Why The Sunset Strip Clubs Need To Die

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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.

+Why Live Music Sucks

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!

+My Response To An LA Pay To Play “Promoter”

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.

+Should You Pay To Play? Here Are The Worst To Best Club Deals In The World

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.

Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of the music biz advice blog, Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake

Photo is by Neil Kremer from Flickr and used with the Creative Commons license

43 Responses

  1. Cheyne

    You are completely wrong about the Viper Room. They pay great and I have always had great sound there ( we bring our own sound guy)

    Reply
    • Ari Herstand
      Ari Herstand

      If you bring your own sound guy then you can solve the problem. Their system is good, but here is what a professional, touring sound engineer had to say about the Viper Room:

      “I was forced to mix a band in the Viper Room. In all my years and all the places I’ve been, I have __NEVER__ seen a more impossible place to try to do anything.

      After you climb up the ladder in the back room to get into a small cubbyhole, and slide into position in what I could only describe as a cockpit … console in front, small open slit above to “hear” and “see”, other equipment on the sides and over you. Lighting right behind you (and probably the responsibility of the guy mixing). You can not hear a damn thing – so they guy handed me a headset to mix on.

      So .. in a room the size of a postage stamp, with a LOUD band on the stage, where you can’t actually HEAR anything (nor could I see either the bass player or guitar player because of obstructions), there is no way you can mix the PA vs. what is coming off the deck. It didn’t help that I had the label management in the room as well. Getting up and down to the floor to hear is impossible (did I mention the lighting guy behind me, or the ladder to climb up and down?). That was clearly the gig from hell – and you know I don’t give up – especially considering I had been working with that band for 5+ years.

      I can’t imagine how the house guys there must feel. That is an impossible job. I can’t imagine anyone stays there long, unless they are just collecting a check. Personally, I will never go mix another band there – it’s not worth the reputation hit. I seriously don’t know why anyone would play there.”

      Reply
      • nynex

        I agree with you. That place is not meant for a live band. I have played there with my band over 25 times. And I have always asked for Matt (who doesnt work there anymore) He worked well in the conditions given to him, as any good sound man should. Not every room is the same and there are sometimes impossibles. I commend him for his valor! Test the room because its like a bedroom with subs.

        Reply
  2. Frank

    “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 […].”

    But then you wouldn’t have a place to play your timid, limp-dick Americana indie.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      Well, you’re obviously one of these scumbag promoters. Speaking of limp dicks…

      Reply
      • Frank

        Hey Anonymous: we might not agree on the issues, but I am always impressed by your comments. I’m impressed you’re able to figure out the ‘verify your humanity’ math — rock on man

        Reply
        • Anonymous

          I’ll give this comeback a 3/10. Spend more time sharpening your wit and less time fucking 20 year old kids out of money (and probably trying to fuck kids, you gross, washed out pedo) while they pursue their passion and you might do better next time.

          Reply
      • Anonymous

        Hmm, another person who uses brackets in their post? Nice try, Frank. Pathetic, really, responding to yourself. Hahahahahah, what a tool. HAHAHAHAHHAHA

        Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I made the mistake of playing a gig at the HOB’s “Voodoo Lounge” last summer. It was booked last minute so they didn’t make me pre-sell any tickets. “Awesome”, I thought. I was wrong. I was promised a 45 minute set and got 20 minutes of a god awful mix. The sound girl (also not deserving of the title engineer) seemed like she was in a rush to get somewhere else the whole time. I brought 15 people that night, they each payed 10 bucks to hear me play, and got to hear 4 songs. Some people had trouble parking and came in a little late and saw 2 songs. In retrospect, I should have cussed her out after the set, but I’m generally the type that avoids conflict, even to a fault. That’s on me I guess. The next day, I contacted the guy who books the room about what had happened. He told me he would “look into it”. Never heard back from him.

    This is just one example of how these clubs operate. It’s not about the artists, or the patrons. It’s just about them making money. DON’T fall for the sweet talking promoters who remind you how “legendary” their club is.

