A few weeks back, a handful of musicians, media, venue owners, and promoters got together for a discussion about the Philadelphia independent music scene. It was a very enlightening discussion, and it raised a few ideas and concerns about the scene. Opinions regarding appropriate door cover charges, fair payment for performers, and general ideas on how to make these shows more successful were all discussed at this meeting.
Afterwards, we put together a short survey, so that we could get a better idea on where most people stand on the topics listed above. We received well over a hundred responses, so let’s take a look at what you had to say:
How often do you go out to see live original music?
What is the #1 reason you go out to these shows?
All of the “Other” responses where either that the person works in the industry, or “all of the above”
What is the #1 reason you DO NOT go out to these shows?
Most of the “Other” for this question are time and money related. Many people have kids or schedule conflicts. Many other people are broke, so both the cover charge and the drink prices are an issue for them. A few said “all of the above”. One guy is just too lazy to go out. “The bar noise drowns out the music” was another complaint. Location of the venue was mentioned, which could also relate to the parking issue. Some people don’t go out because they “not familiar with the bands”. Finally another legitimate concern is that weekday shows start too late and that prevents people from attending.
How do you generally find out about shows?
The only “Other” response here was “all of the above”
How should a band be compensated?
This was a tough one to put into a chart. Many people suggested “individually negotiated” or something along those lines, which I counted as a flat rate, meaning it’s an amount agreed upon regardless of bar sales or cover charge. Reciprocal bookings were an interesting suggestion.
*”Play for free” included suggestions to offer bands free parking, free food and drinks from the bar, free recording time. This also included the suggestion that bands shouldn’t be paid until they earn headlining slots on the weekends. One also suggested that if a band is good, they should be making money from their merchandise sales.
And everyone who responded with “money”, thank you for your clever response. Very useful.
What is an appropriate cover charge at the door?
Many suggested in the “Other” that it depends on day of the week as well. One suggested that it should be a $10 cover just one night a week, and the rest of the nights are free.
One of the identified issues has been the fact that bands leave after they play, as opposed to staying in support of the other bands on the bill. How do we address?
The majority of the “Other” went on to explain that sometimes people need to leave but if it becomes a pattern among that particular band, don’t book them again.
As a musician, is it fair practice to have a radius clause (not being able to play in the area for a set time before and after)?
Would you consider a monthly “membership” program that would allow you to see unlimited shows at multiple venues around the city, receive special offers and gain access to exclusive events?
If Yes, then how much would you be willing to pay monthly?
And finally we asked if you had any other suggestions to help improve the scene. We got some great responses, so I’d like to highlight a few:
Bands should end at 11pm. Have a DJ for the rest of the night.
potentially having a website or a database for all venues to use. Once a band is booked, they’re placed into this database. By clicking a band on this database, a booker, or promoter, venue, etc. can see what shows this band has played in. This could help with radial clauses, if that’s necessary. This is difficult, because you then need to get all venues on board.
Venues need to show more support (not all of them obviously). Little to no social media exposure, or a lack of mention at all of shows that are happening at their venues, is poor marketing on their part.. There are too many venues in the city relying entirely on the bands they book to keep their spots in business. (again not all of the venues, but a lot of them are this way).
It is up to the bands to book the right shows, and to manage their schedule appropriately, in order to draw decently. There are too many bands, playing gigs each week, and playing only in front of other bands draw, which is great for exposure, and fine by be as an artist, but doesn’t help the venue any. We play once per month, maybe a little less, and our average draw to each show is 40-45, with particular shows drawing even more, especially with the venues that help with promotion.
Bands should be doing the bulk of the advertising because who wants to play to an empty room?? I have booked bands that charge crazy high guarantees and then 5 people show up. This is a team effort, the venue should not do everything.
After moving here from New York I think Philly has an amazing music scene with more bands per square inch than most other cities in the US. I book and manage for a nationally touring band based in Philly. Diversity, talent and quantity are really impressive. That’s the plus side. On the minus side many of the shows I go to I find only a small sub-scene. People rarely cross geographical and scene boundaries and many shows are poorly attended. This is a problem that I’ve seen in other large cities like Chicago.
This scene isolation also exists when out of town headliners play, which usually is a great way to draw people out. What I see in Philly is that on those bills the promoters usually draw from one scene, packing the bill with three very similar bands that have small draws, you can almost predict who’s going to play when the headliner is announced. If promoters were to pull from outside of their own small scenes and have somewhat more diverse bands I think that would help a lot in breaking down that isolation in the scenes, and get people out into other shows with local bands they don’t normally see, breaking down the local scene isolation and actually getting a larger turnout.
For small bands I see that many of them overplay in Philly, jumping on every show offered. That’s the equivalent of practicing in public, and of course people will not come out to see a band that plays two or three venues with the same set of bands every couple of weeks. Even my most favorite bands on the planet I wouldn’t want to see more than one or twice a year… at most! A solution to that is for small bands to get in the van and drive a few miles away, Wilmington, Trenton, Lancaster and other parts of the city are easily accessible, have great venues and great people.
