Another segment of a project The Rise and Fall of a Saloon In The Latter Part off The Twentieth Century. These excerpts are not chronological. In fact very little logic prevails…
Book My Band Part One ~ Conception and Birth
Most bands start out as a bunch of friends gathering at each other’s houses and learning (hopefully) how to play their instruments. Sometimes this is done via music lessons but that is the rarity. A large percentage of these formative bands are started by groups of friends with just a marginal understanding of their instrument.
This level of band is called the ‘garage band’, a name gained by the fact that most of the gatherings were banned to the garage by the parents who owned the garage.
Most garage bands and their musicians are inspired by some current popular group. The classic example of this is how so many young men had no idea they even wanted to play guitar until they saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Suddenly millions of hormonally stoked youth saw themselves as being on the receiving end of money fame and, most importantly, groupies.
They also found soon enough that you don’t get much fame, money or groupies in a garage.
It was thought that they must make The Record
And to make The Record they needed to become, if not Famous, at least very well known. And one of the ways they gain notoriety is to “Play Out” and hopefully get paid. And get groupies so they might get laid in the process…
Critical decisions had to be made. A band name must be chosen and it must be a name that evoked some kind of imagery. Only then could they have cards printed and when they had cards printed they were officially a band. Cards trump musicianship. Cards gave Identity.
They played parties, usually for free. They played any event that would have them. In the latter part of the twentieth century there were even things called “Battle Of The Bands” often sponsored by musical instrument manufacturers and were usually well attended, if noisesome, events where bands competed usually for the prize of a “record contract”. It is uncertain whether these contracts ever produced a record however…
For the most part the settings they played for didn’t pay at all.
To get paid they needed to build a repertoire, a list of songs that everyone in the band could play reasonably well for four hours.
So they could Play Out in local Saloons and Make Money and get Famous.
In the latter part of the twentieth century there were indeed local saloons that would pay bands to play for their patrons.
There was something like a multi leveled circuit of bars and saloons that depended on and, in some cases, exploited the small musical groups looking to get ahead.
The entry level bars had the bands playing in a corner, usually cramped, with no visible stage and no in-house sound system. These joints usually cited ‘experience’ as the best pay they offered with some vague hint at ‘maybe later on’ paying something. There never seemed to be an end to bands who would sign on to such venues. This was exploitation of course because the “maybe later on” promise of more money never materializes in that kind of venue.
But it served to winnow out some of the worse bands. Quickly, too!
As time went on and the surviving bands gained some following they would graduate to venues like The Bar that actually paid money. A good band could do fairly well playing the local circuit of saloons like The Bar that actually had a stage and a real dance floor. They played saloons like The Bar as more or less bread and butter as they set their sights on the next level, the large stage and road shows. Those venues often had them again playing for free (or close to it) as ‘opening acts’ for the ‘headliners’ and eventually being a ‘headliner’ themselves.
Getting to this level increased the Fame factor and usually made getting The Record more attainable.
But that’s not what this is about. This is about one of the bars on the circiut…
The Bar was a very good room for music. They had overhead stage lights, a fourteen channel sound system, good microphones, monitors, a rock steady stage and a parquet dance floor. The Bar was better suited for live music than most of its competitors. The Bar charged a cover on weekends and if a band was a good draw everyone made money.
There were some bands that seemed to have been around forever and saw frequent bookings… bands like Stu Blank and His Nasty Habits, Back In The Saddle, Mark Ford Band, Merlin, Uncle Rainbow, Daddy-O, Chuck Wagon and The Wheels… most of those bands are just dusty names now but there was a time when those bands would just fill The Bar with happy folks on the strength of their name alone.
However the bands starting out did not have the name impact. Nor does a new band have a real following.
To build up a following what some of them would do was to create a mailing list where they would take the name and address of their ‘fans’ and send monthly notices of where they were playing. Saloons did this too and sending such notices by US Post Office could be an expensive proposition.
Nowadays, of course a band will have a website with pictures of the musicians (still looking sullen and unhappy). They will have audio clips and some will also have links to YouTube usually showing the band at a live venue sounding terrible along with being badly photographed. Perhaps this is why many of the bands look so sullen. They just don’t sound good and they know it. A little smoke here… a mirror or two there.
So we have our former garage band with cards, repertoire and mailing list ready to go big time and hit the local club circuit…
Now all they needed to do was to get hired by the paying venues.
Book My Band Part Two ~ Sparkle
The section “From the Bar ~ Make ‘Em Dance” makes the following claims:
A successful live music saloon is successful only if they can attract women.
Women, when they go out to saloons, fully intend to be entertained and I think it’s safe to say the majority of them go because they want to Dance.
If a band could not deliver the Dancers, as a rule they were not booked more than once.
From the Saloon’s standpoint there was no shortage of new bands to choose from. All of them had freshly printed business cards with clever names. Some had 8 x 10 glossy photos of the band members all in a row looking stylishly sullen. Why bands think a photo of a line of sullen, largely unhandsome men is attractive to the public deserves further study but I’ll leave that to others.
Some bands even had a demo cassette.
Ideally the best way to audition a band would be to see it at a competing venue. This was not always possible and sometimes all The Bar had to go on was word of mouth or a demo cassette and an occasional 8 x 10 photo. A pursuasive “manager” or band spokesperson could be valuable too. As indicated, a demo cassette was of value.