    While the clubs are at fault, IMO it’s not going to change unless the bands refuse to play. There are so many other good venues in LA, don’t be fooled by the big names on Sunset. Take your talent and fans elsewhere.

    Reply
    • Sam

      Ha! I love the “but we’re legendary” shit. I spent my entire early career (late 80s/early 90s) playing those fucking clubs, getting shit on, and not getting shit – like everyone else. There’s no status gained playing those shitholes. In fact, I learned years ago to not even put that shit in my bio because it doesn’t make me look experienced – it makes me look stupid.

      Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Pub deals, Record Deals, Record Sales, Streaming Services, Touring, Clubs, Managers, Booking Agents, ASCAP, BMI, SESAC…the list could go on and on. The artist NEVER wins. The artist is ALWAYS the last to be paid. It’s been that way since the beginning of time. You either have it in you to forge ahead – or you don’t. All of these elements shouldn’t come to any surprise. Trying to change the culture of this all encompassing business will never happen. It’s always been about the dollar. End of story.

    Reply
  5. Jeremy from Buffalo Traffic

    I agree with you about the Sunset Strip Clubs. I think they make a lot of their money on naive players who come here from out of the country intent on playing part of rock history which they don’t realize has become a lame museum. I covered as a bassist for a band from England who were intent to play the Whiskey. I believe they paid $400 to pay there. It was worth it for them to play a hundred dollars each because they work in IT and aren’t broke etc. I didn’t want to spoil their fun and tell them much about how the Strip had changed, as they had already made their investment and were stoked about it, and honestly, I enjoyed the gig because their music was decent.

    There used to be a cool place a few years back called the Cat Club which was owned by Slim Jim of the Stray Cats but since closed down. I almost feel like the most money an unknown musician can make in LA is through playing the Promenade and selling CDs there. Anyways, thanks for your informative articles.

    Reply
  6. Robert

    i read half way through this and had to stop, its a big reason why I left LA… reading this gives me ptsd. Curious if the dreaded “Sterling” is still booking the indie side of LA? Had to give up on on him after years of horrible experiences filling a room and getting paid $25 and paying for my own parking… Hotel Cafe is fair, & Ive heard good things about Piano bar, but what in your opinion are more LA venues that rise above the urine that the strip is known for?

    I leave you with this quote from Jack Kerouac:

    “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities”

    Reply
  7. Johnny Austin

    I’m gonna go ahead and give you an Amen on this one brother, it’s the reason I ditched the west coast for central Texas. Austin has made me a working musician capable of paying my mortgage and loving life, but we are seeing a spike in the same type of terms you’ve described, but the city and music scene have worked hard to keep the pay to play type terms and the horrible splits at bay, but people have started calling Austin ‘East LA’ since so many of us Californians have moved out here… I too will never play the venues you’ve listed and described, even if Cheyne thinks that bad sound is good sound, and that bad terms are good terms, they’re not Cheyne, you’ve just missed out on good sound and good terms, so you don’t know the difference.

    Reply
  8. Lefty

    I actually worked at HoB Sunset for two years, and in that time I kept getting passed over time and again for better shows in the main concert hall because I was the only person on staff that wasn’t one of our main FoH engineers who could both get a good mix in the room and keep the level low enough that we wouldn’t get noise complaints from the neighbors on the other side of the parking lot. Yes, you read that right, if the noise went above 85-90dB, we would get noise complaints, shut down for the evening, and fined. Which caused no end of headache when trying to work with artists who felt like they deserved more than they were getting (a position I completely sympathize with as a musician myself). Unfortunately, the production manager Brian has his hands tied a lot of times with what he wants to be able to do because LiveNation owns the venue, so everything is very corporate and all about maximizing revenue, even if it means screwing bands at times.

    Reply
  9. Benjamin G

    The payment for bands/musicians in the NYC area is just as bad, plus many venues here have closed. I produced/booked/promoted live music events here for 8 years and I did my absolute best to do right by all parties (bands/musicians, venues, concertgoers, sponsors, myself, etc.)

