Rock and a Hard Place

Balancing the Austin Music Ledger

by Andy Langer

"If you think it's easy doing one-night stands/ try playing in a rock & roll band/...Geting old/ getting gray/ getting ripped off/ underpaid/ getting sold second hand/ that's how it goes playing in a band/ it's a long way to the top if you wanna rock & roll"

-- "Long Way to the Top," AC/DC

Nine dollars may not

get you much anymore, but it can still buy a pretty good guitar player for 45 minutes on a Tuesday night. Just as they did 15 years ago, Austin clubs are routinely sending bands home with $50 or less for an early-week gig -- which after being split between a group's four musicians, who might drink a beer or two a piece, can leave little more than what it takes to buy a pack of smokes. Add on a band's expenses for even the simplest of rehearsal spaces, posters, and mailings, and it's easy to imagine the truth behind one local musician's claim that he knows "whole bands made of guys who pay $100 a month just for the right to say they're in one of these bands that's perceived as fairly successful and yet performs dismally financially."

And make no mistake, "dismal" is a common adjective used to describe the finances on both sides of the local live music industry: the clubs and the musicians. Both factions admit that after going home with less than expected, it's often difficult to be overly concerned about the other side's concerns: the musicians say they're struggling to pay their living expenses and the clubs maintain that it's nearly impossible to pay the overhead necessary for a venue's survival. So, despite the local and national interest in a scene that's witnessed unprecedented growth in the number of venues, local artists to play them, touring talent to visit them, and transplanted musicians hoping to cash in on it all, the average pay for local music and the profit potentials of the clubs has stayed virtually stagnant through it all. "I tell folks, this is the price of progress," says Liberty Lunch's Mark Pratz.

For Pratz and his fellow club owners, the "price of progress" is the combination of increased competition and the rising costs of taxes, insurance, alcohol prices, and the light and sound production it takes to keep customers happy. For the musician, Austin's progress has driven up his/her cost of living (rent, food, etc.) as well as creating a competitive climate that sees more bands vying for a limited amount of stage time -- a situation that encourages bands to play for less money simply for the exposure opportunity. And yet, the relatively successful clubs and the relatively successful bands seem to have found some hazy compromise; where mutual agreements, or at least an understanding, on payment techniques, cover charges, guest lists, promotion, perks, and hidden costs, constitute the middle grounds of each side's financial misery.

It's Enough to
Make You Drink

Just as the first batch of poor ratings for television actors or radio personalities leads to a quick discovery that they've really just been salesman for cars and soap, any financial discussion of the club business ultimately leads to the revelation that all involved are alcohol salesman. In fact, most clubs freely admit to utilizing live music simply because it's an effective tool for attracting customers to the bar. As such, both musicians and club owners say that selling beer isn't an art, and yet there's no opportunity for art without selling beer. And as a general principle, bars make their primary money from alcohol sales and musicians make their money primarily from the cover charged at the door.

Most club owners operating with local live music and full bars say they can anticipate an average of $6-12 per person in bar sales, fluctuating only slightly by club and by day of week. Steamboat manager Danny Crooks even suggests those numbers are so reliable that on the rare night his club has a $10 cover, he could safely offer an artist that's contracted to receive the full door the artists' choice of the bar or the door and never know the difference. But even with what would seem like decent per-person drink figures, club owners say they've begun to see signs of what Antone's club manager Louis Jay Meyers calls "today's teetotaler times." In that scenario, even popular bands with large draws could and do mean less to the club if the artist's fans aren't drinking, or if the given band's fans are mostly underage. Some club owners say they're finding it equally disturbing that drink prices are escalating at the same time patrons are simply drinking less.

"Beer is just like tobacco, bread, or gasoline" says Crooks. "It goes up in price a couple of times a year because they put on some act like there's not enough barley to go around. But even the slightest change in the bar business is concerning when you're looking at paying rent and TABC is raping you for 14 percent of your profit off the top. Only in the bar business do you start off at 86 percent."

Club owners also contend the price of alcohol can impact a band's payout. While expensive drink prices rarely stop patrons from attending destination bars like Antone's, the Continental Club, or the Back Room ("destination" bars being places where a patron is likely to stay and drink for their evening out), Sixth Street club owners say they believe that high drink prices clearly diminish opportunities for cross-club-traffic -- a good situation for musicians because it allows several different bands at several different venues to all receive door money from the same patrons on the same night. Furthermore, those club-hopping patrons help free up space in smaller venues like the White Rabbit, Black Cat, or Flamingo Cantina, and can lead to door payouts divisible by more than just the club's capacity. Even in a destination club, however, drink prices (both high and low) are still an issue for someone like Back Room manager Mark Olivarez.

