Pro Tip #28: Ramblings from 3 years – The negotiation

by Jason Harlow

Over 3 years ago, something magical happened in the Wiregrass. Musicians of the Wiregrass area gathered at a small upstairs location in Ozark, Al (now known as the VIP room at Live at Harlow’s). It was an invite only party which offered free beer and beverages, a full stage with gear, and nothing in the way of doing what we musicians do… rock face.

The events featured at least 3 bands, but I recall we often had more, up to 6 or maybe 7. It ultimately provided fellowship, networking, the realization as musicians that we’re more alike than we think, and the most fun to be had in the area (it was really fun).

Anyway, I was proud to be a part of those events and whether or not known at the time, it filled a void for me personally and provided some much needed purpose. Those events are what ultimately set the course for what is known as Live at Harlow’s today and the very same rules still apply, 1. have fun, 2. melt face.

Fast forward 3 years… we’ve seen well over 100 performances and had the opportunity to meet some great people, artists, and bands. The mission and purpose still remains intact to provide local musicians and artists with a location to network, showcase, jam, and enjoy creating great memories.

May be an image of 2 people and people smiling
The founders party – Notice all the area musicians and how bare the walls were!

This pro tip is about things I’ve seen or heard in those 3 plus years and sharing some ideas which might assist in your journey. One caveat: These opinions are mine and you may disagree with is certainly cool. I’ve tried to share them from both a venue owner standpoint as well as a musician standpoint given I’ve been fortunate to experience both.

  • Part 1: The negotiation / getting booked

From day one of opening the doors, I realized the position of venue owner / operator required me looking from a different lens. I was no longer the guy on the other end trying to get booked at the location, I was the guy trying to figure out the logistics and feasibility to getting the band on stage. This required looking at things like keeping the lights on, insurance, safety, licenses, staff, budget…etc. I realized that it’s not cheap and wondered how venues could even stay open frankly. The very first thing I did prior to opening a venue was to call on other venues. I remember distinctly a local venue in the area who supports musicians tell me not to do it or only do it if you are willing to lose money. They proceed to tell me they have not paid themselves for 5 years… and after 3 years, I see why! But this is not about that and I’m just making the statement to share that venues are not the profit centers I once thought of as a young musician. I’m now able to see with metrics both sides of the equation and want to simply share some of my journey and thoughts.

Over these 3 plus years, one thing continues to be both fun and sometimes frustrating. “The negotiation” as I like to call it. I can say I’ve seen a myriad of negotiation styles for booking and I’ve experienced some interesting pitches from bands /artists. For some, the negotiation of getting booked seems like pulling teeth. For some, they don’t even understand it is a negotiation and make ridiculous demands. For others, they just want to be a part of what is happening which is cool.

My intent here is not to make a guide to booking or negotiation but to share some quick tips to consider from a venue perspective and to hopefully lead to a better success in your booking and relationships with venues. Let’s get started with some quick tips!

Quick Tip 1: Research the venue. Go online and look at pictures, read about it, find out what makes them tick prior to contact.

Quick Tip 2: Visit the venue you want to play. This will pay dividends in your discussion.

Sure, there are more things you can do prior to contacting the venue to be booked but failure to do at least one of those can really set the tone negatively in your approach.

All that being said, if I were to summarize my experience, it seems like there are 2 primary categories of band negotiation styles:

Band 1: All about the money

Band 2: All about the opportunity

Both are important to success and I’m not saying one or the other is not needed…but… it’s my personal opinion that the order in which you get to them is most important.

Example dialog to make a point:

Band 1 (All about the money): “Hey, my band wants to play there. We’re real good and we know our value. How many people do you have at the venue? For us to play there, we need XXXXX money”

Band 2 (All about the opportunity): “Good afternoon, we absolutely love your venue. I was there last weekend to see “Phil Lenz and the Road Warriors”, man they rocked and the sound was amazing. I think our band would be a great fit for your venue. You can check out videos of us here. We would love to see if it’s feasible to see if we can play at your venue. Thanks for your time!”

