Arts Desk

Head-Roc’s Mouth: “The Fairest of Them All,” a Chocolate City Parable


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)

wage theft receipt xtra

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 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
by Head-Roc

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?”

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"Robert Foore," by GODISHEUS

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  • Haterade

    This is the first of your articles on this subject that I think actually lays out a pretty interesting argument. Nice.

  • Head-Roc

    "Have you ever been robbed before,
    as an indie musician by a crook at the door?
    into your live act, heart you pour,
    they make a KILLING at the bar, and they still want more!

    Black Rock Stars on the grind for years,
    trying to make a lil paper, thats what they fear.
    Don't be Afraid, call out They name,
    so we can Boycott the Motherfuckers outta the Game!

    Verse 1:
    Let me explain, make it simple and plain:
    The ten you paid, aint the ten we gained.
    For three weeks i pound the streets in vain,
    but when its time to collect, all i hear is the same.

    Some of these cats make you have to hound them,
    and some of these formulas are astounding.
    They make US pay for the Door and Sound man,
    when the money ain't right, and the Bottom aint Pounding!

    They got this crazy shit on the circuit,
    they know we pressed to play, so its easy to work it.
    100% of the Door with the purchase
    on the first 85 ppl in the house is some Jerk Shit!

    They aint got folks in streets,
    yelling you Gotta-See-Us every day of the week.
    Plus, they hospitality weak too,
    half the time they aint pleasant when they speak!

    Verse 2:
    We grassroots witted, everyday committed
    active duty living legends from the land of Kemit!
    VINTAGE LINEAGE, we leaders of a Movement,
    WE ROCK THE HARDERST, and we're here to show an prove it!

    Fiercely independent, much of what exists, we invented,
    Indigenous Architects represented.
    Respect heritage, its imperative,
    to pay us proper at the opera for the Rhythm and Narrative!

    Fuck the dumb shit, we're an intellectual boost!
    Targeting in "Living Colour" on your Grey Goose!

    Whether the flock is 5 or 50,000,
    GODISHEUS rocking it LIVE will arouse them!
    Listen, is there really any doubt man?
    Well, shut your fucking mouth then!

    The name Ya'll... is GODISHEUS (GOTTA-SEE-US)
    and thought they try, they can't defeat us!
    Open your eyes, come on and Greet us,
    We're Buddha blessed, fresh, in the name of Jesus!

    Funk with People
    Dont Fuck with Evil!
    If it ain't Equal,
    Then it was LETHAL!

    Intergalactic Spear-Ritual Tactics!"

    Listen to it:

    GODISHEUS wrote this song after we recieved that bullshit receipt above, and for my people dealing with the effects of this bullshit, its an anthem all can use.

    We can settle these issues between us and the establishment easily by playing our music - Live! Battle of the Bands. the controversy alone will be the draw, and this woudl draw multiple hundreds. I already put it out there. So far, no takers - because they actually KNOW what time it is. so much so, that they wont even give us the opportunity to out organize them to get folks in their clubs. And that's how i KNOW we have real power! its like voting in america, somebody is tampering with the polling stations and even the voting machines themselves! DEEP!

    Head-Roc's Mouth: Which of you "pollers" wants to Battle?:

  • Applesauce

    Hi Head Roc,

    I really appreciate this article. A lot of bands have been ripped-off by Hooding Booking including mine. My band played the Red and the Black, brought two other bands. We brought in roughly 40 people into that small space. We received no door. None. The excuse: They paid the sound guy $100. A guy that wasn't even sitting at the board for most of the evening, and produced some of the worst sound I ever heard. I was never given advance warning of this $100 fee. I had played there a few months earlier and the sound guy fee was $50 at that time. It doubled in the span of two months. That's neither here nor there. The bottom line is they don't give a damn about local bands and are taking advantage of them by using creative accounting.


  • Applesauce

    I forgot to mention that a $500 fee for "security" is ridiculous.