"In putting on local live music Sunday through Wednesday, there's not enough at the box office to pay the bands fairly, so you've got to dip into the bar sales," says Olivarez of the situation that's forced that Back Room to discontinue early-week live music. "The problem is that to encourage people to come out in the first place you have to lower the drink prices to ridiculous specials. Because they won't come out for drinks at the regular prices that early in the week, you're throwing up specials and consequently lowering your bar sales. So you end up losing money two ways."

Regardless of the day of the week, the drink special or the magic $6-12 per-head figure, each club owner interviewed said all statistics become meaningless in an empty room. The bar business is consumer-driven and without customers, neither the bar nor the bands stand to go home happy.

"I explain it to bands all the time," says artist and booking agent Davis McLarty. "You're worth what you draw. Period. If you sell $1,000 worth of tickets, you're worth $1,000. And the same is true if you've got an empty room and walk away with $50. At that point you've done nothing for the club bar sales and deserve only that $50."

This Way to the Door

Cementing the relationship between a band's draw and a club's bar receipts, the vast majority of Austin's live music venues say they offer local artists "full door," a straight turnover of door receipts to the artists on the bills. Normally, 300 people at a $3 cover would leave $900 for the artists, perhaps divided as evenly as 50-30-20 on a three-band bill. Clubs like Emo's, Antone's, and The Electric Lounge will first deduct expenses from lights and sound and turn over to the bands something approximating 80-90 percent of the door. To simplify, when a band is playing for the door, the pay is directly proportional to the number of people the band can attract.

"Ninety percent of the arguments over money come from the bands that didn't draw," says the Electric Lounge's Mike Henry in response to whispers that his club is notorious for low paydays. "The club isn't judging what you're worth, it's the number of people who come through the door and pay that winds up constituting what you're worth. We'd love to make sure every band gets $50, but we'd be out of business in three weeks."

Other than the door, the second most popular form of payment is "guarantees," a club's promise to deliver a minimum payout no matter what the door receipts. In most cases, the clubs and artist also agree in advance to the division of the door beyond the original guarantee -- an arrangement that encourages the artist to promote their own show and draw a crowd large enough to exceed the guarantee.

Most club owners say they feel safer with the full door policy in that it creates a complete separation between bar and door, letting the bands enjoy a great night or suffer through a bad one depending on their draw. Furthermore, those clubs with expense deductions say they take comfort in knowing that the evening's entertainment is not putting the club at financial risk, because inherent with guarantees is the risk of dipping into the bar sales to pay off a unmatched guarantee.

"I don't try to make money for the club at the door," says the Back Room's Olivarez. "So I'll gladly give away the door to a band. But it's only reluctantly that I'll take from the bar to cover for a poor door." At the White Rabbit, one of the many Austin clubs with a room too small to afford too many people standing around not drinking or having to dip into bar sales to help the door, manager Jordan Silber says the focus must be primarily on running a tight bar. "We're trying to turn over every dollar at the door to the bands, so it's important we operate as efficiently as possible as a bar," says Silber. "That's where we make our money, so we try to be conscious of bar business facts like waste, theft, and spoilage that are easy to overlook and lose money."

While it's important to note they are the exception, and that they both admit their technique is based more on emotion than smart finance, it's interesting that the two clubs most often cited by musicians as the most consistently cooperative and straightforward payers in town, the Continental and the Hole in the Wall, both feature untraditional payment methods that often lead to dipping into bar sales. So although bands at the Continental work for the door, the bands and owner Steve Wertheimer say the club believes in its bands' drawing power so strongly it's not in the business of sending bands home with dismal payouts.

"The key is you can't get greedy. This is a partnership," says Wertheimer. "Basically, I'm of the belief that if we don't have music, people don't come, and we're a destination club that attracts people with music. My goal is to give bands the door, but I'm not going to send them home with nothing on nights there's a lot of stuff going on in town and people aren't out for some reason or another. They did their job, played their music, showed their craft, and deserve to get paid. They need to eat and we'll go to the till and help them out. We spend a lot of money on entertainment, but it pays off."

