John Harris in The Guardian: Can The UK’s ‘Toilet Circuit’ Of Small Music Venues Survive?
I liked this article and we definitely need venues like this, but it struck me as a little weird that paying the band was cited as one of the potential hurdles that needs to be overcome for a venue to stay open. Admittedly the £75 quoted is a bit steep as a guarantee for a band that potentially doesn’t have a sufficient following to justify it but, while this wasn’t necessarily what the article was getting at, the relationship between new bands and venues/promoters seems, to me, to be quite a strange one.
To some extent the relationship seems fairly symbiotic, venues need bands to draw people in so they can make money, whether it’s from ticket sales or from the bar, and bands need the venues for exposure and to play shows to people. I get the impression that most bands starting out are pretty naive, they aren’t worried about getting paid or even breaking even, they just want to play shows. But even if the band are OK with, or don’t see it as them being exploited, if the venue makes money off a band’s fans shouldn’t the band get compensated?
A small band with very few to no actual fans, who are encouraged by the promoter to bring all their friends, are basically asking people they know to give some relative strangers who happen to own a building some money and if they bring enough friends to cover the strangers’ costs, they’ll get to see some of it. If your friends want to help fund you doing something you love, then that’s cool and seems like something good friends would do, but it could be seen as odd that part of that involves funding a business they might not frequent otherwise.
Fair enough though, putting on shows does cost money, as does keeping a venue open, and anyone who does it well should be able to make enough money to keep doing it, but being in a band costs money too. A lot of these costs might be considered voluntary; it’s not like anyone asked you to buy an instrument and record a demo (then again, no one asked you to open a venue or put on a show, although I’m just as glad that you did), so you do take a lot of costs on the chin. But, expenses that directly relate to playing a gig at least involve some transport costs and, even if you assume you only need one practice to be ready for a gig, any band that’s not lucky enough to have somewhere to practice for free will be down at least £20-30 (£45 for a weeknight!) before they even get to the venue, so they have invested money as well, even if it is less than a venue’s production costs. In an ideal world would that be covered?
I guess the obvious response is ‘sell merch’, but you need money to invest in that and once you’re there, assuming you’re not just trying to sell more stuff to your friends, who have already shelled out for a ticket and are just trying to be supportive, you’re pretty much in direct competition with the bar. People come to a show with a finite amount of money, and the choice between another drink or a CD just before the headline starts is pretty inevitable.
Having said all that, bands really need these venues and don’t always treat them particularly well, not least by agreeing to play shows they know they can’t bring enough people to.
I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make here, maybe this doesn’t need articulating, but the relationship is quite fraught and, just like everything else in the arts in 2013, there’s not enough money on either side. This doesn’t really feel like the best system, but it’s how it is, and a lot of the bands I really love I discovered through shows on the ‘toilet circuit’, and anything good that’s ever happened to a band that I’ve been in wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t play those shows. For a lot of bands, including mine, there’s not really any other way to play gigs and I hope they continue to stay open.