Why we need all sizes of venues more than ever

by Britt Chester | @awfullybrittish

What a strange musical climate we live in today; Compact discs might as well have gone the way of the dodo; Vinyl record manufacturers can’t keep up with the demand for orders; Online music distributors are fighting over which mainstream artist they will represent next; online streaming services are opening up to the idea of a paywall; and venues can’t seem to pack out every show regardless of the headliner.

Just to start, a music scene in any city is a breathing organism that needs to be fed. At it’s core, and this is stripping away the years of experience, rejection, and success that all musicians must feel as they enter the machine, it’s a business model that requires a passion for connectivity.

The Triad, it seems, is striving for connectivity.

If you started from the bottom (which is not an allusion for being “less than” in any way, nor is it a Drake reference but you can go ahead and mumble “now we here”) you’ll see the roots of the music scene. In Winston-Salem, those sorts of roots are in the DIY scene. We wrote about Mitchell Avent and his Anti-Sound venue, which was more or less a basement that he opened up to touring bands that needed a place to play on their way through North Carolina. Greensboro’s Chapman House became notorious for bands still in the DIY realm of touring – sort of the rookie level touring acts looking to carve out a path, or the acts that have found a community in the DIY scene.

Greensboro also has places like Big Purple, which, again, is just a home with a stage in the backyard. The DIY scene typically gets lumped in to the punk and thrash genres because those fans share a bloodthirst for energy and music and the larger venues tend to steer clear of the lower level acts due to a lack of draw and ticket sales. What places like Anti-Sound, Chapman House and Big Purple did is follow Kevin Costner’s famous advice: If you build it, they will come. These are venues that request a simple donation for entry that typically goes straight to the band’s gas tank and helps them move onto the next gig, which is most likely in a similar setting in another state or neighboring town.

Long before EDM became the laser-heavy shit show that is has become, the DIY scene was strong, but events were primarily held in dark warehouses and off the beaten path places that could go undetected to law enforcement. It grew out of that, and now those same promoters that once spent mornings sweeping up Vicks vapor-rub sticks off the concrete floor are now cashing two-comma checks from ticketing agencies.

At the next level of venues you see places like Reanimator Records in Winston-Salem, or New York Pizza on Tate Street, and even alternative venues like Bull’s Tavern drawing crowds for music – not the listed menu items. These venues are primo for rising acts: They often pay a nominal fee for the talent (hopefully guaranteed) and repeatedly book rising acts that are gigging the small clubs circuit. Or sometimes acts will play for free just to have a place to plug in and jam. On occasion they’ll manage a bigger booking and perhaps even take a hit depending on the venue cover. Bull’s Tavern, for example, never charges a cover, and the places that offer a pay-what-you-can option only do so in hopes of recuperating a fraction of the cost. If all goes well, these venues break even on the talent and can rely on the alcohol/food sales to provide the revenue.

Moving up from there you get into the purgatorial realm of small music venues. These are make-or-break zones for bands because these places charge small covers for shows, pay the talent a guaranteed fee, and still manage overhead from sales and the door. These venues also showcase acts that are on the up (The Garage in particular finds artists on the cusp of breakout and offers the shows for $10 or less – usually less.)

Sure, there are some options for bands that provide a percentage take from the door and ticket sales, but that’s a monster that no artist wants to deal with. In the hip-hop and rap world, you’ll see opening artists hustling tickets to the show – that’s often part of the contract. The artist can play the show if he/she promises to sell a certain amount of tickets. That’s also how some artists get paid for the show. They sell 100 tickets at $20 (strictly hypothetical), paid the venue $13 for each ticket, and take the profit. It’s a way for the venue to build press around the show without having to pay for marketing. You’ll even see promoters selling opening slots to small acts on the premise that they will get great exposure. (Here’s a tip of the truth: The promoter is taking the money you paid him/her to cover the costs of the headliner, and is still probably taking a piece of the door sales depending on how the contract was written with the venue.)

The jump from small music venues to big ones is more of a leap of faith. This is when the business of music rears its ugly face. Venues like Blind Tiger, Greene Street, and Ziggy’s are not cheap to operate. First you have security guards that expect to be paid. Then you’ve got bartenders and ancillary staff that also have to put food on the table. After that you’ve got the talent, which if the venue holds 1,000+ people and it’s a relatively known headliner then you’ve also got a hefty bill. Did you know there’s a website that tracks average ticket sales and prices for artists? This is how deals get negotiated. Depending the market, and luckily the Triad is somewhat out of market for the bigger acts (which can be leverage with booking agents to get a better deal), venues can book artists for different rates. As far as the ugly face of the music business, EDM acts are commanding ridiculous fees to get on stage and play pre-recorded sets because that genre is currently hot. When you put the price of live music into the monetary perspective of all the other entertainment we pay for, it’s not that much. And in comparison to what you’re getting for that rate, it’s a steal. The small venues that are by and large hoping to maintain the business of providing music rely on $6 per ticket because it adds up.

Supporting these businesses is doing a lot more than just giving you the opportunity to see live music, it’s giving you the opportunity to be part of the growth of a city. If it means drinking one less beer, then drink one less beer. If it means listening to music in the company of others verses listening to monotonous bar conversations, well, the obvious answer is music. !