What’s $5 worth … really. To your average person, maybe a beverage or a snack. Perhaps the pocket cash you keep in your wallet, just in case. What’s it worth to a music scene? A lot.
For something so simple there’s a lot varying opinions on this matter. For some, it’s such a small amount that many dismiss it as unnecessary and not important. To others the mere thought of paying $5 at a door to see a show is the equivalent of asking them for their first born child (just ask anyone who’s ever run door).
Such attitudes though are flawed and can actually be unintentionally harmful to a music scene. Let’s break it down! For the sake of doing so, we’ll try to step into the minds of the band (Note: the word “band” could be equally substituted with “artist” throughout) and the venue.
Most bands enjoy door covers for an obvious reason; that’s how they get paid. In previous decades bands made money off of selling albums. An old adage stated that bands toured to promote their albums because album sales was where the money was at. However, we’re now well into the era of streaming and it’s really hard for bands to make money in this format. Many consumers of music use things like Spotify these days which is notorious for not paying bands all that much, if anything at all. Sure, there’s alternatives and some people do enjoy purchasing tangible ways of listening of music but that’s not the majority of consumption anymore. We’ve entered bizzaro world where bands now put out music to promote their shows which is the only real viable way of earning any money. So again, most bands prefer standard door covers … but not every band.
Some bands just want to have people see them play and could care less whether they walk out with a payment or not. Such an attitude makes sense on the micro scale for that individual band and that individual show. However, what that band might not realize is, it’s actually hurting other bands and their entire music scene in the process. In order to understand this, you have to look at the macro picture.
When shows are habitually free, the general public gets subconsciously used to this. People have no problem spending $15 at the movies, $5 for something at Starbucks, yet can become aghast at the thought of spending money for a local show. Why is that? Because that’s the precedent which was set.
That same band which wanted the crowd likely has other wants they might not be considering in that moment. Most bands would prefer to play with a “bigger” band. But guess what? That bigger band is going to expect to be paid. So if you want them to come to your home city, you better make sure you’re setting the precedent to the general public that shows aren’t free.
An unfortunate attitude among some venue owners is that having a cover means less patrons and less business. On the surface that makes logical sense because some people won’t want to pay a cover. However, that logic is severely flawed. If a patron is so broke that they truly cannot afford to spend $5 at a door than there is no way in hell they will be spending money at your establishment. You think they can afford dinner there? Nope. You think they can afford an $8 vodka and tonic? Probably not. These were never the patrons who were going to allow you to have a successful business night.
On top of that, you’re now hurting the long term prospects of your venue. Remember that “bigger” band mentioned above? They need to be factored into the long-term equation. You know what a bigger band brings a venue? Promotion and credibility. That band has a following and likely a big online presence. Their fans can’t wait to go see them. Wouldn’t it be great for a local venue to have a stream of new patrons coming into their establishment to spend money and talk to all their friends about how great their last night was at fill-in-the-blank venue? It helps a city when people travel to that city for events and that is something which needs to fostered.
There’s an additional benefit that venues need to consider when establishing a cover. You know what’s expensive? Liquor licenses. You know what’s more expensive? Losing that license. By establishing a cover, you can easily pay the cost of the person working door out of what the door earns and still have plenty of money left over to pay out the bands. It’s a fairly standard practice to use a small portion of door revenue to cover some of the basic room costs (like paying whoever works door). That door person can now also check IDs in addition to collecting the cover charge which provides the venue an extra level of security to ensure your business stays in business.
Some final thoughts …
Are there exceptions to what should be a standard practice? Of course, but they should be rare. Maybe there’s a special event and you want the show to be free for that reason. Maybe you’re doing a show on a considerably dead night like a Tuesday night and you want the show to be free so people show up. I don’t necessarily know what the rules should be and they may need to vary. What I do know is, your average run-of-the-mill show be it in a basement, a bar, a venue, wherever, should almost always have a $5 cover, minimum.
Keep in mind this. Most Boston area shows have cover charges of $10 or higher. North Shore shows are usually $7 or $8. Shows in New Hampshire and Rhode Island almost always have covers. Lowell can afford the $5 cover. If you care about the long of health of the Greater Lowell music scene you should feel good about charging it and you should feel good about paying it too. – Joel Gray
p.s. One last thing. Can we start getting some card swipers for the doors at venues? It’s almost the year 2020. Paypal will mail you one for free as a phone attachment (useful to basement venues) while a non-phone one might cost a venue a little upfront cost but pretty cheap money in the grand scheme of things.