Welp, I guess this will be my annual installment of Why Live Music Sucks. Yes, just under a year ago I dissected the horrendous sound at the Viper Room. Against my better judgement I went to a friend’s (packed) CD release show a couple months ago, and guess what, same shitty mix as ever. There seems to be no hope there.
Last week marked my 6th time at the House of Blues. I’ve now seen a show in every room of the venue and played one of the rooms. This time I saw a show in the “Voodoo Lounge” of the club. An awesome name, but a horrible room. First off, the room is cut in half by red carpet style partitions. Half the room had tables, booths and chairs which was nearly empty (reserved for “VIP”) and the other half included the stage, the massive bar (which took up the majority of the room) and a tiny space between the bar and the partitions for the audience. Unless you were in the front half of the room (and only about 1/3 of the audience was), you couldn’t get a clear view of the stage.
We paid our $10 to see an acoustic duo. Not a hard act to mix. Two acoustic guitars. Two vocals. And some backing tracks. Only problem, we couldn’t hear the singers. Now, you must be saying to yourself, “this can’t be right! There are only 5 inputs, two are acoustic guitars (no amps) and two are vocals, surely the sound guy would know to put the vocals on top of the mix!” Well, you’d be wrong. Because, not only was the overall sound incredibly QUIET (unlike the Viper room where I am aurally assaulted every time), but the guitars, and the tracks were louder than the vocals. I hung out by the sound guy (no, he does not get the honor of being called an engineer) for awhile to see wtf he was doing. Nearly all the faders were maxed. I was so confused. Then I noticed that the lead vocal mic was placed directly in front of the house speaker. Sound design 101: place your house speakers IN FRONT of the stage so the mics don’t feed back. Every time he tried to raise the volume of the mic it started feeding back. Duh. But why was it still so quiet? The faders were maxed, so either the gain on each channel was incredibly low (didn’t get a glimpse at the nobs) or, more likely, the speakers weren’t getting enough juice. Whatever the case, it was a horrible music experience for everyone there. But, the band was GREAT! I could tell they were well rehearsed and they had good vocals, solid performers. But we couldn’t hear them! So people started talking and drinking. Maybe this is House of Blues’ entire business model. Make the sound so quiet and shitty that people just talk and drink more.
Aside from the douche factor of the VIP partition for a room that maybe holds 100 (keeping 50% of it reserved), who could possibly have an enjoyable music experience? Luckily I was with great company and we had some good conversation to the “background” music.
The House of Blues is closing… well, moving this year from it’s current location to make way for some hotels. Do the scene a favor and don’t reopen.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hit up by “promoters” offering me shitty deals to play the Sunset Strip clubs: The Whiskey, The Roxy, Viper Room, House of Blues. Every offer is something like, “you must sell 35 tickets and keep 100% after that.” For a 21+ room that holds 100 people, even with a sellout at $10 a head, the most I could walk with is $650. Which may sound like a lot, but when you really crunch the numbers, that’s only 65% of the door for a 21+ club (all drinkers!). Which is the worst deal in the country. And that’s if I sold it out. What about if I brought 50 people? A very strong number for such a tiny room. The first $350 goes straight to the club, then next $150 to me. So that split is 30% to me, 70% to the promoter/club? AND they get 100% of bar sales? Blow me!
Contrast that with nearly every other 21+ club in the country where a standard deal is 70-100% of all ticket sales to the artists after about $50-350 is taken off the top for expenses – FOR THE ENTIRE NIGHT (not PER act). Remember, these LA “promoters” have deals with each band. Typically 5 a night. And none of the acts have similar sounds or vibes. So there’s no chance for patrons to actually come for a full evening and enjoy themselves. If they’re into singer/songwriters, the screamo band playing right after the act they came to see will be awfully jarring. They’re gonna bounce immediately. But let’s say all 5 bands bring 35 people (of course no overlaps) at $10 a head. That’s 175 drinkers and $1,750 to the promoter/club and $0 to each band. Let that sink into your growing pit of rage.
