Just Say No to $5 Cover

First of all, sorry for the long silence.  The holidays are a busy season made even more intense by my own band’s holiday shows.



Okay, on to this entry’s topic – $5 cover.

$5 bill

I remember going to see a road show (NoMeansNo, actually) at The Orbit Room in Dallas in 1996 and paying $12 and thinking, “whoa!  They upped the ticket prices for this show!”   Usually it was $5 for local bands and maybe $8 or $10 for roadshows.  Since then, gas prices have tripled, food and rent have at nearly doubled… everything has gone up.   Yet the $5 cover persists.  You can’t even go out to eat lunch on $5 these days – except for maybe P. Terry’s!

Why is it so unthinkable that cover charges shouldn’t go up, especially for higher quality performances?

The answer is complicated but ultimately, it’s because we (musicians, venues, promoters) are afraid to demand more for fear of losing attendees at our shows.

Before I go on and on, there’s a good article about this on Music Think Tank’s web site which got me thinking about my experience with this in Austin – but it’s not just Austin or my experience.   $5 cover is everywhere that supply is greater than demand.

Austin has a lot more bands than most cities and they tend to play locally a LOT.  Audiences are used to crappy sound, cheap drinks, gross bathrooms and hundreds of young, new and usually developing bands from which to choose on any given night.   Add the fact that most of the audiences are made up of our fellow broke musicians and you can see why the $5 cover has persisted.

Music Think Tank makes a good point – clubs want to see a higher head count and it’s easier to increase attendance with a low cover.  I guess so… but why not think UPWARDLY instead?  It may take more work but you could try adding value to your audiences’ experience by doing something new instead of playing the same set in the same club in the same clothes with the same 4-5 bands with the same lights and the same everything as you did just 5-10 days ago.

Block Party Flyer

This was probably a really cool party… but $10 for 20 bands plus food and water slides and stuff? Great idea for adding value but way too cheap a ticket.  Unless there was a promoter putting $ behind this, my guess is that none of these bands walked away with more than a cool experience on Labor Day Weekend – which is certainly valuable. You just have to figure out when it makes sense to say yes or no to this kind of offer.

I’d pay $5 to see a band I love play their set at the same old club, but I’d pay $10 or $20 to see them do something new in a nice venue!  I’d pay more if there was food and drink included.

As an audient who’s a musician, when I see a multi-band bill with a cover that’s lower than the cost of a drink at the bar I think, “Everything about this show is going to be mediocre,” and, “The sound engineer is going to get paid more than any band member and probably more than any entire band!”

Think about this math:

  • $5 cover with 100 paid entries = $500
  • Less Soundman cost of $75 (sometimes this is more) = $425
  • $425/3 bands = $142 / 4 members = $36/player
  • $425/4 bands = $106 / 4 members = $26/player

That’s not terrible but each player is only earning half what the soundman made.  Consider that most shows DON’T draw that much in a night – especially week night gigs:

  • $5 cover with 30 paid entries = $150
  • Less Soundman cost of $75 = $75
  • $75/3 bands = $25 / 4 members = $6/player
  • $75/4 bands = $18.75 / 4 members = $4/player

This is not to say that sound engineering isn’t important.   It is, but the service is often not worth the cost.  Club sound engineers’ levels of attention and quality can vary widely.   Damon Lange of Nomad Sound says that every band has a right to a competent, present and sober sound engineer.  Especially if you’re essentially paying them from the money your audience paid in cover.   In the Czars’ earlier club days, I’d say that roughly half the times I asked for more cowbell in the monitor, I’d look up and see the soundman drinking/chatting at the bar.

mixing board close

A sound engineer’s view of the mixing board/pillow upon awakening from a drunken stupor during your set.

That didn’t exactly endear me to these guys when they went home with $75 for the night and our whole band was paid $25.

Of course, it doesn’t all have to be about money!  Some bands are willing to just play for free and when you think about it, almost all of us are practically in the free mindset when we feel  lucky to get $100 for the whole band.

TANGENT – There are tons of arguments out there about the ethics and effects of playing for free.  I’m not going to address that here because even though I agree that undercutting each other is a big problem, it’s not going to go away.   There will always be people willing to do it for free – or to pay to play as they do in LA.  All I can think to do is make what I do so much better than what they do that there’s no comparison.

If you’re willing to play for free or for almost free – why not sink your money into putting on your own show outside of a club?   Parties are GREAT for this.  Renting your own venue is also good way to gain control of the overall audience experience.   There might be a big expense for this but when compared with the math above, a $300 venue rental/production fee isn’t so bad, plus you can probably charge more at a nicer venue –even double:

  • $10 cover with 30 paid entries = $300
  • Less Venue/Production Rental of $300 = $0
  • 3 bands = $0 / 4 members = $0/player
  • 4 bands = $0/ 4 members = $0/player

You practically break even with only 30 people showing up in this situation.  Worst case scenario, each band only loses $100 if no one shows up.  That’s WORST CASE SCENARIO.

Compare that to the example above where the players were getting $4 or $6 for the whole night.

Heck, I’d lose the $4 – $6 out of my pocket if I knew I was playing at the Parish instead of just another bad sounding bar on Red River or 6th Street.

What if was 100 attendees?

  • $10 cover with 100 paid entries = $1000
  • Less Venue/Production Rental of $300 = $700
  • 3 bands = $233 / 4 members = $58/player
  • 4 bands = $175 / 4 members = $43/player

Neat.  Each player just made more money in one gig than they would’ve in 6 club shows in my first example.  That’s only by raising the ticket price by $5.   I’ve even done tickets for $15 for special shows and had decent attendance.  You could even un-encumber yourself from sound engineer costs by owning your own PA and booking venues that just provide space.  Sure, It’s always better to have someone manning to the controls off stage, but if you know your system, it’s not unthinkable to run it from the stage.  Many venues even operate this way normally.

One final thought – if you want clubs to charge a higher entry price, just ask them beforehand.   If you don’t suggest a ticket price to them, they’re just left to figure it out and $5 seems to be the default.