Unsustainable Model: How Free Shows Can Kill A SceneWe’re at a turning point, Houston. We can actually have a thriving music community if we play our cards correctly. There are more than enough talented and ground breaking acts here than most major cities in America right now, and that should never be undersold. However, if the powers that be have any say about that, it’ll all get watered down and destroyed before it actually goes anywhere, and one of the largest culprits is no cover shows. There are multiple reasons as to why that is so, which we will examine here, but if you think I’m even kind of kidding, consider where recorded music has gone. Ten years ago, you either purchased an album or you didn’t, or maybe you illegally ripped it. Now, no one purchases music in the quantities they did even five years ago, and very few pay for what they consume. Artists are having to endlessly tour, or whore out their name to soda companies just to carve out a living because they earn almost nothing from albums anymore. Free shows are the beginning of making live music as worthless of a commodity as recorded music has become, and here’s how.
For starters, this isn’t saying that a band shouldn’t play a free show. In fact, I think everyone should play at least one a year. If you’re a band just starting out, or you’re on a new artist showcase, or even if you’re playing in front of a larger crowd than usual, then it’s understood that playing for free makes sense. There are also bands that play at a coffee house under the term “jazz night” or whatever, and that’s also acceptable. Many times, DJ sets can fall under the free show moniker as well, and it’s been that way for a long time now. In fact, there can be exceptions to the rule across the board. To understand what I mean by a free show, it’s a “concert” at a spot that’s not equipped like a live music venue typically, and the bands get paid, but there’s no cover for the attendees. While it’s nice that a local band can get paid a decent or respectable amount depending who they are, how are these shows helping the bands? Most bands I ask who play these shows say that they rarely sell any merch, that the audiences are far removed from the performance, and that they are almost always paired with bands that they have nothing in common with. And that’s just the beginning.
The idea that free is better, or at least “selling” anything on price is a good thing, is actually the laziest and worst way to sell anything. Price doesn’t dictate desire. Think about it: Kanye tickets were between $75 and $150, and I was there and it was packed. His merchandise was between $40 and $250, and people were buying it in droves. Both of these are examples of price not dictating whether or not something goes well for the artist or for the venue. At the Kanye show, everyone around me had a $12 beer and an $8 hot dog, as well as multiple pieces of merch, many of which were from his pop up shop as well. And it’s not just Kanye, it’s pretty much any show that has a cover. I see more shows than anyone I know, and I’ve seen acts in much smaller rooms pack a place out with a hefty cover and high priced merchandise. While I’ve preached the gospel of local bands playing less, I have to wonder why anyone in a band would continuously take these free shows. When a band charges for a show, they build up a fanbase of people who don’t mind paying a cover. In turn, these people also don’t mind buying something from a merch table afterwards. When a band plays a free show, they’re essentially telling anyone who attends, “our music isn’t worth paying for.” And, if that’s the image that you want to portray, then so be it. But that’s essentially what you’re saying whether you think you are or not. Not everything in life should be free, and there’s a bond between all involved when a cover or a ticket is bought, that those in attendance are invested in experiencing live music. Live music is, at its core, an experience. The best artists in the world make a record and if they’re truly amazing, they perform those songs live with an intensity that cannot be matched when you listen to the album.
You also cut your own throat with promoters and venues who book larger shows. There are very few bands who get paid a high or even respectable guarantee when they’re consistently playing shows without a cover. I promise, I hear it all the time from in-house bookers and promoters. And, that carries over into the festivals as well. Many of these people are tied to or at least are asked about acts when they’re booking a festival. The question, “how can I pay this band this much when they’re always playing for free,” gets asked when they consider who they’re booking and what they’ll pay said band. Why would a venue guarantee your band $1,000 when you’re always playing shows without a cover? It only makes sense that they’d avoid paying you when you aren’t playing shows with a cover on a regular basis, because on a free show, there’s no way to gauge who’s a fan and who isn’t. I know, people will say that one night was more packed than another, but that could be from multiple factors when there’s no investment from those in attendance. The same goes for agents who I know for a fact won’t touch bands that don’t play shows with a cover. I mean, think about it: why would you invest time into a band who can’t draw fifty people at $5 per person?
Then, there’s the quality of people at a show without a cover. Look, Houston already has crappy people at shows where there is a cover, and if you go see enough bands around town, then you already know this. Why would you escalate having to deal with people who are too cheap to pay a cover? I promise, the fact that they don’t engage with your band, that they don’t pay attention while you’re playing, or that they don’t buy a shirt afterwards is increased when they aren’t invested by paying to walk in the door. I don’t think I’ve been to more than two or three free shows a year where the crowd isn’t composed of the worst concert attendees I’ve ever encountered. This is only increased when the show is at a spot that’s not an actual music venue. This is pretty much anywhere, including regular bars, arms of venues without a stage or a real sound system, or a place where they’re in attendance for a reason other than seeing live music. Live music is supposed to be an experience, and hopefully a positive one at that. It’s not meant to get people into a crappy bar, or a spot that’s not a full time music venue, or a place that’s selling the idea of live music to move $18 burgers. Do I need to cite that Austin watered down live music by placing it in pretty much every nook and cranny of the city? I’m always shocked that there’s not live music at Half Price Books in Austin while I’m there, but that might not be too far away either. I don’t want live music everywhere I go, and you shouldn’t either. We can do better than using original acts to peddle goods and letting the guy playing Hall & Oates covers on his Casio perform on these shows is where it should stay.
There’s also the problems of what you aren’t doing when you play at these places. The two things every band needs to do when they play a live show is network with touring acts and build a fanbase. When you play a set at a clothing store, or a beer garden, or a hotel; what touring act is playing there with you? Oh that’s right, no self respecting touring band would take that show, so it’s just not happening. When it comes to building a fanbase, how engaged is the guy who just wants to eat his salad or who just wants to have a latte? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Houston isn’t Austin and that’s a wonderful thing. You can’t build a fanbase with people checking in or out of a hotel, no matter how much you want to. I remember attempting to shop on Guadalupe during SXSW ten years ago, and the store manager cut off a band so she could hear the customers. I’m pretty sure the bands playing didn’t connect to anyone after that embarrassing moment occurred. And trust me, if you annoy the customers enough, the same will happen to you and your band at such places.
Finally, I shouldn’t have to tell you that playing all of these no cover shows tremendously waters down your brand. You can kid yourself into thinking that you as an artist isn’t a brand, but you’re lying to yourself. Everyone in the music industry sees you as a brand, whether you like it or not. Everything from your album’s cover art to your pictures falls under marketing and branding for someone. Why would anyone pay to see you when they can see you for free? Trust me, we saw this with digital music. No one buys albums on iTunes anymore because they can pay a flat rate and stream all they want. You may not know this, but there are currently ticketing models where you can buy a pass at a set amount, and the more you pay the more shows you have to choose from each month. Playing a bunch of free shows will eventually make you a step closer to an iPod playing music over the loudspeakers of a coffee shop. It’s playing overhead, but no one is really engaging with it and the artist isn’t really making a living from it getting played.
You might want to just get paid, and I get that more than you know. While many of those who book these types of shows have their hearts in the right place, there are also those who are just filling a calendar so they can move more $10 beers and keep people there at their establishment. There’s not much of a future in “free,” and if bands don’t wise up and start playing less and less of these types of shows, they’ll be left with those who put on these shows not helping them when the bottom falls out of the live show market. Because by that time they’ll have moved onto karaoke or something just as ridiculous to fill out their calendars and move more product.