It's probably no coincidence that Wertheimer is the only club owner interviewed who would characterize his club as "doing well," and, as such, says he doesn't mind spreading the wealth back to the people who made the club what it is today. As for the Hole in the Wall, manager Debbie Rombach says she believes that it's her club's policy of promising a minimum guarantee against full door for bands that has earned the local artists' appreciation.

"I'm not offering huge guarantees," says Rombach. "I offer guarantees I know I can handle it if I have to make up the difference. If they have a $150 guarantee and take in $400 at the door, then they're going home with $400. Sometimes it's not that much money, though, and the artists appreciate knowing something has been promised and will be delivered." Although the rap against guarantees for local artists is typically that the guaranteed cushion of a set figure may discourage artists from maximizing their promotional efforts and bringing their fans to the club, Rombach says the advantages of happy musicians who want to return outweighs the potential for under-promoted shows.

"The bands know that if they're not bringing people in, and are more often than not failing to meet the guarantee, then they're simply not going to be back as often," says Rombach says. "And that's the incentive for promotion."

Promotion, Promotion, Promotion

So if live-music finance is really as simple as building a place for people to go, booking live music to attract those people, selling them alcohol while giving their cover charge to the bands as the clubs keep the bar, why then aren't more people getting rich? Again, it's getting people through the club doors in the first place, and according to both musicians and club owners, promotion plays no small part in the equation.

Antone's Louis Jay Meyers says the selection of local music choices and influx of big-name national talent has jaded clubgoers. Gone, he says, are the days when a renowned blues club like Antone's can attract business with a marquee advertising only "Blues Tonight." People want to see what they know, or what their friends and the press say they might enjoy. On principle, no band wants to play to an empty room and no club wants to book bands who can promise little more than an empty room. Therefore, promotion is the key.

"When a band is bringing people in, I see more than dollar signs," the Electric Lounge's Henry says. "I see motivation and a band working for it. These are the bands [who] are out flyering. These are the bands that started with the early-week gigs and built from there."

Clubs can also make a promotional investment, above and beyond the customary display ads in the local papers. The Hole in the Wall's joint venture with Paul Minor, Sunday's Rock & Roll Free for All, seems to indicate that an early-week show can draw large crowds and that quality bands are -- at least once in a while -- willing to play for little money with hopes that the exposure can lead to better booking and drawing power later. At the Continental Club, Wertheimer says he's spent years building up his happy hours by pulling from the bar to pay the bands, and that only now is that investment paying off as the South Congress live music venue is packed and selling drinks at a time of day that, without the music, wouldn't have been possible. As for the happy hour artists, it makes sense that patrons dropping by for a beer after work and seeing something they like musically are more likely to bring their family or friends to see that artist on a week night or weekend.

Just as it's important for bands (and clubs) to make a promotional investment, so is the formation of a strategy for building up the group's name recognition. The most basic of ways for doing this, of course, is playing.

"There's a difference between building a band and making money," says former Velvethead drummer and Banana Blender Surprise road manager James Mann. "You can't make a lot of money unless you've built up the reputation, and that involves playing the lower levels of clubs and working upwards gradually. And as you progress, the finances should move along with you. But the difficult thing to remember is that there's markets or clubs that more might be gained in exposure and recognition from playing for very little or free than by taking a $400 gig at your normal club that same night."

Although many young artists say they need to play often mostly to boost finances, club owners say that they consistently see the same acts who complain about money overextending their accessibility by playing so many shows that it ends up working against their per-show drawing power.

"You definitely have to overplay and not make a lot of money just to get your name out," says David Garza. "But the secret is knowing when to pull out because the pitfall is turning into an underpaid bar band and never jumping to another level. I used to play 18-20 gigs a month in Texas but can now make the same money by holding back and playing just three and making them each some kind of event. Which isn't to say that I'm beyond finding new markets on the road and playing $150 gigs that I know I'll lose money just getting to. On those, I'll gladly chalk it up as investment for the next time we're back."

Ultimately, Garza says he's just experimenting with the supply/demand curve until he finds a balance that suits his crowds. And although less established acts may not even be aware they're in the midst a booking blitz by playing every night, most booking agents say the blitz is only good as a short-term answer for name recognition and crowd growth.

