In general, this story about a favorite Irish pub in Boston is inspiring. For every club owner that moans about how hard it is to grow a following and stay in business, this should be mandatory reading. These guys lost their lease, and business boomed so much that they’ll be back in a bigger location soon.
In Grow Your Band’s Audience, I wrote about how live music booking has changed over the last twenty years. In Philadelphia, where I grew up, there used to be clubs that would be packed no matter who was playing. Talent buyers played a huge role in shaping the careers of musicians, because they had a built-in audience and foot traffic. Therefore, acts did whatever they could to get on a talent buyer’s radar.
Today, everywhere in the United States, that’s not so much the case. Few bars and clubs have a “following,” and one of the things I hear most from frustrated musicians is that they thought that just getting a gig would result in a live audience. The reality is that talent buyers rely on bands to bring people in the door, not the other way around.
Except at places like the Nog, where I’m sure the owners have been criticized by musicians for being too picky about their band selection. If you’ve ever been a booking agent, you know that Boston is a notoriously hard market to crack. Everyone asks what other clubs you’ve played at. These guys went beyond that and actually went to the gigs of bands they were considering for the room, to see what kind of audience they brought in and how they handled themselves live.
When you’ve built a real following for your club and you put so much of your heart and soul into the room, you want to protect the vibe you’ve built. For the Nog’s customers, that feeling in the room is probably more important than who’s on stage at the moment. (By the way, this is the same challenge that radio programmers have faced when using “modal music” strategies. Folks that are used to seeing musical genres stuck in the same “silos” freak out when a station plays rock and rap songs next to each other — and ratings go up.)
This story speaks to another rookie mistake that baby bands make. If your band fits the room, you’ll be fine. If you try to tell the owner that you know their room better than he or she does, you’ll get laughed off the phone. All of the talent buyers I know have to contend with this — it’s one thing to use sales skills to convince a booker to hire your band. It’s another thing altogether to complain that the wine bar down the street won’t book your metal band, even though you know that it would be “huge” for them. And it’s a disaster for everyone if you manage to book yourself at the wrong venue.
One more piece of this rambling rant. Lack of attention to customers is killing the live music business. I used to show slides of CBGB in my presentation on house concerts to illustrate why more people are opting for nicer venues or for concerts in their own homes. For all its history, CBGB was a stinky pit, and it closed because it couldn’t draw big enough crowds to make the (rapidly increasing) rent. When the Vegas CBGB opens, it’ll probably be packed with folks who are happy to hang out in a sanitized, theme-park-ized version of its former self. (And that might not be a bad thing.)
When a bar owner says a simple thing like, “we turn off the television while a band’s on stage,” it’s the exception, and not the rule. Most club owners will do anything — anything — to keep a butt on a seat. If Wheel of Fortune‘s on the big screen TV during soundcheck, then the owner is more concerned about the regular at the bar at 7:30pm than the 30 folks you’ll bring in at 9pm.
Decisions like these make the music suffer. Can you really do your best work if there’s a Cubs game on the screen next to you? Yet, owners write this off as bands not working hard enough. There’s one very prominent NYC venue that has a piped-in video feed to a side room bar where patrons can watch the show and drink without paying a cover. Again, they wonder why it’s getting harder for bands to attract an audience. Clubs are failing because too many club owners don’t know how to entertain their patrons. Live music is failing because too many musicians don’t understand how to speak to talent buyers in a bottom line business manner.
If you have a venue like the Nog where you are, patronize it, even if your band doesn’t “fit the room.” This isn’t about banding together as a community or anything — this is just about enjoying the hard work that some folks have put into entertaining their customers. And that’s good business.
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