On the flip side I know many small and even medium sized bands in Baltimore, DC, NYC and throughout the east coast have a terribly hard time booking a night in Philly, and many try for months and months to get anything, often coming up empty handed. Venues and promoters will not take a risk on booking a small out-of-town band that would make a great headliner. Again the reason is that those gigs are “scene” gigs and are not promoted other than having a Facebook event put up. No paper flyering or postering is done so naturally nobody attends outside of the small sub-scene that the rest of the bill brings.
This is a much harder problem to fix, one method that can work is gig-swapping, where bands in one city agree to swap gigs in another city with another band. Promoters should also be encouraged to do the same, by promoting the best-of local small bands to out of town promoters, who in return recommend their best-of local band. If monthly events were set up around this concept then small bands would be able to travel more, diversifying the scenes, and stopping local bands overplaying as more options are available to them.
Why is it in the suburbs many venues pay bands a decent amount and people will actually show up and in the city, the bands don’t get paid enough to cover their travel and parking if they come in from the ‘burbs? I spent the last 10 years in a band with a bit of success outside of the city, but anytime we were in town, getting anyone to come out was nearly impossible. Why? 9 times out of 10 the “promoter” or “booking agent” for the venue in the city could not give a rat’s ass about putting together an actual show – a line up of bands that may work well, either stylistically or at least sharing similar vibes. Our fans loathed coming early or staying for so many of the bands we played with because the puzzle pieces rarely fit. A successful night usually required a few bands who knew each other in a scene to set up a show at a venue and then use our channels to promote.
The membership Idea is good, but I think something with the parking can help. If one does not have to worry about parking, it would make it a bit attainable to check out gigs. If there is a parking lot that can work out a deal with or find a facility that is easy to get to, like some where in Plymouth Meeting as it is just off the highway, would be a good idea. So parking should be considered and easy access from highways. Should not be a place so out of reach to get to.
The above suggestion about a membership is interesting. I was thinking about this the other day but in a different manner. What if some of this membership fee was used to help support an advertising pool to extend promotion beyond social media.
Find away to connect the music scene to the Philadelphia community itself. Make the music scene an active, obvious, positive player in the community.
Just a comment on the “Radius Clause”. Opportunities knock,some when you least expect,if a festival spot,or opening act spot,or simply to just be on a bill with a band that you havent played with,or enjoy .Having a clause would stop any of these from happening, I can understand not having the same band at the same club,week after week,but there should be exclusions as to when you’re exempt,and when you’re not.
The Philadelphia music scene is full of some amazing bands, with amazing talent. Unfortunately, musicians are usually broke. Relying on fans to cover the cost is also dangerous, because band A stayed and networked with fans from Band B and now competes with band A for the same dollar they already had. AAAAAAANNNNDDD we wonder why bands don’t encourage them to stay.
It should really be broken down into venues and bars. Venues should charge…bars should not. Venues can skew heavier on local acts, but should have at least a healthy representation of national (at least C Level guys) and touring acts. These should be bands that either have/ had some radio play, or at least loved in other areas. That increases the chances of adding value to the local bands and to their fans, as well as supplying an audience and cash to bands touring through. They should have a solid sound system, solid sound engineers, and should be a music centered environment, with a bar representing only 20%-30%ish of the establishment. They can also put a certain percentage of emphasis on drawing a younger underage crowd and bands / artists (because they don’t have anywhere to go after their favorite band plays…they wont leave, but you can’t make up that price with alcohol…hence the cover charge)
Bars should not charge a cover….repeat…if you have a couple of speakers, maybe a digital board, a small little room with monitors that get overridden by a loud songbird, and 80% of your space is bar related, you should not be charging a cover. You should be getting people inside the bar and keeping them there, like the old days of the casinos. Tell the bands they get a cut of the night, or just play them a flat fee. But, if you have people walking in off the street to get a drink and listen to some music, and the music is good. They will stay. If they stay, they will drink…they will eat. They will keep your lights on. And if you don’t suck as a bar, they will come back even when there is no music. Bands that bring more people consistently can graduate to play venues. Then you can ask them not to interfere with other shows, but until then you are a bar. Make people DRINK, or Eat. Or sell a t-shirt. Make it a destination. I’m not anti-venue / bar, but the “scene”, promoters, and ultimately bands are blamed WAAAAAYYY too much. There are some venues / bars that are killing it with live original music. They are doing this because the place, the people, and the music is quality.
A “loop” where one can park easily with a bus that takes you to the venues. Wilmington Delaware used to have this.
The only way the Philly scene can be revived is if a legit media company/companies have full access to help shower the experience of said band performing. People have very short memories after a band has left, that’s because the focus is all wrong. Bookers are focusing on the bands too much and not the experience around the bands. but if the venue is the experience than people will remember that. So a company willing to help share the experience of what others have missed will make people want to come out to the next show, as well as make them interested in discovering new bands. — As you can tell I’ve been fed up for a while lol.