Put yourself in the venues shoes now for a moment. Let’s analyze the opportunities missed or perceptions which could arise:

Band 1: “Hey, my band wants to play there”

Pending who you are talking to at the venue, just the word “Hey” in this example could be seen as disrespectful followed by “my band wants to play there” doesn’t really make the venue want to “learn more”. The fact they even use “there” is a lack of addressing where they want to play.

We’re real good and we know our value.

As a venue owner, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say “we suck” so just saying you are good does not necessarily add to the conversation rather opens the door to venues getting an impression of arrogance. As for the value statement, it’s important for a band to have standards but the timing of it probably isn’t good in the first paragraph of contact.

How many people do you have at the venue?

Something like this usually confirms the initial perception, this band has not even taken the time to research where they want to play. Obviously, their time is more important than the venue staff. Furthermore, venues may simply trash this because the band is now taking their time to try and explain what could have been easily discovered.

For us to play there, we need XXXXX money.

Eventually, the communication should lead to reimbursement of services. However, knowing the venues capabilities, number of patrons, and other income streams is a big factor in how many X’s should be in the statement. Does the venue promote, provide production, have built in crowds? Point on this is, be cautious on your approach, work to make something mutually beneficial if possible so the conversation doesn’t end immediately. Case and point, if someone comes to me and says “We get $2,500 a night”, as much as I would love to make it happen, it’s just not feasible with our size. The conversation just ends and opportunity which could pay other dividends ceases. Additionally, venues talk with each other and know what to expect from bands and their ability to bring patrons so it can feel a bit insulting if you are pushing for way more than the area allows or what you make at other places of similar size / capacity.

Now let’s do a deep dive on band 2

Good afternoon, we absolutely love your venue.

Well thank you! Good afternoon to you as well. How can I help? – those are the words swirling now in the brains of the venue owners

I was there last weekend to see “Phil Lenz and the Road Warriors”, man they rocked and the sound was amazing.

Wow, this band is invested into seeing others and they took the time to come to our venue! They even recognized the hard work we put into our sound!

I think our band would be a great fit for your venue.

They came to see our venue.. check. They support others in the music area…check. Hmm.. I believe them and want to help them.

You can check out videos of us here.

I didn’t even have to search to try and find them! The fact they took the time to produce a great video let’s me know they also are committed to being professional.

We would love to see if it’s feasible to see if we can play at your venue.

Absolutely! I hope we can work together to create an amazing night which will benefit your band! Let’s work together. I hope our venue can make this work!

Thanks for your time!

My pleasure, I appreciate you reaching out.

Of course, I tried to create some polarization but i think it was important to get the point across. Truth is, if Band 1 would simply start with what Band 2 started with, the opportunity could still exist but it’s likely most venues would just hit delete or dismiss and move on to the next band who is looking for an opportunity.

Also, it’s important to note that it’s also a 2 way street with venues. Not all venues understand the relationship and what asset a band brings. One of the quick tips up front was visiting the venue, this is not just to scope out the size but to scope out the operations and maybe just ask the band of their experience of the venue from their perspective. This article was written as a perspective from a venue owner (myself) and where I could see opportunity to craft the pitch (as a musician). However, don’t sell yourself short either and make sure the venue is an asset and not a liability for your band. It’s no fun to play with an owner that doesn’t respect what you bring to the table and sees you simply as a pawn. It can also hurt your brand playing a place that doesn’t market or work to get crowds (regardless as much as you wanted that money or “don’t care because you are getting paid”). For me, I look at long term investments with venues and will gladly take a reduction up front if it’s building opportunity and will pay consistent dividends down the road.

I end with these thoughts:

  1. Success comes to those who communicate and partner with others without attitude. Teamwork makes the dream work.
  2. Bands / Venues typically want the same thing. Work to make it feasible so you get to play, make some spending cash, and do what you love
  3. Don’t forget why you even play music. Don’t let pride or money prevent you from experiencing an opportunity which could pay other dividends
  4. Be a part of the music community and support others!

Thanks for reading this. I’ve got a whole bunch of other things I’d like to share soon. Rock on and be good to each other.

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