used to be a sustainable profession,” said Pegg. “My boss bought a house and put his kid through college doing it. Nowadays if a musician performed every night they might cover their electric bill.”
A major contributor to the problem of adequate pay is the fact that bands — usually the greenhorns — have no qualms about playing for free, selling tickets or taking on the burden of attracting customers. “There are lots of bands competing for a limited number of paying gigs,” says Longo, “so competition is fierce. Bands will undercut just so they can get their foot in the door.” Pegg believes musicians should resist the temptation to play for free or extremely low wages. “When people play for a low minimum, they lower the bar for everybody,” said Pegg.
The lure to play for little or nothing is usually a product of the dubious promise of “exposure.” According to Fair Trade Music literature, there are different levels of exposure, and good exposure — which it defines as “a large number of people who are likely to be interested in your music” — is not only uncommon, it’s rarely found at nonpaying gigs. “The term is so commonly mis- and over-used that booking agents will try to sell musicians on the great exposure opportunity, then mention that there’s no built-in draw, without even realizing they’ve fully contradicted themselves.”
Mike Golden, who plays drums for the Front Street Prophets, says musicians, especially less seasoned ones, should beware of the exposure myth. “There’s a carrot being waved,” he said. “ ‘Come in on a Thursday night, play for free or little, and if we like you we will invite you back.’ Those of us who [are music veterans] constantly fight downward pricing pressure.”
Once upon a time, musicians were not only paid better, they also were able to focus primarily on music vs. promoting. Live music was either enjoyed in arenas or nightclubs. Restaurants and bars were not in the mix to the extent they are today, and musical entertainment was not an afterthought as a way to boost business, it was central to the mission of the venue. The onus was on the venue to draw customers based on its reputation for providing quality music. Instead of being a band all the venues wanted to book (ostensibly because of your draw), you were a venue where all the bands wanted to play.
Jim Salzer, a former talent promoter, manager and club owner, says that ethic is largely missing in Ventura County today, though he acknowledges the economy isn’t helping matters. “A business should be run like a business,” he said. “There should be concern about reputation.”
Instead, there seems to be an attitude of “what can you do for me” coming from the venues rather than what can we do together. Jake Pegg says that for every hour he spends on stage he has to spend two hours on advertising. “I want to be a better musician, not a better advertiser.”
One of the problems with relying on musicians to bring the audience is that initially their draw consists of friends and family, so when the band leaves, they leave, too. This forces the venue into a downward spiral and ultimately does nothing to help the band, either. “It’s not sustainable,” says Pegg. “Building a scene takes a while. And this is part of our culture, ‘I’m not interested in building anything that will take a while.’ ”
While it may be true that Ventura County venue owners could do with a few lessons in marketing and promotion (or maybe a visit from Tabitha), for a relatively small area, musicians here are generally treated better than they are in larger cities such as L.A., where nearly every venue requires bands, especially newer ones, to sell advance tickets in order to play, and others use an even more blatant form of pay to play.
Mark Hartley, a partner in one of the country’s biggest music management agencies and owner of Watermark on Main and W20 Lounge, believes the range of opportunity here — countywide — is attracting musicians to the area.
“I don’t think there’s that much of a concentration of musicians getting a wage anywhere else except in Nashville or Austin,” he said. “I know musicians who have been here 20 years, and I know lots who make a living playing music.”
Hartley’s W20 Lounge is one of the highest-paying in Ventura, with bands routinely earning $500 for a three-hour set. Bands, he said, are also treated very well. Hartley’s policy of generosity is informed by his experience nurturing young talent. “We understand how it is just to stay alive and keep the dream alive,” he said. “We want to support their passion.”
Another venue manager who is known for genuinely caring about musicians is Diego Gamba at Bombay Bar and Grill. While fees are negotiated depending on Gamba’s familiarity and relationship with the band, he tries to give newer bands a chance, and no one, he says, ever goes home without something in the pocket. Up until very recently, Bombay advertised on a weekly basis and is known among musicians and patrons for delivering what it promises to both.