"Musicians think they have to play every night, every month, until they're tired of looking at empty rooms," says Dianne Scott, who operated a booking agency from 1989-1994 and helped orchestrate Jimmy LaFave's 1991 blitz. "In a booking blitz, you purposely saturate a market for a month, with 24 or 25 gigs. That way, as the press and club goers become aware of an artist, they'll always be playing that night or the next. Then, if you stick with the notion you'll pull back for six months to only one or two gigs a month, the crowds skyrocket and the money more than evens out."

More Than a
One-Night Stand

Just as it's important for a band to know how to reach their draw and how often they can attract that draw, many bands say it's equally important to find and cultivate a relationship with a club they feel may be committed to working on mutual growth.

"If a band and club think they can work together on a long-term commitment, [mutual growth] should start from day one," Antone's Meyers says. "The club may feel they have a weak night and the band may feel they can slowly build a draw, so they need to exchange needs and commit to building together -- even if it means starting off generating very little money. Guy Forsyth's played this club on Sundays for three years. Now we'll both tell you he's doing all right, even real well for Sundays. It didn't start that way."

And although club-artist arrangements can be as complex as a residency with profit-sharing options, not unlike the Black Cat and its once-ruling Soulhat-Joe Rockhead-Little Sister triumvirate, the relationships can also be as simple as a band finding, and sticking with, a club they feel has been honest in its dealings thus far. "We've had to shop around to find the clubs we like to play," says Jeremy Pollet of Gals Panic. "It's not unlike any business that if somebody rips you off, you go somewhere else. Just as you can't always listen to people's horror stories, because you'll always hear different people saying the same club was either generous or screwing them. You can't listen to the myths. Personal experience is key."

But when it comes to that $9-for-a-guitar-player figure, most club owners say they regrettably see how the math works and why it can be misconstrued as the clubs treating the bands unfairly.

"Over here, we've got a small-room capacity and the biggest volume of acts coming through this room than anywhere else in town," says Henry about the Electric Lounge's multiple-band bills. "But if you've only got 75 people willing to come out on a good early weeknight and you've kept the covers low to entice them in the first place, it's true there may not be much when you divide it up by three or four bands with however many members apiece. It's trickle-down theory, but it's fair."

Other club owners say they concur with Henry's illustration that small clubs, competitive cover charges, and stacked bills frequently can account for surprisingly low paydays -- for both an established band that draws relatively well as a weekend headliner and for the newcomer. But most club owners say their rooms are big enough already given their overhead. Additionally, they say that although the artists might prefer to play all night, as opposed to splitting the door with other acts, there are actually few bands that have the material to pull it off. Plus, contends one club owner, the more acts on a local bill the higher the likelihood that ambivalent bar clients will find something they can tolerate and find a suitable soundtrack to drink by. "In the old days," says former club manager Wayne Nagel, "people expected somebody like Eric Johnson or The Cobras to play all night, and the musicians went home happy more often because the door wasn't getting split into multiple layers."

The Road Shows
Go on Forever

Equally confusing in its effect on pay is the roadshow. Although it was originally predicted that the increase in roadshow activity which Southpark Meadows and the Austin Music Hall were bound to bring to the local market would be good for the local club business in general, most club owners say roadshows do more to hurt a local scene than to help. "The influx of roadshows with big-ticket prices in big venues can actually deplete the market when there's a bunch in a row, because even though the city's growing, the number of people frequenting the clubs seems steady," says Liberty Lunch's Mark Pratz.

Before the roadshow surge, it was also argued that the financial rewards of successful roadshows could leave a bigger safety net or slush fund for club owners to apply towards poor-drawing local shows, a theory that the Back Room's Mark Olivarez says looks better on paper than in practice. "The problem is that to attract a roadshow act capable of attracting a lot of people at a high ticket price, you have to have a sizable venue," he says. "But on the days you don't have a successful road show, you're left with a large club and the pressure to keep the club full with traffic. So again, you're losing money to try and [to] make money."

Even opening for a touring act may not be all it's cracked up to be -- or so say some local musicians who have been disappointed with the money they've received for performing in front of a full house. "Sure there's a lot of people there watching, but it's unfair to expect to get paid like it's your show when you're opening for a touring act," Mike Henry says. "It's tough to find any substantial money to pay a local opener because the shows are so cost prohibitive to begin with. But I think most bands recognize that these shows are worth it for the exposure value alone."

Perhaps the most interesting part of the road-show issue is how willing concert goers are to spend $18 to see a show at the Music Hall and how reluctant, club owners say, the same fans are to pay more than $4 for local music. Most club owners say they have no more than three regular artists that can demand over $5 cover for a performance and several say they doubt the scene itself has more than a dozen local artists in total, signed or unsigned, who can routinely ask and receive more than $8. Nearly every club owner recounts stories of aggravated club goers complaining about paying a $3 cover for local music.

