Head-Roc’s Mouth: Venues’ “Polling” Practice Is Some Bullshit
An occasional feature in which esteemed D.C. rapper Head-Roc shares what’s on his mind.
I have a question I want to ask all my friends, supporters, and patrons in the D.C. indie music and arts scene.
You attend music, theater, poetry, dance, visual art, and other forms of art events. You have your favorite local artist(s). You're on their e-mail lists. You might even travel a good distance to see them. Well...
When you drop $5, $10, $15 at the door to support these artists, do you know how much, if any, of that money actually makes it to their pockets? Do you care? And finally, are you willing to ask a venue’s door staff, managers, and event promoters, “Hey, how much of what I’m paying here at the door will the artists receive?”
As a local professional artist, and on behalf of my fellow peers, I would like to very humbly inform you, the benevolent patron, that we need you to ask! Why? Because, in most scenarios, we’re just flat out not being compensated as working artists at arts-driven entertainment functions.
I am a professional musician and, in recent years, I’ve been playing in a band. Speaking from my own experience, all too often in cases when we are afforded some loot for performing, it’s not enough to cover the blood, sweat, and tears of our efforts to make the night happen. For a working musician, it’s horrifying when, at the end of the night, the door "take" doesn't match venue’s "expectations," and we get handed $15 bucks to split amongst four grown, professional musicians—with bills to pay and mouths to feed. What’s worse is when we deliver an amazing show to folks in the house... and we don’t get paid at all.
A big part of the problem is the growing popularity of a very unfortunate business paradigm taking root in Chocolate City’s live-performance circuit. Rather than pay artists based on experience, creativity, and actual talent, some venues use a scheme that pays artist based on the number of people we bring through the door. The venues call this practice "polling," and here‘s how it works:
When patrons arrive at the ticket office, they are asked which band they came to see. Based on the results of venue’s poll, and after some questionable math—where the venue gets to fully recoup all its expenses (dig that!), it pay bands out according to how many patrons the venue says came to see them.
Flat out, this is some bullshit, especially for seasoned vets working to eke out a living in any local indie-music scene. In my opinion as professional musician, if any polling goes on, it should happen at the end of the night. If venues are going to be so bold as to actually poll showgoers (WTF?), then they should do so by asking who’s live presentation they enjoyed most. Maybe if venues determined payouts that way, I’d be less suspicious of the practice. Even still, I think that there should be guaranteed compensatory minimums for professional artists rocking at local venues, period.
Venues who poll make me wonder if my job as a musician is to entertain the people in attendance, or rather to make sure I bring enough people though venues' doors to patronize their establishments enough to satisfy their night’s money quotas. The way some “premium” venues carry it in Chocolate City these days, they fully expect the artists to beat the streets to bring people though their doors to buy drinks and purchase food. Entertaining the folks who came out to see a great show is just something for which the venue rewards us, despite all our hard work… instead of paying us bread for doing our craft. That’s whack, and polling sounds like another way of giving the shaft to our area’s accomplished and aspiring musicians.
Too many venues featuring live music aren’t doing their jobs advertising why the public should patronize them. If a venue advertises that it's hosting live music, then that venue should invest toward getting music-lovers through the door to support its business. Furthermore, venues serious about supporting local live music, while also hosting regional and national acts, should have an adequate street-marketing element supporting this aspect of their business operations. And of course, the ways venues treat local talent are complementary to the development of the local scene.
Instead, what has happened over the years is that venue owners, managers, and booking agents have suckered desperate local artists, and opportunistic promoters, into performing their marketing jobs for them—mostly free of charge!
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. How many hours of work does it take to do all that? How much are the relating promotional and marketing materials? Is that kind of time and resource expenditure recoupable? (Of course it is!) My last question is: Whose job is it actually? The venue’s or the artist's?
Let's be perfectly clear here: I am charging that venues, and to a lesser extent event promoters, are using artists (professional and amateur) to fuel their businesses without at least minimal compensation. Together, they prey on the dreams, aspirations, and naiveté of artists. My man Roger Newell at DC Jobs with Justice hipped me to a term I had never heard of before and it seems to accurately describe what has been happening to musicians here in Chocolate City. It's called wage theft. As a matter of fact, DCJWJ is having a Workers' Rights Board hearing downtown on Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. I just might have to check that jont out! (no, not joint but jont, Joe!)
My point, mission, and hope is that once they become aware of the dynamics, real music-lovers and patrons of the arts in Chocolate City will become instrumental in helping to revert some of the damage wrought by predatory business of some venues. I’m just chipping at the tip of the iceberg, family! Holla black with your thoughts on this one!