  • asad ULTRA walker

    good god, does heady literally have to spell it out? anyway, the most telling figure (or lack of one) is the bar total. a bar or club sinks or swims on its bar. a band is just window dressing (awesome, fantastically talented window dressing) and really shouldnt enter into the equation unless they booked the roots or the white stripes or something. i can understand tickets, sound, maybe SOME security ($500 buys a lot of security). i work security at a bar on u st. and we charge no cover. i'm sure theres a little chicanery going on but everybody is paid from the bar total. we charge no cover, usually have no promotion and i'll bet we have a bigger staff. honestly heady, this looks like one for the irs. they brought down everybody from dude who owned fifth column to al capone. obviously, they are fudging the books and uncle sam JUST loves book-fudging. (and chris styles bacon fared better than godisheus? oog... sorry, must not be divisive.)

  • Bettsy

    Folks can banter all day about this but the proof is in the pudding so to speak & thanks for putting the pay out sheet up for people to see how unfair the practices of Hood Booking are. Granted they are not the only ones but they are just so blatant with theirs & their random-ass accounting.

    It's been our band's policy for a few years now not to seek gigs @ The Red & The Black, DC9 and Rock & Roll Hotel. We've played a few gigs there with other groups who have asked us to join them however we've gotten ripped off so many times (pre Red & Black/R & R Hotel) @ DC9 we're onto their tactics.

    It sucks though that so many bands are excited to play these "esteemed" venues when in effect local bands pretty much get pimped in order to host National touring acts who sometimes do/sometimes do not bring many people but do get a guarantee off the backs of the locals.

    I understand that bands on the road have to get paid but not at the expense of other bands and when I've seen with my own eyes that the bar is making look hand over fist. I don't care what the name of the band is. I'm not honored enough to play with them that after putting out time & money to promote a show and then perform that I'm willing to give them my pay.

    And then to top it off they do so little to promote/support the local scene. Perhaps if they did folks like myself would actually want to randomly patronize their bar rather than begrudgingly go because a friend's band or a national I may like gets booked there.

    Suppose once a week they had a locals night that they promoted as hard as they do some other events. The pay outs may not be huge but that for example could be something that people could get behind and support thus patronizing the establishment and feeling like wow maybe we're not just completely getting pimped.

  • Mental Salvation Radio

    HEAD ROC will be on MENTAL SALVATION RADIO Tonight to address this and more key information the indie Artist and lovers of muisc in the DC community!!!!

    Tune in @ 8pm

    Get the REAL SCOOP TONGIHT!!!!!

  • Sam Daly

    Fire the boss. Keep raking the muck. Now how are we going to get some justice? Is there a DC Musician's Union?

  • dj eurok

    it is definitely a bullshit business practice for RNR Hotel to try to recoup all overhead costs (security, sound, etc) from door receipts alone.

    They need to spread those costs across the business and use bar revenue to help defray overhead costs. Their current model lets them SCREW over local artists while keeping all the bar money to themselves. Especially considering the $500 security fee - cause you know that security is there to deal with drunk people!!!

    Heady, I applaud you for spreading the word on this!

    we need more LOCAL artists, more LOCAL entrepreneurs LESS BULLSHIT AND CAPITALIST EXPLOITATION.

  • John Baker

    Head-Roc, couldn't agree with you more. I'll share my personal rip-off story of the RnR and then offer a glimpse of how things can and should be for good musicians.

    I sat in on bass for this ska-punk band Kill Lincoln, who along with Eastern Standard Time, a very well established band INTERNATIONALLY, opened for NY based band the Slackers at Rock and Roll Hotel. Needless to say, we packed the place, with the band I was playing with bringing in at least 50 people at $12 a head. How did the pay out work? Kill Lincoln and EST, for a sell out crowd, got a whopping $100 each. That's a small pitance for rocking a huge crowd like that. The Slackers meanwhile, got paid $1800! While I totally respect them as musicians, and I'm sure they were not made aware of how little we were getting paid, it's clear that the two opening bands were simply used to make the Slackers and the venue huge amounts of dough.

    Some advice on the RnR. If your band can front it, it costs $500 to rent out the club for the night. When you rent out the club, you call the shots, which means you get %100 percent of the door. Obviously, this is not the best option for bands who can't front that money, but it takes the accounting out of the venues hands.