"I finally decided you're not going to get into this club for less than $3 anymore," Wertheimer says of the Continental. "Everything else in the bar business has gone up, so it's only fair we try and pass it along to the guys bringing the music in."

In one of the most celebrated controversies over cover charges in Austin music history, last year Emo's decided to go from an all-free show policy to a flat $2 for roadshows and $1 for local shows. Owner Eric "Emo" Hartman says he made the policy change so they could pay the bands more, lose less money at the bar, and attract better roadshows. Some customers are still complaining. "People bitch about $2 but they don't understand those shows would be $8 or $10 in any other city," says Hartman. "I suppose we started spoiling them, but this is still a bargain that some people obviously still don't understand."

Perhaps the only club aside from the Continental that's been successful at raising cover prices across-the-board to benefit local bands is the White Rabbit. The White Rabbit's Jordan Silber says he used the necessity of high-dollar ticket roadshows to justify better covers for his club's local showcases. "We needed to let people know we're a serious club, because when we opened we couldn't have pulled off an $8 show. But with some of the higher ticket prices for roadshows like Medeski, Martin & Wood and Drivin' & Cryin', we've been better able to justify the $3 or $4 Monday night cover. It's not because we're greedy, it's because we want something more to pass on to the band."

Cash on the Barrelhead

Just how much will be passed on to the band is exactly what every band needs to know in advance, either on the road or at home, insists Pollet of Gals Panic. He says he's found that the more his band discusses finances up front, the more professionally they've been treated by the clubs. "There [are] probably a lot of bands uncomfortable discussing money," he says, "but it's so much easier to treat it up front and lay out what you need than to play the guess-work game later."

Pollet's peers like Ugly American Bruce Hughes, who simply says, "The more business savvy the artists show, the less likely the clubs are to feel they can fuck you at every turn," agree, but others in perhaps more alternative circles question whether discussing money up front can actually undermine punk credibility in the eyes of a potential club manager. "This is not an altruistic adventure," notes Hormone and punk ethics expert Tim Stegall. "If you think it's not punk to be up on the business side, you're misreading the realities of life. There's nothing wrong with seeing that everybody gets treated fairly and that the people you're responsible for are taken care of."

As for additional techniques for better musician paydays, Stephen Doster suggests that a tough Austin market makes it almost a necessity for musicians to search out the local gigs that might not be glamorous but create another payday. "You have to have gigs other than your primary band if you're going to support yourself," says Doster. "Preferably there [are] gigs down other avenues like restaurants or parties, where it's not as completely reliant on draw and is more about creating a mood. People who love music know that if you hire a musician to play at a restaurant, it's going to be good for beer and hamburger sales to have your clients hang out and watch."

Even the cliché of working the wedding and Bar Mitzvah circuit has been a good bet for the local artists willing to do it. The same can be said of working the UT frat scene. As well, both Kris McKay and Earthpig say that going solo part-time at small clubs or coffeehouses can often be the easiest way to avoid splitting a paycheck with only a slight risk of damaging your regular outfit's drawing power. "I know I'm not a guitar virtuoso," says McKay, "but I also know I need to pay rent."

And in the End...

In the end, it may just be the artistic success and financial disappointments of somebody like Mike Hynes that's the best indicator of where the Austin music scene is headed economically. Hynes is, in fact, one of those much-discussed musicians who relocated here based on the city's reputation as a live music capital. After a 10-year stint as a live and session bass player in Detroit, Hynes says he moved here because he heard that Austin had a drastic shortage of bass players. Immediately, Hynes picked up work with the Panic Choir and has held down eight or nine gigs at a time ever since.

"Typically, back in Detroit, musicians wouldn't move the equipment out of the garage and into the car for a $50 gig," says Hynes. "Here, that's a standard gig. It's sad, but it takes multiple gigs and whoring to survive here, and that's only possible because rhythm sections are in such high demand. It's too bad, because the best music happens when a single group develops which lives and breathes the music together. Economics in Austin make that impossible."

Depressing? Maybe. But here's the flipside: Despite the pay, Hynes says he's enjoying in Austin something he's not seen anything like elsewhere; "The treatment of musicians with a fair amount of respect." n

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