Live Music Clubs – as Seen by the Bar Owner
A gigging musician and former live music club owner describes life in the nightclub business.
The Beatles started as lads in Liverpool, but it was the all-night gigs in Hamburg for next to no money that forged them into a real rock band, before Brian Epstein groomed them into a royal clutch. Ironically, the resulting fame made playing live shows unbearable, so they quit playing live – knowing they could rely on album sales.
Things have changed. Today, live shows are a leading money maker for pro musicians. Recordings still matter, but today they are done to promote an artist’s live shows, instead of the other way around.
So, every serious musician needs “stage skills” to survive these days. Even a struggling home studio songwriter could have a YouTube video go viral overnight; remember Gangnam Style or Red Solo Cup? But stage performance skills don’t come naturally to everyone. Many players need time to turn stage fright into stage presence; to get used to the lights, monitor mixes and the very essence of live music – staying in the moment.
How can a fledgling musician develop these skills? Here is one good way; “bar gigs” or “nightclubs” if you want the classier sounding word. Unfortunately, getting these gigs is harder than ever; because the nightclub business has never been tougher. To delve deeper into live gig realities we talked to some of the best live music promoters in the world.
The World of Live Music Today
I went to one of the most successful nightclub owners in America, Mike Maglieri, manager of the Whisky a GoGo on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The Maglieri family has owned the Whisky and the infamous Rainbow Bar & Grill for over 50 years now. Mike is the son of Mikeal and the grandson of Mario, who used to run the door at the Rainbow back when I was regular patron long ago. Mario was a beloved man who gave me access to the private club upstairs even though I rarely showed up with more than $5 in my pocket.
I also spoke to Charlie Levy of Stateside Presents in Arizona, one of the busiest and most successful concert promoters in the southwest. Levy books original music into venues as large as basketball arenas and as small as art galleries – often several nights a week.
When it comes to the concert business, Levy told me “The more things change, the more they stay the same. The game is still finding an act, estimating their appeal and doing the show.” When it came to the importance of live music to the financial bottom line of a musician Charlie said, “I only have time focus on what I do; I can’t speak for other areas.”
But Mike Maglieri has more conviction; “Without a doubt, live gigs are one of the best ways for professional musicians to make money these days,” he said. “But the key word is ‘professional.’ The Whisky just celebrated its 50th anniversary in early 2014, and live music has always been our business. Not every band that plays here is famous, but the one thing they all have is professionalism.”
One of the key differences between nightclubs and concert promotions is that The Whisky needs live music on stage seven nights a week, which means taking more chances on new bands and always looking for ways to draw a crowd. Concert promoters only put on shows when a band has a proven following, which leads to more specific marketing methods, but that doesn’t take away the risk.
The only thing that matters in the end is “Did we make money?”
What Does This Mean to Musicians?
What does a musician need to know to get booked in a club, or to open for a major act in concert? First, let’s differentiate “cover bands,” which only play songs by other hit artists, from original bands that write and play their own music.
Both types of bands can get gigs, but it is two different markets. Cover bands usually play full nights and get paid a set fee. Original bands usually do just one set, sharing the stage with other bands and their pay often depends on the generosity of the audience. Original bands usually suffer longer in obscurity; but they also have far more potential to break out and “hit the big time.”
Usually, original bands and cover bands run in different crowds. Cover bands play full nights in certain clubs, while original bands share the stages in different venues with three or more bands a night. When it comes to the chance to open for “name” acts in concert situations, bands with a strong set of original songs and avid followers have a far better chance. Cover bands are rivals, while original bands do better when they network and support one another.
But here is the main difference; Charlie Levy of Stateside Presents only books original music bands to avoid the paying the astronomical license fees sought by BMI/ASCAP; the companies that collect for playing copyrighted music in public.
But, like the vast majority of nightclubs in America, the Whisky does pay the fees.
Maglieri said, “Even though the Whisky is truly an original music venue, we just don’t have any choice.” According to many club owners, BMI will drop in for unannounced spot checks and stay hours reviewing their books. Even one playing of Sweet Child of Mine by Guns N’ Roses (Maglieri’s example) on the radio, jukebox or by a band on stage means BMI will try to collect the full fee. That licensing fee, paid monthly, can equal $20,000 to $30,000 a year, and can be assessed retroactively.
The Morphing Music Scene
I owned an all-original music nightclub myself in the 1980s and I like this phrase; “The more things change, the more things change.”