You're heading down to your favorite dive tonight. A local promoter, So-and-So Presents, has booked a few of your favorite underground bands and will be spinning some 1978 Bollywood classics.
Sounds like a good night for all. But I'm not sold.
The idea of independent promoters doing combo DJ/live-band shows at bars is on the rise. Name a hipster dive, and most likely they're in on the game.
My skepticism of these events has nothing to do with the promoters, who are simply putting in an effort to build a cool night (and their name in the process). Rather, it has to do with the interaction between the players--the bar, the promoter, the DJs and the band.
The simple fact is that bars would rather your band bring four alcoholics than 50 teetotalers. They aren't in the music-selling business; they're in the alcohol-selling business.
For bar managers and owners, the independent promoter is a great deal. The bar is able to offload the costs of promotion and talent buying onto these hard-working third parties. The bars then breed competition between independent promoters. Those who produce a night in which bar sales are below a couple thousand dollars usually won't last long.
Even if a promoter makes alcohol sales soar, the bar is in a unique position of owning the nightclub where this 'night' has made its name. To change venues is to interrupt branding. As a result, if So-and-So Presents starts to demand a larger cut of the profits, bar owners can and will simply point to the dozens of other promoters begging for a night at the club.
These DJ/band combo nights are different than a club that simply books bands for two principal reasons. First, touring bands are concerned only with door money; they negotiate appearance fees with back-end percentage deals for getting more heads in the door. It's extremely rare that they ever see a penny of alcohol sales unless they're the Foo Fighters or a professional 'bar band.'
Second, bands offer something that can't be bought elsewhere--the experience of seeing them perform their music live. Thus, bands have some market power--small as it often may be. That's why booking agents talk about how many tickets a band is good for, rather than how much they're worth at the bar.
Most DJs, on the other hand, don't have fans. Sorry, men and women of steel, but you are selling what economists call a commodity: something for which there is demand (background/dance music at a bar) but not a dime's worth of difference between the providers. For this reason, few DJs are good for bringing drinkers through the door on the strength of their name alone.
The DJ/band promoters differentiate themselves simply by pumping up the volume, the luxury and the exclusivity (hello, Gaslamp). Or, they align themselves with cool bands--and here is where the problem starts.
Promoters are in a precarious position, having to please bar managers and the bands they book. Looking at the above market dynamics, who do you think the promoter decides to please? In most cases, they'll end up robbing Peter (the band) to pay Paul (the bar).
The DJ/band night promoter is forced to do whatever he or she can to maximize alcohol sales--even if it means letting a bunch of people in for free. And since the band doesn't get a cut of the bar, well, let's hope those instruments were paid for in cash.
On his blog, cat dirt sez, Scott Pactor recently talked candidly about this subject regarding a night he promoted with the bands Fifty On Their Heels and The Vultures and the Skull Kontrol DJs:
'The success of the bar ultimately rests on the size of the guest list. This hurts the promoters, but benefits the bar, and since the [bar] will cut you if your bar total is low--well, do the math.... The comp list was close to 100. So, that's like $500 that the bands lose, but an additional $1500 or whatever for the bar. So what are you going to do?'
My answer to that question would be: Stop. Unless you plan to stick to the business for the long haul, the math will rarely work in favor of the promoter or the band.