Lesson One: Fronting a band at a Bar

“People don’t dance to brilliant guitar solos or heady changes, they dance to the hook lyrics of a simple chorus.”

This was posted in Miami craigslist by a club owner about the bands he encounters, and also the realities of business.

MJBdancers3A bar, that is, an establishment that earns its revenue primarily from selling alcoholic beverages, measures its success by the ounce and the accounting is done everyday because we mostly live on the edge. So we spend our time trying to figure out how to sell more ounces. It’s not just how many people are in the house or how great the atmosphere is (that’s certainly important), but how many drinks, preferably premium, we sell in a day. That’s it.

Live music is important to most of us (if we have that kind of venue). But it is a significant expense and is only worthwhile if it produces more than it consumes, just like advertising and anything else we spend money on in order to sell more ounces. But so many of the bands that come through here have no clue what their job is. Your job is to sell booze. You’re not here for any other reason.

DSCF2289There are some truly awful bands that actually chase customers away. But there are also some bands I would call mediocre who do a fantastic job of selling my product. There are also some really good bands who rock the house but not the cash drawer. While I appreciate good music and would never have an interest listening to that mediocre band’s lame CD, they’re coming back next week. Here’s why:

1. They play simple music people recognize. People don’t dance to brilliant guitar solos or heady changes, they dance to the hook lyrics of a simple chorus. (If you’ve ever wondered why pop is popular, that’s why). When the ladies want to dance, the guys show up and everybody drinks. Simple truth.

2. They don’t ask me for drinks, they ask my customers. This is a subtle art and if it’s done well, the band can more than pay for itself. Here’s a few obvious techniques: If someone offers to buy the band a round, you order shots of top-shelf. Even if you don’t drink it, ask for it anyway. If someone asks for a request, try to make a deal with them.

If you buy (your date, your table, the band) a round, we’ll play your song. Some bands beg for tips, and that’s fine, but it’s not what I’m paying you for. (Try to play request anyway. At least you wont chase them off.) We had one front man hold up a mixed drink and make a wonderfully cheesy but impassioned pitch that you simply had to try this because it was, as he put it, “a glass of pure happiness”. It resulted in over a hundred bucks in the drawer in just a few minutes. Those guys are busy.

ShazDance3. They may not be the best band in town but they look and act professional. I cringe when I see a supposedly professional band wearing frayed khaki shorts, flip flops, mildly offensive t-shirts and greasy baseball caps (the standard bro uniform). I don’t care if you’re bald, a baseball cap is unacceptable. Live music is a visual form of entertainment. If you dress well, even if it’s hipster, funky, weird or flamboyant, as long as you look like you care about your appearance, and show a little self respect, you’ll go over better with my customers.

The good bands also respect their gig and the customers. They show up on time, they don’t make a racket while they setup (hint: keep your drummer quiet especially when the jukebox is on.), they choose their set list carefully, they pace their sets well and stay engaged with the audience (don’t stop playing if the dance floor is full), they don’t get hammered and and they don’t leave a mess. All this adds up to what we call retention. Customers don’t leave.

You would be surprised how many customers leave because of the band. And it’s usually not because the band is awful, but because it’s too loud, it’s the wrong repertoire, it’s rude and dismissive, it’s not engaged and basically no fun for anyone else but themselves. And here’s a little tip: Your continued employment is directly dependent on my bartender’s opinion of you. That’s probably true for every single bar you play.

One last thing. It’s hard to find work. You might be surprised at how much competition you have. I get emails, voicemails, regular mail, fed-ex packages left for me, all with earnestly concocted press kits and demos and I ignore almost all of it. I get walk-ins who, if I’m there, I’ll give a few minutes to.

You’ve got maybe 60 seconds to make your “elevator pitch” and just a few more minutes to make it stick.

Again, you’d be surprised how many show up in their bro-clothes, tell me how awesome they are, and hand me a business card with a URL to their reverb nation page or YouTube channel. They probably go home and wonder why they don’t get a call, but I’m not going to visit your website or listen to your demo. You’ve got maybe 60 seconds to make your “elevator pitch” and just a few more minutes to make it stick. There is a sales technique I’m seeing that’s impressive, stands out and really works, but out of respect for the bands that figured it out, call it a trade secret.

Bottom line: A bar is a business. My bar is my business, my life, my success or failure. What I do in my business is entirely up to me because the risk is entirely mine. If I have a jam night, an open mic, solos, duos, bands, karaoke, or just a jukebox, that’s up to me and no one else. Whatever helps make the most revenue. I have great respect for working musicians and would rather not hire them at all than to short-change them.

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About Gandalfe

Just an itinerant jazz saxophonist trying to find life between the changes. I have retired from the Corps of Engineers and Microsoft. I am an admin on the Woodwind Forum, run the Microsoft Jumpin' Jive Orchestra, and enjoy time with family and friends.
This entry was posted in Band, Band Management, Big Band, FAQ, Gigs, Guides, Music, My World and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lesson One: Fronting a band at a Bar

  1. hakukani says:

    I doubt that his bar will stay in business. There’s more to making money at a bar than selling booze. Why would he care what the band wears, as long as they bring in people?

    • Gandalfe says:

      Hak, I suspect the torn t shirt, holey pants guys phenomenon is more about caring about what you do. There are exceptions but for the most part, the worst playing hobby bands are so unprepared in so many ways. This is just an indicator. I’ve seen you in gig attire, usually with a Hawaiian shirt type out fit. That is a common gig outfit in the Seattle area, so much so it is often mocked. My guys usually wear black on black.

  2. Carol says:

    I don’t get chance to go to big gigs, so when my two youngest play somewhere local it’s nice to watch them for the price of a couple of beers. They used to have a trio called Inside Man, starting in high school and through Uni.
    Now they just perform when asked because they have a good rep. Sometimes they play with the bigger, more well known local groups. Mainly guitar.& vocals.

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