“I always tell them, we are in business together, I’m giving you a venue and I’m enjoying your entertainment, and I have the utmost respect for entertainers. When we work together, you do your part — let your people know — and I will do my part, and we may end up with a long-lasting relationship. Some have been playing here for 10 years.”
Gamba wouldn’t disclose how much bands are actually paid but the venue is thought to be one of the top payers locally, averaging about $300 per night, with a bonus if it’s an exceptionally good night for the bar. (Of course no one speaking for any of the venues is willing to quantify a “good night.”) Bombay doesn’t charge a cover, but it will allow a band to charge and collect at the door under special circumstances.
Steve and Polly Hoganson, who own Zoey’s Café, also pride themselves on their relationships with musicians and have created a small haven for the So Cal singer-songwriter scene, yet they find it a struggle to manage their overhead, which makes it difficult to always pay bands. As with Bombay, a soundman is provided and the Hoganson’s try to keep the bands fed. They also offer different arrangements depending on the artists. Also, unlike any other venue of its size in downtown Ventura, it hosts all-ages shows, which are notoriously risky and financially fruitless. Unfortunately, the venue has no budget for advertising and relies entirely on word of mouth and the Web for promotion.
Polly Hoganson said they usually charge a cover of anywhere from $2 to $15 to see the artists perform, and they let the artists take most of what is collected. Occasionally, with bigger acts they will negotiate a guarantee, but that’s not common. Venues like Zoey’s, with a high overhead, are struggling in this economy and often people don’t realize the expenses involved, including many thousands of dollars in permits and licenses. Unlike other restaurant/bars with a stage, the music element is the central focus and the Hoganson’s are genuine music lovers who are having some trouble finding their footing.
While the complaints from Ventura musicians about being paid are legion, many of them, along with a handful of venue owners, believe that it should be an equal partnership and that musicians must also behave like business owners if they are to survive, let alone thrive.
B Willing James, singer-songwriter and front man for Shades of Day, puts a lot of energy into his own development and promotion. He says artists shouldn’t be opposed to “playing the game a little bit,” but should also stand up for their worth.
“I would say a great many musicians I’ve met over the years don’t believe enough in themselves to grow it the right way. If you’re going to be a professional, an independent artist, you have to understand what that means. It means you bring everything yourself,” he said. “I saw a guy with a sign that said ‘I need money to support my dream’ or ‘I don’t want my dream to die.’ I was like, dude, put the sign down and start talking to people. Nobody likes a beggar. There is something you can do, don’t appear helpless. It’s hard for people to get behind that because so many are struggling.”
Jim Salzer says that although venues need to utilize the basic tools of business promotion, such as print advertising and social networking, the artists should also self-promote. “A band should do everything they can,” he said. “The biggest part, unfortunately, with being a musician is promoting. It’s a fact of life. If they are not doing that they are lazy.”
“Build good relationships, if you ever want to make any more money,” said James. It’s always a give and take. You can’t demand things anymore.” He says his style is to “Get in there, show them what I have. If they like it, we start doing better and better shows. That’s what happened at Zoey’s and they treat me really well.”
At Good Bar in downtown Ventura, senior bartender Mikey Destito says he really values the bands that perform there, and often he and the other bartenders will share tips with them on top of the guarantee to show appreciation, but the volume of venues and things to do compared to a decade ago has lessened everyone’s market share, making for a very competitive environment. Gamba thinks the competition is healthy. “I’ve always believed more venues are better because you draw people downtown. Every one has its own identity if it’s run well,” he said. “We all complement each other.”
So, what’s the solution? How do we make live music a worthwhile pursuit for everyone involved? The Fair Trade Music campaign recommends three things: Build a better music scene with a higher level of musicianship and professionalism; extend the same rights to musicians as those of other workers; forge equal partnerships between clubs and musicians.
Says Pegg, “All I know is it’s time for musicians to start valuing themselves.”
To learn more about the Fair Trade Music campaign and how you can bring it to your music scene, visit www.fairtrademusicpdx.org.