Would you trade your music career for $100 a night? That's exactly what local musicians all over the world are doing daily, and the worst part is that they think they're doing it to actually get their music careers off the ground. In reality, they're getting trapped in a rut - one of music's dead end jobs - and getting further away from their music career goals with every $100 show.
What Is the $100 a Night Show?
Now, let's not get caught up in dollar amounts here. Depending on the size of the market in your town, it could be more, it could be less. The $100 a night gig is symbolic of a certain type of show: that bar gig where you play two lengthy sets, mostly covers, to a crowd that comes there to drink while you happen to be playing.
These shows have a place. They're a good way to get used to being in front of a crowd. They're great practice for your playing. To the extent that you get to work in your own stuff, they can be a good place to test new material. People may start to recognize you and buy you drinks. Cool.
But, I bet you think I'm leaving out some of the best points, right? You're getting a lot more from these $100 gigs, right? I'm not convinced. Hear me out, and stay with me. You know I gotta hit you with that real first, but we'll get back to the good stuff in the end.
Let's bust some myths you may have about your cover shows and bar gigs:
People Are Getting to Know My Name
Well, they may be. You may be a vaguely remembered part of the soundtrack to their drunken night out, but they may also remember your name. But how are they thinking about it? Are they thinking about you like they think of the other music on their iPod, or at they thinking you do a really good Wonderwall cover? Are they thinking they can't wait to buy a ticket to the show you get at the music venue where you play all your own tunes? Eh - most likely they're thinking that they'll save their money because they can see you for free on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thurs...
I'm Making a Living as a Musician
Really? What feels like making a living as a musician at 22 feels a lot different at 32. What you're really making is a grand recipe for a lifetime of struggle. I don't mean struggle as in "I have to drive a Ford because I can't afford a BMW" struggle. I also don't mean any kind of romantic notion of struggle that you think you may owe your art. I'm talking about "I need a day job to have any hope of covering my bills, and with my night gigs, I have absolutely zero time or energy to actually make music anymore" struggle. How is that worth it? You know how when you got your high school job at Subway and thought with that money you'd probably be able to move out if your parents gave you any grief, because after all, your paycheck was $350? Yeah, you're doing it again.
Plus, let's be honest. Is this what you really pictured your life as musician to be like? There's nothing at all wrong if it is - but most musicians aspire to be touring the world, getting radio plays, and headlining festivals, not responding to requests for American Pie. You don't get there from here.
You Never Know Who Is Going to Walk In
You also never know when you're going to win the lottery, but it's not really a useful life strategy. Let me tell you a secret about these "getting discovered" stories. Most people in the music industry who wander into a bar at the end of the night for a drink have spent their day being pushed and pushed for help by musicians they couldn't or didn't want to help. They're feeling mighty cynical by the time some band starts playing covers in the bar they happen to be in. Now, if they come to a show and see you playing your own stuff as an opener - OK. This thing - eh, not so much. Definitely not as much as you think.
Well, now that you're totally depressed, what can we do about it? Don't worry, you have options.
The Better Play
To have a chance to make it in music, you've got to free yourself from your local bar circuit. You really do. Start targeting venues that book live, original music. Pitch for some opening slots. Do anything you can to stake your place in where musicians play original music to music fans - you know, we're talking concerts in the traditional sense here.
You are not going to make as much money doing this as you would playing for $100 a night. At first. If you do it right, you will make much more You will also be on your way to sustainable, real music career. But first, you have to make it through the initial rejections and get someone to give you a shot. Make no mistake about it - if you have played 100 or 1,000 shows, and they've all been of the $100 a night variety, many promoters will look on you in a less favorable light than someone inexperienced. I know it's not fair. It's still true. So what can you do to overcome these things?
Play for Free
Some musicians think you devalue your craft if you play for free. Don't listen to them. If you're just getting started in music, you often - OFTEN - have to eat the costs of a couple of shows so you can show the right people what you can do. If you do show them, then you will more than make it back down the line. Your future potential is worth missing out on a $100 some night. Note that playing for free is NOT the same thing as paying to play
Sometimes, those bar shows can be a nice little addition to your income. If you've got to do them to build up money to live or to do other important things for your music career, like tour, than mitigate the long-term damage by making sure you play some local shows that feature original music. The more you do bar gigs, the tougher sell this will be, but it's important to remind local music fans and media that you do more than covers.
The bottom line? You don't have to avoid bar shows like the plague. They do play a role, especially as you're getting started. Just don't sell your musical future for an easy $100.