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An occasional feature in which esteemed D.C. rapper Head-Roc shares what’s on his mind.
It’s been a good few weeks now since I called out certain venues for using a practice called polling—-in which patrons are asked which artists they’ve come to see, and those numbers are sometimes used to determine payouts at the end of the night—-to prey on, disenfranchise, and divide D.C.-area musicians. To polling’s defense came Steve Lambert, who books shows at the Rock & Roll Hotel, DC9, and the Red and Black—arguably three of the best medium-capacity venues in Chocolate City. Being a musician with good friends in virtually every pocket of D.C.’s indie scene, I know that everybody wants to play those stages, and some are willing to do just about anything to get time on them. Lambert knows that, too.
The first article I wrote birthed another by my editor, Jonathan L. Fischer, titled “Is Polling Bullshit? Head-Roc Says Yes, Venues Say No,” in which Lambert states:
Most of the time, we do it [polling] to get an accurate count of what a band is drawing, and sometimes the payment is based on what they draw… Let’s say, for example, it’s three local bands. The crowd thins out for one or the other, and it’s a massive crowd for the third. We want to make sure the band with the big draw gets paid for it.
On the surface that sounds pretty fair, right? Well family, I submit to you that the way Steve Lambert uses polling is anything but.
In fact, polling suckers desperate, developing, and less experienced artists into thinking they are the ones primarily responsible for bringing patrons through the doors of a venues. The practice places an insane amount of pressure on professional musicians, whose job is now to play music and do venues’ job of hardcore street promoting without being compensated for the work. With polling schemes, promoters still get paid for doing the on-the-ground promotional work actually being done by bands. This is an insult to injury on top of a double hit of not getting paid much more than peanuts after playing your heart out all night for the folks you brought in the house. This, my friends, is called wage theft. (See fig. 1)
Some in the establishment will bark that I am calling this menacing practice out as a publicity stunt. OK then, yes, I’m doing this for publicity, to publicize that we cannot be tolerant of such sophisticated practices that divide our scene especially at a time when it is coming together—for the good of the city. In particular, there are a lot of very, very good, progressive “Justice Oriented Bands” across all genres in D.C. that are not getting love on the best stages in this city on the whole.
For now, let me see if I can show you how transparently abusive the polling model is…by telling a story. Some dreamy music, please. I prefer Dwayne “Super Bad III” Lee in the Key of D (the “funk” key):
Let’s stop and think about it for a second. Hey, let’s do a quick comparison. I wonder… do local restaurant owners and managers pressure their wait staff, bartenders, bus people, and cooks to spend personal time and resources, without recoup and compensation, to get patrons in the door? Live music venues and restaurant operate in much the same way. A restaurant is a service business offering a product for consumption, right? Restaurants advertise that they serve up great food. They strongly and skillfully suggest that folks looking for great eats should definitely consider them as a dining option. But what if restaurants operated this way:
“The Fairest of Them All”
A Chocolate City Parable
Chapter One: “WTF?”
A manager, cleverly successful at marketing his restaurant as a “premium” establishment, makes a deal with the four person wait staff (four bands) of the moment. Knowing that the wait staff is hungry and looking for decent pay for a day’s work, the clever manager says to them, “Here is my restaurant with its kitchen, tables, and chairs, and bar serving liquor. It’s empty now, and I want you (the four-person wait staff) to go out, bring people here to eat the food, drink the liquor—which you will later serve them—so I can pay you.”
Chapter Two: “WTF??”
“Now, the restaurant and I have overhead to cover that you must to pay for—of course! Mainly, it’s the mediocre quality services rendered by my chef’s (sound, security, and whatever else a “poller” wants to employ to gouge more money from bands). These salaries, and possibly others, are the multivariate (fancy talk) necessary expenses for me to make a great living while keeping the restaurant in business… and so you can work here tonight. I am doing you such a great service and favor letting you wait tables here, aren’t I? Hey, I know you’re trying to “make it” big at what you do, so it’s no problem… just so long as you bring the people out to my place of business. OK, so now that we have that straight…
Chapter Three: “WTF???”
“What I am gonna do for you is take all the money on the first 80 customers you bring in through the door as a result of your weekslong, maybe monthslong, marketing work to get them here. I will not be reimbursing you for your time and resources doing that work to get patrons in the restaurant. Now—-and listen carefully because here is where you start to make money—-after I get all the loot (to cover overhead, remember?) generated by the first 80 customers you brought to my restaurant, I’m only going take 50 percent of the money from customer number 81 through whatever—-till the end of the night.
Chapter Four: “WTF????”
“Now, since there are four of you wait staff, and I really want to be fair. And the fairest way I can figure is to “poll” the patrons that show up for your service in order to figure out who gets what. That’s right! I’m gonna ask customers who they came to be waited on… at my restaurant. Once I know that, I can delve out the pay to each of you accordingly—keeping careful note of who (individual band) brought how many people so that I can know which of you “draw” more patrons when it’s time to make the decision allowing you to work here again.”
Chapter Six: “WTF?????”
“Oh NO! It really doesn’t matter that wait person A brought in the most people, but spilled drinks and food on them all night long. Conversely, it really doesn’t matter that wait person D brought the least patrons, but assisted with taking care of patrons wait staff A,B, and C brought through. In fact, some of wait staff A,B, and C’s patrons are now fans of D’s work and service. No, No, NO! D’s years in the business, knowledge, and proficiency as wait staff, professionalism, and skill do not matter one bit in determining who gets what! Remember, D brought the least amount of people here by my numbers, and so he will get what he deserves according to my great “polling” payout method! Aren’t I just… the fairest of them all!
The Conclusion: “Have you ever been robbed before?”
“Robert Foore,” by GODISHEUS