Featured ColumnThe Unscrupulous Few: Dealing With Suspect Promoters
[Editor’s note: This month we feature our column from Clusmy Lovers’ bass player Chris Jonat]
Last night we played a gig in Flagstaff, AZ. While the turnout wasn’t amazing (we have not made Flagstaff a regular tour stop), the energy was great and we couldn’t have been treated kinder. The promoter was supportive, hard-working, fair, upfront, honest basically everything you could hope for.
After the show, while band and promoter hung backstage and congratulated each other on an enjoyable show and complimented each other on being easy to work with, talk inevitably turned to horror stories. He told of bands who came in with attitude aplenty, ruining the show’s vibe before it ever had a chance to take hold. And we had no shortage of stories of troublesome promoters.
It’s one of the biggest challenges we face. We want to be as agreeable as possible, do everything we can to contribute to a positive experience for everyone involved. But after enough bad experiences your guard naturally rises, your b.s. detector sharpens, and your faith in the people you find yourself working with (new folk almost every night) starts to shrink.
This column, then, is my attempt to disseminate what we’ve learned about these situations. Everybody finds their own balance in dealing with these matters; this is what (sort of) works for us.
First off, we do all that we can to make sure our house in order. Sometimes stuff happens and things are derailed, but generally speaking we are on time, ready to play on time, don’t cut things short, try to give more than expected. We make sure our office is very on-top of getting materials to the promoter the moment the show is confirmed. We advance, we double-check, and we honour whatever commitments we’ve made. We don’t look to alter deals if the evening turns out different than expected. When offered an unscheduled bonus, we make sure to acknowledge that it was not in the contract and is not necessary. We try to get across the message that should the show have lost money we would have still expected the guarantee, and will next time through town too, so while we are grateful if the promoter wants to go beyond what was agreed we don’t in any way expect it.
In talking to promoters, this stuff is not near such a given as you would think. We wouldn’t know first hand, but if bands are slacking on any of this stuff they shouldn’t be surprised when the promoters slack back. The thing is, besides it being the honourable thing to do, if you follow agreements to the T’ it’s going to set a tone with promoters that they need to do likewise. Likewise, if the promoter doesn’t get his posters and you’re late for sound check and don’t even know the set times, he might start getting the feeling the contract is just a guideline, or might start thinking if the band doesn’t need to honour the agreement, why do I need to?"
Plus, being on top of this stuff will send the message that you are aware and alert. Promoters who are tempted to pull something might be less so if they think of you in those terms.
While there are lots of ways a promoter can let down a band, the biggest problems, naturally, come about at settlement time. It is very disheartening, especially on the road, to have a special, positive experience only to feel, at the evening’s conclusion, that you are getting hosed. Of course it’s tough financially, but even beyond that there’s just something very difficult about feeling like you put on a great show, your fans came out in droves, it was a win-win situation for absolutely everybody involved, and the promoter responds to all this positivity by stealing from you. I mean, really, it can be crushing.
Still, it’s best to maintain an innocent-until-proven-guilty attitude towards promoters. It’s understandable that bands can get to a point where they’re suspicious from the moment they walk in the door, but promoters pick up on that pretty quick. While that attitude may save you a few bad experiences, it will undoubtedly create just as many. If the promoter feels that he is being accused, even if it’s only in a subtle way, of any kind of trickery, you might find yourself with an irrevocably damaged relationship. That is not good for business, and is an action doubtlessly best described by some sort of adage/cliche. Cutting off your noise to spite your face, maybe? Besides, it’s important to remember here that most promoters are reasonable, honourable people. You don’t want to let the troublesome few ruin your opinion of the group as a whole.
So we assume everything’s on the up and up and generally don’t go into any kind of action until there’s a problem. Often times it feels the numbers at the end of the night are a bit lower than what it felt like n the room, but we allow for a little discrepancy. Maybe an unusually high number of the promoter’s or the staff’s family and friends got in free (not great, but we’re not going to freak out over that). Maybe the club made some cover charge deals to bring in the usual balkers ("$10 cover? That’s more than a movie!!"). Or maybe we just overestimated the size of the crowd. In truth, we’re probably getting ripped off many of those times (we’ll discuss what to do about that a little further down), but we’re not prepared to make a noise about it unless we feel the numbers are just completely unreasonable, or if it keeps happening at the same venue.
