Sins of Admission: Why It’s a Problem When a Club Asks, “Who Are You Here to See?”
For a moment, on the first night he worked the door at the Velvet Lounge, Andrew Bucket thought he was staring death in the face. Her name was Allison Wolfe.
"I was excited to meet her, let alone work the show at all," he says of the Partyline singer, who helped found the riot-grrrl movement in the early ’90s as a member of Bratmobile. "At that point in time, it was 2007, the Lounge was under different management, and they were doing door polling"—a fairly common practice by which venues ask patrons what act they’ve come to see and sometimes use that data to determine payouts at the end of the night. "Allison saw me making the sheet and flipped out."
"Fuck that," she told him. "All the bands are getting paid tonight or we are not doing this." And so at the end of the night, Partyline, which had assembled the show, took the evening’s percentage and distributed it evenly among the three bands.
The Velvet Lounge no longer polls at shows, and Bucket, now the club’s booker, is a passionate opponent of the practice. "It connotes a disinterest in the band," he says. "It really just assumes that the bands don’t know each other, that they’re not willing to cooperate. It puts this competitive edge to the whole thing. It’s bogus."
Local bands have few options these days: DIY spaces like 611 Florida, Kansas House, and DC Mini Gallery have shuttered; the Black Cat books many more touring acts than local ones. That leaves the Velvet Lounge, Comet Ping Pong, and the three spaces in D.C. that poll at the door: DC9, the Red and the Black, and Rock & Roll Hotel.
"We are absolutely not looking to fuck the bands out of the money—if they are pulling in the numbers," says Steve Lambert, who books and partially owns those three venues. "That doesn’t work for anybody."
He says his venues use door polling mostly for his records—so that the next time he’s considering placing a band on a bill, he’ll have an idea of how many people they can draw. He says he mostly polls shows with only local and small-scale touring bands—if a band is on the road, he’ll usually throw it some extra money. Sometimes, he’ll hand bands their percentage—in the case of his venues, 80 percent of the door after an overhead cost is met—at the end of the night and let them divide it themselves. But in other cases, he feels that paying bands based on their draw incentivizes marketing. "I do not believe people should be paid on who they are," he says. "Thievery Corporation gets paid a lot of money because they can draw 5,000 people."
"I’ve always used this system in different markets. It’s a practice that’s done throughout the country," says Lambert, who used to book small- and medium-sized venues in Lansing, Mich. "There are people who aren’t fans of it, but people who aren’t fans of it are people who don’t draw."
Last week, an Arts Desk post by the D.C. rapper Head-Roc titled "Venues ‘Polling’ Practice Is Some Bullshit" attracted 40 comments. "It is a fundamentally flawed system and it doesn’t take into consideration a number of variables," wrote one commenter. "Polling is the fairest way to tell who has the bigger fan base," wrote another.
Dante Ferrando, who owns the Black Cat and drummed in the post-hardcore band Gray Matter in the ’80s and early ’90s, doesn’t like polling. "If you put a band on a bill, if they didn’t draw, they still played, they still came to the club. It’s usually the out-of-town band," he says. "To me, the whole process makes it a little more of a club vs. the band kind of feel."
Opponents of door polling offer several arguments: First, it encourages bands to compete when they should be working together to promote a show; as a result, a music scene’s sense of community suffers. Second, while venues and bands should share the responsibility of marketing, ultimately, whoever curated the show—the booker—owns its success ("If we don’t get a good turnout, that’s on me," Bucket says). Last, polling isn’t necessarily accurate. For one, patrons may be there to see several bands, or none in particular, or the person on the door might get things wrong. "The door guy’s got a lot to do, and it’s hard to do it fair," Ferrando says.
But Lambert says that venues are doing their jobs by providing space and marketing acts through their Web sites, in advertisements, and through social media. "So we should take the loss for them not drawing?" he says. "Most of the time we recoup the loss [of promoting and running a show], and most of the time the bands get paid."
By Mike Stuto’s estimation, the practice emerged in New York in the early ’90s in smaller rock clubs, and eventually spaces that booked small and medium-sized national acts, like the Mercury Lounge, followed suit. His East Village club, Brownies, which he converted into a bar in 2002, sometimes used door polling, usually for bills of bands whose members didn’t know one another. "We started doing it because bands were demanding it," he says. By basing the system on empirical data, he says, he avoided disputes over who deserved the most money. He says the polls generally struck him as fair; when bands took issue with their accuracy, they were usually "grasping at straws."
Jaxx Nightclub in Springfield, Va., doesn’t door-poll, but it does ask the area bands that play its Localpalooza showcases about six times a year—mostly metal bands whose members are between about 16 and 20 years old—to sell their own tickets. Owner Jay Nedry then pays bands based on how many tickets they’ve sold. He says it’s instructive to them, even if it can be demoralizing. "It’s a good kick in the ass," he says. "It makes people understand it isn’t free."
While Lambert says "no one has ever bitched about it from a band," some local groups say they’re uncomfortable with polling. "For a band starting out, it can kind of suck," says
Dan Scheuerman of Deleted Scenes, "It’s kind of degrading, I guess." Because "it’s already so hard to make a dime as a musician," says Rob Pierangeli of Casper Bangs, "maybe you shouldn’t scrutinize over who gets paid how much."
J. Sequential of Screen Vinyl Image says bands that dislike polling should simply avoid venues that do it; his band usually contacts groups with which it’s playing beforehand and agrees to split the pot. Because three D.C. venues poll, "I think what happens is a natural divide is created in the city," he writes in an e-mail. "There are bands who are looking to get the bigger shows and get paid more and get more exposure, and I believe they will run with the other bands who are after the same thing. But there are bands who just don’t want to deal with that type of noise and just want to play shows and hook their friends up who are on tour and at least get them some gas money without having to clear $250 at the door."
Aaron Estes, who sings and plays guitar in Bellman Barker, takes the opposite view. "Most bands at the polling level (including mine) aren’t really making any money anyway, so I don’t really care," he writes in an e-mail. "The money from a show might help pay some tolls or cover gas, but it’s never going to cover the expense of missing work until you’re playing bigger venues to a bigger fan base, and at that point, no one is going to be polling the door."
Correction | Feb. 17, 2010: Due to an editing error by Managing Editor Andrew Beaujon, the article incorrectly stated that the Black Cat books many more touring acts than local ones. According to the club’s booker, Vicki Savoula, between 50 and 60 percent of bands that play the Black Cat are local.