Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Letter to a Clubowner

My quartet played a gig at an Atlanta club back in October. The clubowner told me that they were looking for bands could bring in 30-50 listeners. We had what I thought was a successful gig - pretty good musically, and the 45 or so folks in the audience were enthusiastic about the music.

I waited a reasonable amount of time before approaching them about playing there again. I was told that our last gig had been "a little sleepy, turnout-wise." I pointed out that we met their audience expectations; the owner replied that bar sales had been disappointing, but offered us an earlier weeknight or Sunday slot instead of the more desirable Friday or Saturday. I probably overreacted in sending her this long reply. I've changed her name and redacted the name of the club. Creative Loafing is Atlanta's weekly entertainment paper.

Hi Katie,

I know that what I should say is: sure, we’d love to play on a weeknight or Sunday. But this exchange, as well as some other recent adventures trying to book bands, has brought a lot of things to the surface for me, and here’s what I’m feeling:

I’ve played music for 30 years – commercial music with other folks’ bands, but my own music has always been off-center, jazz-based music. It’s the type of music that will never have a large audience, but it’s the kind I’m driven to create. For the Jeff Crompton Quartet, our October gig at ------- was a good one.

Thinking back on that gig, I remember how nervous I was that we’d attract the required 30-50 listeners. It’s actually embarrassing and kind of humiliating to me when I remember how relieved I was that we’d “passed the test” by drawing the required crowd – at a venue that wasn’t paying us anything.

And now I find out that we didn’t pass after all. So after all these years of struggling, I put a new, excellent band together, and played a show which the clubowner liked, but don’t rate a weekend night. I'm depressed beyond words.

The current system of live music in clubs reminds me of our political system – it’s broken. You and I are part of the problem, and I’m kind of ashamed of myself for contributing to the problem by being willing to play at ------- under the current system. But not only am I willing, I want to. I love -------. I love the feel of the room; I love the acoustics; I love playing there; I love listening to music there; I love the Fin du Monde beer. I love the place.

But what have musicians come to? It has come to the point where there are hardly any clubs that will actually pay musicians for playing. Well, okay. Times are hard. Many clubs are scraping by. So we musicians have come to accept the fact that we have to play for the door, tips, or nothing. And if we play for the door, we have to hire our own doorman – and if we do that, we probably will have little left after paying him.

But okay – we’ve become resigned to that.

But when did the major responsibility for promoting the gig (and thus the venue), providing an audience, and racking up bar sales become the band’s? They should certainly be part of those things (mostly by playing good music), but it’s just bizarre that it should all fall to the band.

At our October gig, there were indeed some light drinkers and even some teetotalers. But some of those folks wanted to order food, only to find that there was little or none available. And one beer aficionado in the audience complained to me that he had difficulty getting served. I don’t know what the specifics of his problem were, but he wasn’t happy. It was his first time hearing me play, and he genuinely seemed to love the music. But I don’t know if I can get him to come back to -------. So maybe we’re not the right band for a weekend night at -------; maybe our audience is not right for the place – that’s for you to decide. But maybe the disappointing sales weren’t the band’s fault.

And promotion – I did a lot, but I have since thought of some other things I could do. And I’ll do them next time, if there is a next time. But I just looked through Creative Loafing, and none of -------’s upcoming shows are included in the music listings. I can understand if you don’t want to buy ads – I’ve bought Creative Loafing ads, and they’re expensive – but getting your venue included in the listings is free; there’s even a paragraph of instructions on how to get your shows listed.

I’m more discouraged than ever to be a creative jazz musician in Atlanta. I’ve probably pissed you off and burned this bridge, but that wasn’t my intention. To give you the simple answer I should have, instead of this depressing diatribe: Yes, we’d love to play at ------- – on a weekend, weekday or Sunday. Whenever you’ll have us, if you’ll still have us.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. Like I said, I love -------, and hope to play there soon, in spite of what I’ve said about the broken system we both contribute to. If that’s not to be, so be it.


1 comment:

petebain said...

Oh man, that's depressing. And oh so true - same kind of scene here (Lancaster PA area), same difficulties getting bookings and keeping them. Is it the economy, or is it the way our culture has evolved? I've taken jazz to coffee houses and had the kids sit at their tables listening to music vids on their Macs (while we're performing!). It seems do hard to make a human connection. I too have club owners putting the responsibility on me to fill their room for them...seems like their loyalty is to their bottom line, not to our music. I'm not ready to give up performing (can't imagine that) but I wish I could figure out how to make performing music an economically rational pursuit. If society values musicians, it should be able to reward them adequately so that they can continue to make music. As it is, I thank God daily for my day job.