Alcohol and live music is one of the most natural, time-honored pairings in the bar and restaurant industry.
Done right, it can create memorable, engaging evenings that draw in eager crowds.
Done wrong, it can be an expensive disaster.
Providence has a vibrant music scene for a small city, so I asked a few of our local musicians to provide advice about the best ways for bar owners and staff to interact with musicians and to make it a successful venture for both parties:
1. Know your space and your clientele, and hire bands that are a good fit.
This requires you to be very self aware of your space, its vibe, and the types of people who frequent it. Hiring an industrial band to play for a mostly Baby Boomer audience might not be your best bet, for instance.
“Please don’t hire a band and then try to dictate what they can or cannot play,” says Amato Zinno, a full time musician who plays primarily bass with multiple bands including The Z-Boys. “It gets awkward and can take the wind out of a band’s sails. It’s okay to tell a band to turn down, but if you have to do it all the time, maybe it’s not the right band for your space, or maybe you’re not meant to have music. And that’s okay.”
2. Hire a band on a night that you are trying to bring more people in.
“The band will be psyched to have a gig on a night that they don’t normally work, and will be more motivated to get more people there to see them,” says Amato.
One thing I asked was how much of the onus should fall on the band versus the venue in terms of bringing people into the establishment. Pretty much everyone I spoke to felt that it was a shared responsibility and that, ideally, both parties work hand-in-hand to promote the event, which brings me to my next rule:
3. Pay fairly and do your part in helping to promote the show.
Keith McCurdy, guitarist and singer for the band Vudu Sister, feels that guaranteed payments for musicians are preferable to door splits, because “it urges venues to promote more. Musicians will (typically) promote their own shows regardless.” He says that venues can be stubborn in this regard, and that with a door split, “Hey, if nobody shows, the musician doesn’t get paid. No real sweat off the venue’s back.”
Steve DelMonico, singer and guitarist for The Quahogs, has been playing live shows since 2010; he’s also a bartender, so he knows both sides of this equation. Steve is of the mind that bands typically “pay their dues” starting out and work their way up to better opportunities and guaranteed pay.
“It’s all dependent on where you’re at draw-wise,” he says. “If you have a decent draw, you should be getting a guarantee. If you’re just starting out, you’re just hoping to get on a show, and promoting is part of your job. I think that it’s always good when bars and venues make posters for you, but, if they don’t, then you kinda gotta pull the weight.”
This is a fair assumption, but it seems that bottom line, both bands and musicians benefit from greater attendance when both parties help to promote.
4. Do host an open mic or jam session, but don’t host it on the weekend.
“Open mics are cool ways to engage the musical community in your town,” says Amato, but if you host it on the weekend, “It’s a sure sign that you’re not about music and are really grasping at ways to get people into your bar. It’s my biggest pet peeve. Sunday to Wednesday is acceptable, but if you’re a place trying to host music, I don’t think an open mic or jam is really okay unless you’re having music other nights of the week.”
5. Never have a touring band headline, be responsive, and have your promoter link all of the bands playing in one night together ahead of time.
“You always have to take care of the touring band; having them in the middle is key,” says Steve. “You also need a sound person who cares about and knows what they’re doing. A lot of the time I’ll be asking about something, my monitor or whatever, and the guy’s not even responding.”
He also notes that it’s necessary to link any bands playing the same night together before the show so that they can converse ahead of time to sort out the back line setup for the night: base rig, drums, etc.
Also, and this should be obvious: never double-book bands. “Nothing is more of a drag than showing up to a gig and finding out you’re not working,” says Amato. “If you do it, tell a band as soon as you know; otherwise, be prepared to compensate at least a portion of what you offered them as payment. Word travels fast [in the musician community], and if you’re careless about this, no good band will want to play your establishment.”
Be cognizant of timing. Steve cited an evening where his band was scheduled to play but couldn’t get onstage until 15 minutes before closing because another band ran way over. Amato has had experiences where people were still chatting and eating at 9:40 at tables which needed to be cleared before his band was supposed to go on at 10:00. There will always be unpredictable elements, and musicians are musicians, after all; sometimes bands take a long time setting up or breaking down. Just try to expect the unexpected as much as possible and plan accordingly to try to minimize SNAFUs.
6. Take care of drinks, or at least be clear up front about your policy.
“I feel like every venue should accommodate some types of drinks for musicians, and/or food if you have it,” says Steve. As a bartender, he does add the disclaimer: “But musicians should always tip. I do. But don’t expect much of a tip from a touring band, because they don’t have money.”
“Be clear at the outset about any food/drink policy you may have,” is Amato’s take on it. “Giving a band a tab or offering them a free meal goes a long way to making them feel at home and wanting to play at your place again. Figure out what you can offer and communicate that up front.”
In this list, I didn’t include the (hopefully) obvious advice that a venue should always be set up to host live music with enough space and all of the necessary equipment, or if you don’t have your own PA/sound system there, make sure you ask the musicians ahead of booking whether they can bring one. This is basic common sense and good business, along with researching bands thoroughly enough ahead of time to know what type of music is a good fit for your establishment.
Ultimately, if you can find bands and musicians that are a great fit for your venue and who work well with you, and, if you pay them fairly and both parties do their part in promoting, you can end up with a great night of memorable music that is sure to bring in new and returning guests.
For more insight into bar management techniques and how to get the most out of your bar, keep up with the BevSpot blog by creating your personal account. You’ll get notifications when we post new articles, as well as exclusive access to our industry tools and guides.