Gatekeepers Keeping Your Band Off the Stage?

Bob asks this morning whether there’s a new “indie pecking order” that makes it difficult for bands to get booked at “indie-friendly” venues.

Absolutely, there is.

The house concert circuit among folk performers is probably the best example of this. As I wrote in Host Your Own Concerts, pretty much anybody has the ability to stage a really professional concert, even if it’s in your own home among two dozen of your close friends. However, many house concert hosts secretly wish they were club owners. That is, they really enjoy the editorial function of choosing a performer from hundreds available at any given time and building an event that elevates their own profile in the neighborhood.

There’s nothing wrong with that, inherently, especially if it means that there are more potential places for musicians to play. However, many performers home in on the handful of house concert bookers that peek above the surface and actually promote their gigs beyond close friends and family. Those folks essentially become talent bookers, and it’s easy for performers to fixate on winning their favor instead of cultivating new opportunities to play live.

Step things up a notch to licensed venues that hold 50-300 fans, and the competition has become even more intense. The very best talent bookers I ever met understand how to build a calendar through dual filters of profitability and editorial quality. Traditionally, clubs have been criticized for leaning too much on profitable bands and not making room for great new acts. Right now, however, I’m noticing some strange pockets of turbulence that echo what bands like Call Me Lightning have discovered.

Given today’s bizarre real estate market, the clubs that haven’t yet been shaken loose by their landlords enjoy some insulation from economic pressure. The 40 Watt Club in Athens is a great example — it’s part of an ecosystem that supports it regardless of who’s playing. That leads to some bizarre moments, like Damon Gough improvising a song to remind chatty patrons to “shut the f**k up at the bar.” (Anybody else there that night?)

When a club booker knows they’re going to make money either way, it’s easy for them to focus in on a handful of acts from the same social circle. As humans, we’d rather book a 50-seat show with someone we like and know instead of taking a chance on an unproven band. It’s like that in any business, and in any kind of hiring situation.

To overcome it, you’ve got to focus on making yourself economically irresistible. When a club booker knows you’re bringing 100 paying patrons on a Wednesday or a Thursday night, they care much less about whether you’ve been on Pitchfork or whether you friended them on Facebook.