There was an interesting exchange over at The Shizz this month, as promoters and bands from Phoenix band duked it out over an age-old question: "Who's supposed to promote this show, and who is on the hook if it fails?"
The debate started, innocently enough, after a newbie asked how legit an offer to open a show at a Tempe club seemed. Basically, a national agency offered this dude's band the chance to play the club in exchange for selling a certain number of tickets, but that seemed like an "odd business model" to him so he thought he'd check in with the folks at The Shizz, where a certain segment of Phoenix's indie-band scene congregates.
After agreement that the deal the dude was offered sounded terrible (it's called Pay To Play and no one likes it) the real debate started. Some of our favorite Shizzers, jeremx and joe.distort, started bitching about how lazy local bands are nowadays.
"Bands are just lazy and don't want it bad enough these days," wrote jeremx.
"I know bands that don't promote, don't draw, and all bail out after they are done playing. Compared to a band that actually does those things, you would be losing money. Then these same kids wonder why no one books them," offered joe.distort.
Skeksis did not agree:
"Honestly, I'd love to hear the economic reasoning behind that statement. Five people is still more than the zero that would be there without this hypothetical band. If this band has $200 guarantee or something, then, yeah, you're losing money. A lot of places around here don't offer any guarantee plus the band pays the soundguy (out of door proceeds). So it costs the venue almost nothing to have a band perform... A few pennies for electricity, maybe a handful of drink tokens. Easily offset by the five folks who turned out."
Someone else pointed out that there are smaller additional costs like "soundguy, electricity, door guy, staff, advertising, drink tickets, rent, licensing." So Tony from Emperors of Japan then jumped in:
"I'm not trying to instigate because I realize those are all valid expenses, but if you're open anyways (like a bar would be open, versus a venue like Trunk Space which wouldn't be open unless there was a show) don't a lot of those become sunk costs? With the exception of sound guy, wouldn't you need to pay for all that whether there was a band or not?"
No, someone responds, you don't really need a doorman or serious security if there's no show. This is when ol' Skesis, a veteran of the wedding band thing, starts to get pissy.
"The band is providing a service, just like your staff," Skesis writes. "Except you expect a band at near-zero cost to 1) be well rehearsed (say six hours prep for the gig [for] four members [at] say $20 per hour [equals a value of] $480); 2) provide instruments amps drums (average value $1,000 per person equals $4,000, but spread over many gigs; 3) haul their own gear and perform (when I did weddings, I got paid $100 per hour [which equals] another $400-800); and 4) promote the heck out the gig and your sorry venue (hard to estimate value, but it's not insignificant).... And yet bands all over Phoenix play and consider $50 and two drinks a real good night and get shit for being lazy? Bah. Maybe if you paid bands more than a tiny fraction of their worth, you could reasonably expect them to work even harder. But really, for them it's a cost with no benefit. The irrationality hurts to think about."
Then, HNIC checks back in:
"Actually, wrong, many nights I bartend and for some reason can ring in better numbers than some shows... I'm not trying to take away from 'your art' but the reality is bands in this town have gotten lazier while I end up working twice as hard to get the word out. That's the sad reason why pay to play is rearing its ugly head for some venues. It just sucks for the future..."
Okay, if you want to read the rest of the thread, just go here. This is, however, where I'm going to break in and offer my opinion. It concerns the mysterious reason a bartender can do better on a night with no show.
First, let me note that, in a way, I'm the worst person in town to ask because I can go see any concert I want for free anytime I want to -- which means I'm often faced, at the same exact cost, with the choice of seeing a seasoned national act or some local schleps who barely practice. So, yeah, I still see a lot more local music than almost anyone not directly connected to the scene, but not nearly as much as the Shizz fellas do.
However, in contrast, let me point out that I have excellent taste and am beholden to no one. My opinion on this subject does not affect my job or hobbies and my pride is not tied up in it in any way.
So here's what I think: I wish local venues were a lot more consistent in booking by genre and quality. In Phoenix, the booking at most venues is pretty scatter-shot, with all types of bands playing all sorts of places on various nights. I can't name a single venue where I could go five Fridays in a row and get a great show every time. That sucks and it's not how scenes are built. A great venue that you know will deliver a great show anytime you happen by is a true treasure, and it's something Phoenix desperately needs and, should it start to appear, must jealously guard.
Consistent quality from known commodities is what the people want -- that's why investors like stable companies and people like restaurants where a dish comes out of the kitchen the same way every time they order it. That doesn't mean the same bands need to play every weekend, but it's always nice to know what you're getting into when you hand over $5 and the chance to pleasantly converse with friends for the evening. And, for me, that's what local bands are competing against: conversation. The way I figure it, I can either go see a loud band, a loud sporting event, a loud DJ, or hear a friend talk. I might prefer the band over the sporting event or DJ, but they have to be pretty good to beat conversation, for me. That's why Skeksis is wrong about the "any band is better than no band" thing. For die-hards, maybe, but not for people just out to have a good time.
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Sorry, guys, but most Phoenix bands are not more interesting to listen to than whatever my friends have to say. I'm not to saying all, but most is fair -- and I'm sure pretty much anyone would agree.
If I'm going to casually take in some live music in this town, or take an out-of-towner out for some nightlife, I greatly our prefer country bars. Why? First, there's that whole Southwest flavor thing -- people from Back East get off on the kitsch. Second, though, it's about the fact that the bands deliver consistently high-quality professional musicianship. Most local bands in Phoenix will not get paid like a wedding band because they don't deserve to -- at least not when they're rocking original songs. And of course pretty much no one talented wants to be in "just" a cover band. Go to Scottsdale's Rusty Spur, however, and you're going to see a truly great band that makes you want to pay whatever cover they're charging and buy a few drinks.
I guess, in the end, solving this problem is going to require bands and promoters to set aside money momentarily and worry about creating the best possible atmosphere on a consistent basis. Then, a scene will start to bloom around it. As this thread shows, however, we're a long way from that.
And, of course, that's before the house shows ruin everything anyway.