I had an interesting interaction with a local venue manager as I was inquiring about bookings for a couple of '60s- and '70s-styled rock acts.
Here is his email response:
"I would really like to stay away from the 60s and even early 70s. Even the [band name redacted] are selling out to customers that may have one drink if any, bitch about seats, and tip poorly. It's beyond depressing. It's personal and sad to me what has happened to music in this market. What was once a thriving live music scene has been reduced to two-day-a-week tributes. The torch was not passed and now it's flaming out. I thought that in a decade I could break one new band, or help someone besides a tribute band grow. I was wrong. My stage sits empty most of the time, like a big nest waiting for a bird to lay an egg."
Now, not every city has a live scene that's challenged or diminishing. Bravo to those live-music scenes that are thriving! But the home base of Bill Graham and ballrooms and tons of once-buzzing music clubs and bars is struggling—as you can surmise from the venue-manager's comments above.
Of course, many folks love to blame Millennials, electronic music, DJs, and greedy club owners when discussing a live scene teetering on the brink of oblivion, and there are definitely bits of truth in all of those arguments.
But can a good chunk of the blame also be laid at the hands, feet, and ambition of the musicians seeking employment in those venues?
A casual peek at the many reality shows focused on bar, restaurant, and club businesses will tell you that churning up success in the night-time entertainment field is a brutal endeavor. It doesn't help when the entertainment isn't doing its part to bring in patrons.
So I think in the case of my town at least, rather than moaning about diminishing gigs and crappy club owners, musicians should look inward to see how much of the problem they might be causing themselves. For example...
DON'T THINK IT'S ALWAYS THE VENUES' JOB TO PROVIDE THE AUDIENCE
I hear this a lot: "It's not my problem. The club should take out ads in the media to promote the shows." Really? It's great when a venue DOES promote the acts it is presenting BEYOND mentions on the venue's social network and web site. But why not look at "audience acquisition" as a joint partnership? When clubs are shutting down and gigs are scarce, it's no secret that times are tough. Don't put the whole responsibility on the struggling club community—do your part to make things happen with your own promotion and marketing.
DON'T LIE TO THE BOOKER ABOUT YOUR DRAW
Yes. Some acts continue to misrepresent their audience base. It's a shame. And stupid. You can lie about your number of fans, and hope that some miracle brings significant traffic into the club, of course, but if your show tanks, all you've likely done is very selfishly get a show ONCE at that venue. And, actually, you may be doing more damage than that, because your untruth may have cost the club the "promise" of much-needed revenue. Too many nights of poor crowds and increasing losses, and that club could be done. Proud of yourself?
IF YOU DON'T PROMOTE YOURSELF...
I have no words. I talk to bands all of the time who begrudgingly put up Facebook pages and don't populate them with daily news and things of interest. They don't study how to grow a community that might actually come out to see them play. They don't keep their data updated or regularly refresh their band photos and audio tracks. I'll stop here. In short, those bands DON'T DO MUCH OF ANYTHING to generate interest in what they do. And when those types of business "checked out" artists badger bookers for gigs, what do they expect will happen? Venues depend on a healthy community of live-music lovers who want to see awesome bands and who will spend money to see them. If the bands aren't doing their part to keep those music lovers thrilled, intrigued, and INTERESTED, there is not much a club owner can do to fill the void that the musicians have created for themselves.