But what about if you’re a nationally touring artist with a substantial fanbase? The deal will be better right? Wrong.
A few years ago I booked a 60 date tour across the country for me and and an internet star I was supporting. This artist at the time had over 50 million plays on YouTube (had 70 million on Myspace back in the day – how he built his base initially). And had sold over a million downloads on iTunes completely independently.
He wanted to play The Roxy. This was this artist’s first national tour. He wanted to go on tour and I knew how to book. So we teamed up together. I booked the tour and was his direct support. I negotiated fair deals at 59 clubs across the country. But what happened at the Roxy? I was strong-armed into a Sunday night and a shitty deal: The first $1,500 going directly to the club with every ticket AFTER $1,500, split 50/50 – club/artist. Tickets were $12 adv., $15 day of (+ $1.50 “facility fee” added to each ticket – straight to the venue). And they forced the under 21ers to buy a $3 food/drink coupon. And took 20% of our merch sales. Did we get any of their bar sales? What do you think?
For a club with a capacity at 500, this is beyond insulting.
We brought about 170 people to our show. Ended up being about $2,150 to The Roxy and $400 to us. Oh, and most of the audience were drinkers. That works out to be 15% to the artist, 85% to the venue. On a SUNDAY. Way to go Roxy. You totally made fools of us. Well me, because I booked it. The Roxy was non-negotiable on this deal. Believe me I tried over the phone multiple times and through email. Nope, they wouldn’t budge. My stupidity for accepting the deal. But shame on them for forcing this upon their acts who go at their careers independently without a booking agent. Completely short-sighted. And outright evil.
I haven’t stepped foot in the club since.
Some blame the promoters who have taken over the scene as the fall of live music in Hollywood. But I blame the clubs. What happened to how it used to be back in the 60s, 70s and 80s? Promoters would book only THE BEST music and then work their asses off on packing the club. People became fans of the club, the promoter, and sure, the bands, and would return again and again.
This new pay-to-play, “promoter” driven new normal has all but destroyed a live music community in Los Angeles. No wonder the DJs have taken over. The clubs that are now packed every night of the week are in Hollywood and are booking only the best DJ talent around. And PAYING their DJs a fair wage. Fancy that.
It’s nice to see that the Hotel Cafe (in Hollywood) and the East side clubs like The Satellite, Bootleg and The Echo, still care about curation and paying their musicians fairly. I’ve had enjoyable evenings (yes, from open to close) at all of these clubs as both a patron and performer. Their sound is always top notch and the talent is consistent throughout the night.
If clubs only worked with talent buyers who actually put in some time to find stellar, hard working bands who fit together with a sound that keeps an audience engaged and entertained for an entire evening, then they wouldn’t be hurting so much. And wouldn’t need to rely on the bands to bring 100% of the audience. Instead of negotiating a deal with each band on the bill, why not work with one or two great bands to put the bill together and split the artist payment as they see fit? This is how nearly every other club in the country operates. It’s how I was able to consistently fill the 800 cap Varsity Theater in Minneapolis when I lived there. By setting up nights of buzzing bands where people would come for the entire evening. And it reflected nicely on the club to actually have patrons enjoying themselves. And it inspired them to get out and see more live music. It’s one of the reasons the Minneapolis music scene has stayed so strong over the years: Hard working bands working WITH hard working clubs maintaining a community of music lovers who have enjoyable experiences seeing local music.
It’s time for the Sunset Strip clubs to do some serious soul searching. Stop working with these pay-to-play promoters tricking young bands into horrendous deals and hire some passionate talent buyers who will scout out the best talent and work with their talent to put on the best possible evening of live music. Let’s reimagine what the Los Angeles music scene can be once again.
Photo is by Neil Kremer from Flickr and used with the Creative Commons license