    In some venues’ defense, their overhead costs (especially rent) have skyrocketed! In fact, the cost of living in NYC has increased by 20-30% alone over the past few years.

    On the plus side, many Latin/world music venues, supper clubs, and restaurants that host live music have opened up. The current live music scene in NYC is a 5 hour discussion!

    Reply
    • GGG

      Eh, I disagree. NYC is definitely not as bad as this if you know the right people, and even for the most part if you don’t. If you have good relationships with in-house bookers and/or a promoter/agent that actually knows how to run a whole night, you should never see anything worse than a solid split, if not 100%, after like first ten or so. Granted, there are a couple places, and way too many shitty “promoters” who do jack shit, that pull this type of crap, but by and large the issue in NYC isn’t bad door deals, it’s getting people to actually come to your shows.

      Reply
  10. Ryan

    Ari,

    The first time I’d ever heard of pay to play promotion was in Nashville. I was 21 and just trying to get out on my own and play music. Almost every major venue there had some sort of terrible deal, that even a non-business savvy 21 year old knew was a scam. “Let me do all the work for you. You make all the money. All I get is a shitty stage, sound system, and a room to play in.” I’d rather take the work and throw a party! Have guests pitch in for beer and food, costs to rent a warehouse room or club, and put on a great show somewhere. I don’t need the Roxy, Viper Room, or whatever club in Nashville on my resume that bad. These deals all suck. I can’t believe these clubs would rather be empty, than help promote local talent, by making it a win-win. They love they power they have, more than artistry or music, and they hang it over all our heads. Fuck them.

    Reply
  11. yummy

    This new pay-to-play, “promoter” driven new normal has all but destroyed a live music community in Los Angeles

    ___
    this started on Sunset Strip during the late 80’s so i guess you should report it as a really slow death 🙂
    It will be interesting what becomes of HOB once they move locations soon. Good riddance to that location

    Reply
  12. Anonymous

    You should check out a show at the Roxy. They upgraded their sound system and are now operated and booked by Goldenvoice. Have had great shows and now have some of the best sound!

    Reply
      • Anonymous

        Yes, the Roxy has upgraded sound, the floor, restrooms, backstage, etc. and the Goldenboice bookings mean decent, cohesive bills.

        The one bummer is their bar is now also run and priced by AEG/Goldenvoice’s concession company. So the prices there are the same as their other venues… such as the Staples Center. A 20 oz tap beer (disguised with a micro brew moniker) is $12.

        Reply
  13. Anonymous

    The Strip has been a joke for ages. It’s why The Echo folks have been able to thrive, as well as the Bootleg et al.

    The Regent is another great addition. Here’s to the future.

    Reply
  14. FarePlay

    Great insight into the club scene in LA and kudos for the courage to speak out. In the early 80’s i moved a band from the SF Bay Area to LA and rented a house just off Sunset. Where we lived and they rehearsed and played gigs in the area for about a year and a half. Not easy or financially rewarding.

    In the 70’s the Roxy was a high end showcase club booked primarily by the labels. I saw both Springsteen, post Born to Run and Bob Marley and other numerous great shows there. The sound and sight-lines were fabulous.

    A time when bands toured to build a following and sell albums and labels underwrote tours.

    Reply
    • Tcooke

      The 80’s, awesome man. I respect where uv been, but the new hats are in.

      Reply
      • FarePlay

        Someday, you’ll understand:

        1. To understand the world it is helpful to have context.

        2. Not everyone is your age.

        Reply
  15. nynex

    Bands should never pay to play. Bands are the entertainment and even if there is 15 people one of them is going to buy a drink. Otherwise have an empty venue, Its like asking a DJ to pay to play music. They need us. I have packed rooms like the Viper room only to walk out with $300 saying well your guest list was too big or you didn’t bring enough people. How about, you bring people to see new music.