The Rule for a band is if you make any kind of demo tape is to lead off with your best song. This is because the person booking the bands is not going to listen to the whole tape. Some bands were clever enough to blend a series of partial songs to give the booking person an idea of what they had to offer but long demo tapes seldom got a full hearing.
What the band booker finds is that unknown bands tend to have a sameness in their sound and this works against them. This sameness is usually because, when they built their repertoire, they didn’t strive for Sparkle… the indefinable thing that makes a band stand out.
The bands that got a lot of work were distinctly different. Sometimes it is one or two members who were really superb musicians. Sometimes it was a person of uncommon beauty or voice. Sometimes it was the simple but effective method called “rehearsal” where the bands would get together and focus on Really Sounding Good. Rehearsals are not fun and a lot of work which may be why many bands withered and died. But a well rehearsed band had a bit more polish, more Sparkle than the bands constantly ‘winging it’.
What we have established is that to get steady club work you have to have a band that made people move on that dance floor.
But to get multiple bookings the band had to have Sparkle either in their music or their presentation or both.
The Bar booked primarily rock and roll because that’s what the customers (read ‘women’) wanted. There were some country flavored bands that did remarkably well but those country bands that did well were definitely closer to the infinitely more danceable Western Swing than they were to the Johnny Cash/Merle Haggard format.
Even the tried and true bands did not hit big at every booking. It was discovered that you could not book the same band on a Friday and Saturday back to back and expect good revenues on both nights. Also booking a band more than once a month was risky largely because the bands were only locally famous. Not even the most loyal fan could afford to attend every venue their favorite band played. There are only so many times anyone would pay money to hear the same local band play the same set list they did last time. Having to listen to “Proud Mary” done more than once a month by someone not Creedence Clearwater Revival could be a strain.
Another factor was that a band that did very well at other venues, particularly the Other Place, did not always do well at The Bar .
So they had to try new bands from time to time to fill in the gaps and hope to stumble on the Next New Hot Band. This was a risky business because a band that did not draw was a liability and few bands were a sure thing.
T.O. once said it took $700.00 in the register to cover the expenses on any given Band Night. This was in the day when a premium drink sold for 1.85 and the cover charge averaged 3.00.
So the pressure was on to make the new bands bring in a house… have their following come to The Bar and make enough of an impression at the register and at the door to get at least one more booking.
The Bar needed to make money and it was up to the bands to bring in the crowds…
Book My Band Part 3 ~ Payday
There is a long tradition that is a never ending point of contention between musical acts or bands and saloons. And of course it involved money.
Most saloons and most bands at that level in the circiut were non-union. Had they been unionized things would have been pretty straightforward. The house would pay (and the band would accept) whatever prevailing union scale was with the rare exception of the band being a guaranteed high draw which would allow them to demand more.
Since The Bar was a saloon that did not subscribe to union hire the two factions, Band vs. House (“House” in this case being The Bar) would be at odds, each faction trying to get the best deal for themselves.
The house usually charged a ‘cover’ of one to three dollars a head. There were rare bands that warranted a four dollar a head cover. There just weren’t that many bands that could get it.
There were three different ways the house paid for musical services:
1. The house pays a flat rate for the band. House keeps the cover charge fees.
2. The band takes no money from the house instead they take the Gate, all of the cover charge fees.
3. The house pays a certain amount to the band (usually about twenty dollars per member) plus a percentage (usually about thirty or forty per cent) of the door receipts.
There was an understanding that the house would provide “drink tickets” comping band members a certain number of drinks. This could really add up figuring the rate of four tickets per bandsman if the band had any size to it.
The above listed pay rates are always decided when the booking is made, before the band comes to the club. It is never a thing decided after the end of festivities.
All bands were expected to commence playing at 8 and stop at 12:45. They scheduled their breaks so they either played four moderate sets or three long sets. Breaks were up to the bands.
The Bar usually provided the sound tech and the person collecting the door charge. Sometimes the band brought their own sound tech but if they did this The Bar did not pay for him or her.
The cover collector was usually the bouncer or what passed for a bouncer at The Bar. Being we had so little in the way of truly problem customers the bouncers were generally pretty genial people.
Ideally, from the house standpoint, the door fees would be such as to cover the doorman, sound engineer and the band. On a really good night the door could actually cover all of these expenses.
This seldom happened of course, but it was a nice idea.
Very important was the factor of “draw.” ‘Draw’ is the band’s ability to attract a house on name alone.
The other factor was, of course, advertising.
Bands were expected to have a following. The bigger the following the more negotiating power the band had, they were expected to notify their fan base when and where they were to be playing
The saloons were expected to put the world on notice who they had upcoming also.
The Bar had a ‘band board’ that had an easy to read list of who was playing that week. This board was visible from any point of the room and had the weekly band roster there for all to see. In fact, it was posted at the hallway that held the rest rooms. If you had to go pee you saw the band listings.
They also saw to it that The Bar’s musical offerings were listed in what free local print media and newspaper listings that were available. The Bar had a good sized mailing list and printed flyers to put on the tables and available at the door.
Neither faction, house nor band, ever thought the other did as much as they could or should to bring in a good house.
There is one ongoing argument between bar owners and band leaders that contiues to this day…
“You don’t advertise enough…”
The music business at the saloon level was a hard, hungry life…
That’s the way it was…
And I’m sure that’s the way it still is…