Chattanooga’s Live Music Scene – Like It Or Not: Bands Get Paid By Their Drawing Power

Thursday, April 10, 2014 - by Bob Payne
Bob Payne
Bob Payne
- photo by Mark A. Herndon

When a festival or arena books a band, the amount they pay the band is highly dependent on the band’s ability to sell tickets. Paul McCartney or Elton John make over a million dollars per show. The Meatball Expresso Syndicate Band does not. Why? McCartney & Sir Elton will sell tickets and put butts in seats. In some ways, local bands experience the same effect.

Understand, we all get mad when a venue says, “I can’t pay you much, unless you bring in X number of customers.” Why should your band be responsible for filling the xyz club’s seats? Don’t they have their own customers? With all of the hard work, investment in time and money, and effort that goes into making a quality performance, why wouldn’t a band just want to be paid on a level commensurate with their expertise? These are difficult questions to answer. 

First of all, there only two kinds of clubs or music venues: There are successful ones and there are unsuccessful ones. That’s it…the only two kinds. The successful ones are going to pretty much have a good crowd every night they are open. They have regular and devoted patrons that like to come out to enjoy the place and trust the management to book entertainment that will please them. These places are not relying on the bands to fill up their establishments – they are looking for the band to keep their patrons there. A performer that brings in customers is a bonus to the successful club. An exception would be a “Track 29” type venue, where the quality and popularity of the act will determine the crowd in most cases.

Being a professional act is important, too. How does one become professional? First of all, you honor your commitment to the club and expect them to honor theirs. You are on time to load in. You’re sound check is short and sweet, so as not to bother the patrons there at 5 in the afternoon. You have the necessary equipment ready, in good shape, clean, and well organized. You don’t forget your mic stand or your guitar chord or even your pick. You start on time. You have a complete understanding of the playing times, break times and lengths, and finish time. You know the payment amount due you before you play, unless you are getting the door. 

What is the best way to accomplish these things? Have a written agreement. It doesn’t have to be prepared by a team of Philadelphia lawyers, either. Just a simple understanding stating the terms will suffice. Band XYZ will play on this date. Band XYZ will perform between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 p.m., with 15 minute breaks at 11:15 p.m., 12:15 a.m., and 1:15 a.m. Band XYZ will load in at 4 p.m. and load out at 2 a.m. Band XYZ will receive payment of $$$$ at 2 a.m. Band XYZ will receive 5 meals at $$ each, plus a bar tab of $$. Keep it simple and it doesn’t have to be a fight at 2 a.m. If you are getting all or part of the door cover charge, assign someone to keep an eye on it for you.

Dress accordingly! If you are in doubt, ask the venue. You dress differently at a swank country club than you would at a beach party. An 80’s hair band may dress differently than a Latin swing band. Know your crowd and your venue and you will do fine. And do not put down your fellow musicians to the venue owner. Do a good job and get invited back for your professionalism, not because you slammed another band that plays there occasionally. 

One more thing – if you make a mistake while playing, as every band has, just play through it. Most of the patrons won’t know, anyway. Don’t make a big deal out of it and it will pass. 

One more, one more thing – The club owners like it when you help sell drinks from the stage. Encourage patrons to tip their servers and bartenders. Encourage them to try those shooters or the best baked potato in town. Remember, if the venue has a good night while you were playing, they will remember that at next booking and it gives you ammunition for a better payday. 

One more, one more, one more thing – have a sign-up sheet for new fans to put their email address on your band’s mailer list. Let them know when you’ll be back. Also, be sure and give the name of your band over the PA a few times throughout the night. Otherwise, folks may leave there thinking you were great, but not have a clue who played.

And, the last one more thing – did you know that as a performing artist you might be able to deduct certain expenses, even if you do not itemize deductions? That’s right, it’s called the QPA (Qualifying Performing Artist) deduction. It has limitations, but many musicians will qualify. Just click and go to chapter 6, page 36 to find out more.

Be a pro, act like a pro, play like a pro, expect to be treated as a pro – and before long, everyone will know you are the real deal. Talk to the real pros you see out and about. There are many, but anyone from the Malemen Band, The Beaters, or Jimmy Tawater would be a great start. They’ve been in this game a long time and know the ins and outs of the business and are as professional as they come. So, you have to be older to be a pro? Nope! Just this past month, at the Road to Nightfall, I was reminded that our yutes of America are real pros, as well. Decibella, Bexy Ribeiro’s new band, looked, sounded, and acted like real pros. Ditto for Jordan Hallquist and many of the bands that performed at the Road to Nightfall. They showed the world you can be young and most excellent – and professional. Don’t think for a moment that being professional makes you a stuffed shirt, either. One intangible reason for the success these bands have is that they have FUN! Travis Kilgore, himself a seasoned pro, has a band called Scarlet Love Conspiracy. Go see them play and watch them have fun. It’s contagious.

Email Bob Payne at or catch him on Facebook at

- Photo2 by Mark A. Herndon

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