Pro Tip #30: How much should we charge?

Maybe the article should be called “10 Questions and considerations to finding the magical number, or more specifically, value worth playing” but please read on.

This is a controversial article to write and I expect people to totally disagree, which is cool. If you have other ideas, please share, this is all about community. I write these articles to evoke thought so I hope the time I spend on stuff like this is helpful.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the country and meet a lot of stellar musicians, bands, managers, and folks in the industry. Inevitably, if you are talking shop with these folks, pay sometimes becomes a conversation piece and for the average cover band, the subject of pay can seem taboo as to not show your cards.

However, I’ve found in my dealings with seasoned bands that understand how networking works, this subject leads to great dialog, teaming, and unity when you share info to help others. It also leads to gigs!

Spoiler alert though, most agree that the common bar gig musician is not getting rich and barely making above minimum wage when you dissect the numbers. Matter of fact, time after time, the average pay per musician is the exact same rate for the typical bar gig across the nation, regardless how great you are.

So, this article is not about “your worth” or anything which might get you on the defensive, rather, it’s about factors that you may consider in your negotiations to 1. Get the gig and 2. Establish a rate and value which is feasible for everyone (venue, people, band..etc).

The good news: Venues are opening their doors again with open arms for artists and bands to play. People are hungry for live entertainment. The environment is still not where it was pre COVID but the fact there are some places to play is a positive.

So back to the question, how much do we charge?

Unfortunately, I’d love to just give you a number but the answer is based on many many factors. Like investments, your evaluation is critical and sometimes it’s about the long-term gains versus the short term quick gains.

So, let’s arm you with some considerations which might help answer your own questions based on your own requirements. This is just a sample list of considerations and questions. You can get as deep as you like in analysis.
Facts: The venue (bar, clubs)

Venues operate to make money, it’s a business and it’s expensive to run. Rarely there will be a venue that says “hey, let’s build a venue so bands can experience great shows and get paid regardless if we make any money” Rather, it’s “let’s be strategic in how we can afford entertainment to increase sales and enhance our business and margins”. Going further, some venues right at this moment are saying “I don’t think we can afford bands because we’re losing money with some of them” (I’m sure you’ve seen the decline across the nation).

Knowing this should immediately trigger the strategic side of you. Let’s do some analyzing!

Do I want to play this venue?  

Ok, I was tempted to do an entire flow chart for this article but let’s stick to 10 questions to help generate some decision factors.

  1. Does the venue provide production (sound, lights, backline)? If so, easy gig. However, it is a quality production system? Did you know a bad sound system can be a liability? Regardless of pay, the production could ultimately be a liability that pays negative dividends thanks to social media and live videos. Also, considering production rental costs are high, you may want to factor this as an additional value on top of your pay given an average small PA and lights rental is $500 or more.

  2. What type of built-in crowd does the venue have? This is a critical piece to help get you in the ball park of expectations for budget. However, this requires you visit the venue. Hint: Showing your support for the venue before approaching them is a big deal (trust me). By looking at their pay model (door, cover charge..etc). you can quickly access a working range of budget. As an example, if there is a $5 cover charge and average of 100 people. It’s easy to see there is $500 in reserve. Some venues will do a percentage of that, others will do 100%.  $5 a person in attendance is a good number to start at in your calculations, even if there is no cover charge. Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m sure you are worth more but the economy doesn’t work that way. You can put in other factors such as additional funding as a restaurant..etc but I’m keeping it simple.

  3. How many people will we bring to the show? In addition to the built-in crowd, how many fans are you bringing. Consider the calculations as we did earlier in your negotiations but be honest, otherwise, the venue could lose money and then your band is no longer an asset or future gigs may be impacted.

  4. Is it local? What are my operational costs? Local gigs usually provide more fans and much less operational costs. Unless your band is regionally known, expect a reduction in attendance outside a 50 miles radius. With added travel costs, the location of the venue becomes a large factor. You can certainly try and add on the travel expense to your price, however, it’s not a competitive edge if people don’t really know your band and the venue is not reaching out to you. Be smart on this one and look at the long term options of maybe playing the venue to establish the presence for future growth.

  5. Is it a smoke filled venue? Some bands / vocalists don’t want to play that environment and some fans or patrons may not visit. Consider it as a factor.

    At this point, you should quickly be able to establish if you want to play the venue. NOTE: This does not necessarily mean the venue wants you to play there. Now, let’s look a little deeper into ourselves and the band.

  6. Why do we play music? I’m pretty sure if you are reading this article, it wasn’t because you planned to make money when you started. You felt something you’ve never felt before. You probably wanted to be famous and expected money would flow. You may have wanted to get that girl or guy because musicians seem cool. Truth is, you probably play because it’s a passion and the most fun thing you can do with your clothes on (or off for that matter). This is a factor to consider at all times. I’ve seen many bands forgo opportunity because of false values they place on themselves… even to the point that they are forgotten because they hardly play anywhere. Don’t play for free.. but don’t miss an opportunity.

  7. What is the band minimum?  Only you and your teammates can answer this question. What will get you out of bed or away from watching TV or surfing the web to go out and play? At no point would I suggest “free” unless it’s an asset to your music journey (which there are those times) but it’s your standard you set for yourself and band. Consider your operational costs, what does it cost to get to the venue (gas, food..etc).. make it a factor.

  8. Are we willing to invest? If you are an original band, expect every show to be an investment towards future dividends. If you are a cover band, you may not see things the same way as you may look at playing as a “job”. Regardless how you look at it, you are investing your time, energy, and talent for a reason. Make sure your investment pays dividends whether than is money or just the best time of your life. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. Consider your investment and its dividend as a factor.

  9. Does your band play songs people want to hear? Did you know that most people don’t care if you play the B side to some obscure song which has the most advanced bass and drum lick on earth? Did you know Wagon Wheel will generally ALWAYS work? I’m being silly but your song choices directly effect your profit center as well. Consider this as a factor. Maybe the better question is “Are you playing for yourself or others?”

  10. Does your band provide production? Many clubs do not have proper production. If your production is top tier and ran properly, it can be a factor in your negotiations… but this is generally when you’ve established a show that people come and see.

If you wanted to really get fancy, you could almost assign some values to a calculation based on your own numbers. However, this is looking a value / investment versus just money in hand. It’s a bigger look at the business versus just cash in hand. I hope you can understand the difference, just like investing.

Example Band 1:

Does the venue provide production (sound, lights, backline)? Yes                   (+$500)

What type of built-in crowd does the venue have? Yes 80 people                   (+$400)

How many people will we bring to the show? 20 people                                  (+$100)

Is it local? What are my operational costs? Yes                                                   (- $50)

Is it a smoke filled venue? No                                                                              ($0)

                                                                                                                            $950 in value to band

I hope this article could spawn some different views to paint a picture of value and how you may approach what to charge. Rock on!

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