    Now, what my main point is, is that IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS! There are places out there that pay good money for live music, because they RESPECT IT! HOOD BOOKING DOES NOT RESPECT ARTISTS!

    For example, my band, Lucky Dub, booked a tour down in the US Virgin Islands. So on a tiny island, where we had never been before, and where it was impossible for us to do on the ground promotion, we had a guarantee of $500 flat fee for each night of playing, plus tips, plus %75 of ticket sales. The venues down there had a great respect for quality live music, and they in turn did their own promotion because they know that where they really make their money is the alcohol (and holy jesus can those islanders drink!) and that having the live music would keep their patrons drinking and dancing. No security fee bullshit, no paying for a sound man, and no pressure to dump flyers all over town. And every single show we did down there was a success for both us and the venues.

    DC venues need to show some respect for live music, or they will effectively kill the music scene here.

  • wut wut


    No it isn't for a hip hop show.

    Also in many cases the bar ring has nothing to do with the promoter putting the show on.

  • youarenotaprofessional

    the biggest thing to take from this is the entitlement that local musicians feel. its as if as soon as you throw together any sort of band, the city is supposed to throw money at you. perhaps we forget about the tale of small businesses? how so many fail and do not become "professional". but apparently delicate artists should be treated differently.

    Look if you think you're a professional musician please direct me to your management team, your record label, your distribution company, your A&R, your studio... oh wait, don't have that??? that's because you are a local musician... not a professional musician.

    local musicians do not get paid, not even eastern standard time. look you can claim they are international but they are a has-been band from maryland who is lucky to still get gigs. so drop the entitlement. seriously stop feeling entitled because no one wants to pay you or else they would. people in dc would match rather hear a dj.

    and apparently no one can say a band sucks anymore... because after you play the R&R hotel you are suddenly a professional?!?!?!? sorry, the 9:30 club still isn't calling for a reason.

    if there were half-decent musicians in DC this would be a valid argument, but the MUSIC in dc was a joke long before the business of music stopped caring...

  • Rob Curtis

    That last response seems to be from Mr. Lambert himself.

    This quote pretty much sums him up.

    youarenotaprofessional said...

    "if there were half-decent musicians in DC this would be a valid argument, but the MUSIC in dc was a joke long before the business of music stopped caring…"

    This statement if it is from him which I think it is, should be the last bite he takes out of himself and local bands should almost completely drop off his list now.

    Based on what I know of some DC hip hop and their touring and networking. He doesn't know shit about who is a pro or not.

    I observed him closely for quite some time and I could go on and on about what he is doing wrong and his epic denial.

    It's pretty interesting when you are telling someone something really important and they just say "yeah yeah I know" totally dismissing you without even knowing what you are talking about. That is the kind of thing he does all the time with his most important associates. He just doesn't give a shit what anyone thinks.

    I think he might be the most thoughtless person I have ever worked with.

    I say everyone with ridiculous emails and receipts from their shows at the Hotel should publish them in one place.
    Maybe have a facebook or myspace page repository for his bullshit.

    What he will do in response to these things is always try to make you look like you are less, to prove that what you say can't be true.
    He worships touring bands and disrespects not only local bands but the people that work in his own club.

    If a band comes up in a bus. It doesn't matter how amateur, rude, difficult or juvenile they are, he worships them and treats the locals and employees like shit. He is hypnotized by the touring status and actually can't recognize that they are all just musicians or people.

    One thing I noticed was that his list of local bands had dropped to a handful. I imagine his list will be even smaller now. He often booked bands I had never heard of that weren't very good, to open for quite impressive touring bands.

    It's not that DC doesn't have good bands, it's that most of the good bands won't work with him.

    You reap what you sow.

    Anyway I digress, nicely said, cheers to you.

  • Ted

    I understand that the venue owners are capitalists and not patrons of the arts, but I feel the frustration in Head Roc's article. The truth is the club owners could very easily improve the culture of the city, champion great music, and still make a killing. It is sad that they don't. It also often further inflates the egos of lousy acts that draw well who are terrified of sharing a stage with acts that would cream them at their own game.