When we make a noise is when we feel it’s just ridiculous. And while it doesn’t happen weekly or anything, we do find ourselves with a ridiculous situation much more often than we’d like. There have been times when the numbers are insulting. Sold out, for example, in a 500 person club with a line to get in, and the promoter tells you 350 paid. You’re just shocked the guy has the guts to present those numbers to you. Sometimes the person settling will even agree, "gee, yeah, it seemed way more than that". But it’s out of his hands, that’s the cash that was there, what can he do?
You’re never sure what’s happened. Maybe the door person or a ticket broker pocketed mass amounts of cash. Maybe there’s genuine human error. Maybe the promoter feels he is underpaid and underappreciated and is just taking what’s really coming to him (he did, after all, put the whole damn show together). Maybe a runner or office manager had sticky fingers. Maybe the door man let half the town (the half with breasts, maybe?) in free.
There are all sorts of scenarios. We play a lot of fill dates in smaller towns in our neck of the woods, and a lot of the owners of the venues never pay bands more than about $500. We’ll come it for just a straight door deal, and occasionally when the proprietor sees the band’s about to walk with a few grand he just can’t stomach it and all of a sudden everything gets weird. He can’t seem to grasp that money was never his, and he had a record bar sales night on a Tuesday. Again should be win-win, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. This is a common one for us, but there are probably as many variants on the problem as there are touring bands.
Generally, what we do in these situations is just not play the room again. Once-bitten, twice-shy being the appropriate cliche here. We do ask the agent to go after it, but we’re basically powerless (at least until we change our travelling configuration to include somebody who’s monitoring the door). We’re not going to beat anybody up, and we can’t prove anything. The only thing that protects us from this in the first place is a combination of the facts that most people aren’t crooks, and that most promoters realize that ripping off the bands that make you money is ultimately not good business. Fairly often when we refuse to even look at offers for a return engagement, the promoter finds some advance ticket money in a drawer that he missed on settlement.
Occasionally we will return to a place where we feel we were not treated fairly, normally because we have a strong fan base in the town and there isn’t another suitable venue. We handle these situations one of two ways. We either get a guarantee that we believe represents what we are worth in the market and don’t ask for points on the deal (thereby making what happens at the door mainly irrelevant to us). Or we insist on providing a door person.
Which is, really, what we should do everywhere. Just explain to all promoters, it’s nothing personal, we’re sure they’re straight-up, but it’s just safer to always have a representative of the band present as money and tickets are collected, and then counted. While I imagine it would upset some of them, if we were careful about it and made it clear it was a general band policy that had nothing to do with their venue in particular it could probably be smoothed over.
Currently our road crew numbers two (sound and merch), but it may be approaching time to add a road manager/door monitor. We often speculate about how much money we might be losing due to this type of nefarious activity and how it may well easily pay for itself to hire a third crew member.
Besides the obvious rip-offs being avoided, a road manager who was closely watching the door would undoubtedly tighten things up all round. A lot of these places have a guy sitting at the door with sometimes thousands of dollars in his pocket. He doesn’t have to be the Devil to give into the temptation to leave a few bucks (20, 50, 200, 400?) in his other pocket when he’s giving the promoter the cash. Likewise the promoter doesn’t have to be pure evil to slip a couple hundred bucks into his desk before he starts counting. If the door is grossing, say, four or five thousand, will any band have a sharp enough eye to know it’s $400 light? If the event is ticketed, maybe, but in a venue that’s well over-capacity and experiencing turnover, it’s near impossible to know if it was 520 or 560 paid. Additionally, door men would be a lot less likely to wave in their friends or cute acquaintances if they were in the presence of a band representative.
The biggest advantage of a road manager, tho, might be the band would be freed up from worrying about this stuff. We want to be friends with the promoters and staffs, we want to relax before we play, and more than anything else we want to put on the best show we can. Having one eye on the door the whole time, or feeling (and perhaps acting) suspicious, is not conducive to any of that.
I feel almost guilty writing all this. Like am I in this for the music or the money? But it’s not about how much we get paid, it’s not about getting rich at all, it’s about not being robbed. About people being held to the agreements they enter into with us. We’re not asking for special treatment, special breaks, charitable donations. What we are asking for us, what we expect, is this: When a promoter signs his name on a piece of paper that says we will get, say, $1000 plus 80% of gross door receipts, what he means by that is we will get $1000 plus 80% of gross door receipts.
That's all I had to say about that, currently. If you have a comment, or an idea for a future column, or something you want to get off your chest, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.