In promoter-infested waters

We all have friends in bands. For the one girl it gets them annually, sometimes the hardship makes it hardly seem worth it. Stories of spending thousands of dollars for an album no one ever hears or playing shows in an East Van dive to never get paid pop up all too often. Garrett Wolf, bass player and back up vocalist for death metal act Fetal Butchery described one such situation in barely audible gutturals.

“We got ripped off by this promoter, we played the Columbia for him back when they did metal shows and we never got paid. Somehow he convinced the band to play for him again with the promise of paying for both the gig he owed us, and the one upcoming. Of course when we finished playing that night, we found out he had ducked out before the last band and we never got paid for either. At that point we were out a lot of money for gas, and time.”

So how does a band avoid this expensive and disheartening situation? Do your research before seeking out a promoter. A bad reputation gets around very fast, and by talking to bands that have worked with a promoter in the past, you can find out a lot about their business practices. Wolf advises a band who is booked to play a show to take a walk around the city and look for posters with your bands name on it. Open up a Georgia Straight and look for ads, to be sure your promoter is doing their job. 

Al Harlow teaches Commercial Relations for the Jazz program at Capilano. Al Harlow has been playing live music since the late 70's, and although he was quick to point out that the industry has changed a lot, he offered up some relevant advice. Harlow, in describing what to watch out for when playing a rented hall or a alternative club, recommends that a band try and get a contract out of a promoter.

“I know this might be difficult when you're playing a fringe indie club, but a 50% advance deposit on the show is the performers' best security. If you show up to the gig, and there's no gig or no pay, the deposit partially covers you. A deposit beats a signature any day, but also shows integrity from the buyer who is willing to pay it, an indicator there won't be any problems.”

When a band plays a live show, their set is the commodity. After they play, their bargaining power is lost. This is the reason Harlow attributes so much importance to having something in writing. Not only will it protect your band, but, in his experience, a purchaser will also respect you for being organized enough to present them with a contract.

Calen Degnan from The Shiny Diamonds, a Vancouver indie rock band, believes that getting a contract or any sort of payment in advance is a rare scenario. “There is a very low likelihood of a contract from an opening band being honoured or even considered by the promoter. In my experience, the level of professionalism displayed by local promoters has been only slightly higher than that of the bands.”

Although The Shiny Diamonds have suffered numerous financial disappointments when playing live music, Degnan points out that it's not all bad in Vancouver. He mentions that playing Pub 340 and Richards on Richards, venues which provided a boisterous and receptive audience, were certainly highlights. However, the nominal compensation barely covers a pint for each member of the band. Degnan believes that in the cutthroat reality that is the Vancouver music scene, the real reward is the interaction with the audience.

Al Harlow seems to agree, and resigning to the fact that you're not going to make a living playing music for a while is essential. Making money and creating your own music, which is an energy-sucking task in itself, are two separate pursuits. These sentiments are common among bands playing in Vancouver. Wolf jests: “Make sure everyone in your band has a steady job. Youre going to spend a while paying your dues – sometimes with real money”.

It is important to note that many indie bands do get paid for playing live. It is not all doom and gloom in Vancouver. Wolf attributes Fetal Butchery's marginal success in the live circuit on the bands willingness to play shows. He views it essential to build up notoriety in your music community and garner some sort of a following.

Undeniably, a huge portion of playing in a successful band is the business aspect. Harlow mentions that “as artists, we tend to be almost compliant in our eagerness to make people happy, so unless you have someone in the band who doesn't mind negotiating all that business, having a manager is definitely helpful to avoid being taken advantage of.”  Playing live music in Vancouver can be daunting, and you may ask yourself if it's even worth it. However, as long as you get into the game with some business knowledge to protect yourself and with out the preconceived notion that you will going to get rich quick, you should be able to start building up a fan base and playing some rewarding shows.

//Marco Ferriera,


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