When it comes to polling—-a practice by which music venues ask concertgoers which band they’ve come to see perform, and sometimes pay artists according to how many people they’ve drawn—-D.C. rapper Head-Roc doesn’t mince words: “Flat out, this is some bullshit,” he wrote yesterday in a post on Arts Desk, where he is an occasional contributor. Polling rewards artists for marketing, he argued, and not for their talent or experience—-essentially transferring a venue’s promotional responsibilities to artists, and then punishing them if they can’t perform what ought to be a full-time job. The post elicited strong reactions from commenters, who debated whether polling is an acceptable and beneficial practice, especially for bands.
One concert booker who uses the practice says it’s both fair to artists and helpful to venues—-as well as commonplace across the country.
“Most of the time, we do it to get an accurate count of what a band is drawing, and sometimes the payment is based on what they draw,” says Steve Lambert, who books shows at DC9, the Red and the Black, and Rock & Roll Hotel. All three venues use polling, usually for bills of local acts. “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.”
For young acts, the system can be harsh. “For a band starting out, it can kind of suck,” says Dan Scheuerman of Deleted Scenes, probably one of D.C.’s more popular indie-rock acts at the moment. “It’s kind of degrading, I guess. I can understand why venues do it but I think it’s a little bit sloppy. In New York it seems the only places that do it are slapdash venues like Arlene’s Grocery… it’s a way to make up for sloppy booking jobs.” But, he stressed, he has nothing against Lambert or his venues, and understands the value of polling to them. “But, especially if you’re touring, it can be a little depressing.”
The system, Lambert says, is somewhat elastic. “If it’s a touring band on there, we always try to toss them some extra money.” And often, he says, the venues will tell bands their individual draws, and let them divide the payment themselves. Scheuerman says that Deleted Scenes will often give its entire haul to a touring act with which it’s sharing a bill.
“Mostly, [polling is] honestly for our records,” Lambert says. “Bands will say they can draw 30 or 40, but we want to make sure so next time they’ll know to step up the promotion, the marketing, whatever.” He says polling also helps bands move to larger and larger venues as they build an audience; if a band polls well at DC9, say, Lambert may then book it at Rock & Roll Hotel, or have it open for a nationally touring act.
As for the issue of marketing—-here’s what Head-Roc wrote yesterday:
Everyone in show business knows that planning a show, putting the bill together, coordinating communications with the acts, designing the flyer, making copies, and distributing them, writing and sending out e-mails, creating Facebook and MySpace events, doing Twitter outreach, and such… is a job! To promote for a show, someone has to work the outreach game for at least a few hours every day.
But Lambert says his venues do plenty to advertise their shows—-by listing them on their Web sites, by including them in print advertisements, and through social media. “How hard is it to promote as a band anymore?” he says. “You literally could take one hour a week and reach a lot of different people.”
The larger issue may not be how the pie is divvied up, but rather, the size of the pie itself. At Lambert’s venues, bands not using their own booking agents—-who can often secure guarantees—-share 80 percent of door proceeds once the venue has met a reserve to cover its costs, like paying sound engineers and door attendants, who are not salaried. Yesterday, Lambert told me that the reserve ranges from $150 to the mid-hundreds at Red and the Blackand DC9. I asked him to confirm those numbers today—-as well as the number that bands have cited for Rock & Roll Hotel, $1000—-and received the following response via e-mail:
I’m no longer going to further comment on this. All the numbers are at the privacy of the venue and business practice.
Yesterday I was more then accommodating and I will respectfully no longer comment.
There are far more urgent matters to address at current time, then the pittiness of blog scrawl.
Bands, bookers, venues, and anyone else: Have thoughts on polling? E-mail me.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons user Man vyi.