    Reply
  16. Patrick

    It’s not just the Sunset Strip clubs. L.A.’s beach cities are full of clubs enforcing pay-to-play or miniscule guarantees in addition to horrible sound systems. Hermosa Beach has a few of these places including the world famous Lighthouse…the worst sound and dirtiest restrooms I’ve encountered anywhere. Not fit for public use.

    Reply
  17. D'Michael

    These venues are considered “tourist spots”. Both bands (especially out of towners) and fans think it’s cool just to play/see a show there.

    Also, bands just can’t draw. If you are promoter, good luck finding enough LESS EGOTISTICAL bands to play a show TOGETHER too.

    I tried to book a show near Culver City once. I was going after bands with a decent following but NONE of them wanted to play because the venue wasn’t part of their “scene” (Silverlake) and they were afraid that none of their fans would drive down in that area.

    So, I happen to believe it’s the bands to blame too.

    Reply
  18. D'Michael

    I guess, if you are going to complain how certain venues, certain venues sound, etc… than just don’t book there. I am starting to feel like this is becoming a dating forum with chicks complaining about how they are getting used by the hot douche bags of the world.

    Reply
  19. Tcooke

    A very good friend of mine live engineered some great artists in the 80’s, blonde, jackson browne, tom waits etc. He live sound engineers for persian weddings in LA now.

    Reply
    • FarePlay

      Sad, but true. Ever worked on a project in a high end studio with a talented engineer? Pretty f…. Amazing. I’m always astounded at the arrogance of inexperience and funny hats. Keep cheering for a smaller world and you’ll get it.

      Reply
  20. Wooly

    This article, especially the headline, is incorrect. Where do I start? A gig is what you make it. There is not a venue on the strip that has a bad sound system. It is how you use it. The rooms are the rooms. If you book, or get booked, in the wrong room (say putting Chicago in The Viper Room) then that’s a problem but it is your own fault. Place blame where it should go. If you need help with that, look in a mirror. While the strip has lost it’s vibe from the days when it used to be a scene, it is not something that needs to die.

    Reply
  21. Reality Joe

    I am sympathetic to these issues, but as long as a promoter/club does what is promised (and when) then there’s no scumbag IMO. Simply the market in action i.e. an artist with very little leverage, who naturally feels resentful.

    A scumbag is someone who tricks/lies/deceives and/or otherwise does not deliver on commitments. One should be entitled to honesty in business but not necessarily the terms to which one feels entitled.

    Anyway as long as an artist does not have leverage (i.e. a guaranteed ability to sell tix) the club will attempt to transfer its risk into a de facto rental. Twas ever thus.

    Concentrate on establishing your market power and once this is achieved your problems as stated herein will end.

    Reply
  22. ...

    As an sound guy I just want to say I love this post. I worked on the strip for 10 years off and on and I learned everything about what not to do. All I had to do was watch and learn. When I got sober I left and never looked back. Now I’m an Audio Engineer.
    I still live in LA, but as a musician I will never play on the strip. It’s the worst. I never bothered to work at the whiskey for example. I mean who wants to deal with 10+ bands a night with 10 minute changeovers and 20 minute sets?
    Talk about pay to play at it’s finest. I’ve seen bands that the only way you knew they rehearsed was because they started and stopped the song at the same time… that’s it!
    Meanwhile all these promoters want to pump up what they are doing for the bands. I see them buying their second house and the bands still living in there vans and that’s the good bands!
    R.I.P. Sunset Strip

    Reply
  23. Sound dude

    I disagree Wooly,
    I’ve seen the wailer’s pay at the roxy with torn speakers in the system farting the whole show.
    I’ve seen new couches and furniture being bought when the sound system is being held together with duct tape and chewing gum. Some of the places are getting upgrades, but mostly they are just riding on the name.
    Either way it doesn’t really matter cause there are a million places I’d rather see a show that have world class sound. As a sound engineer I know first hand you can polish terds all day long but at the end of the day they still smell like sh**.

    Reply
  24. Mixolydia

    Shame on me for reading “Sunset (Blvd.) strip-clubs”. Whatcha got against the Body Shop, i wondered.

    Apologies.

    Reply

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