Author: Williams, Dave

Where are all the venues?

My best friend, bandmate (and spouse), Linda, will often point out a restaurant, coffeehouse, bar, whatever, and tell me I should go drop off a demo CD and some band publicity because, in her opinion, they would be making a very poor business decision not to hire us. The biggest concern I have with this strategy is that 99% of these establishments have never had live music nor have a clue about what bluegrass is.

This anecdote leads me to my question of the month. (by the way, I haven’t gotten a lot of answers for the previous couple of month’s questions ….but who’s counting.)

Actually, it is two questions; can you develop new venues to play and secondly how would you do it?

Stepping back a bit, I am beginning with the premise that we need more venues in my ‘hood. There seems to be plenty in San Francisco and Berkley but not so much in the Peninsula / South Bay area. Certainly, there are some good ones like Sam’s BBQ but they are booked with semi-pro bands while we still maintain our semi- amateur status. What I’m talking about are venues where decent semi-amateur bands could play semi regularly and develop semi regular audiences that might travel some to see them in other venues.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many opportunities to play gigs and we are playing a couple of them a month between farmer’s markets, private parties, senior centers and mission pizzas. We are grateful for these opportunities and generally have fun playing them. Also, there are coffee houses and open mics that we can basically play whenever we like but these turn out to be more like rehearsals than gigs and they come with the heavy lifting of our gear. The other downside of these is that there is no money in these gigs. Again, the money is not important to us per se but it is important to the music market. You know I am going to hate going here but it is going to be hard to have this discussion without talking about money.

In the beginning of this piece, I tried to put this on Linda but truth be told, I am always looking for locations or businesses that have the space and /or business type to support live music. I am close to being banned in about 3 coffee shops for pacing and measuring out space and rearranging chairs.

Now getting back to my questions; in calling on all my experience and as the result of minutes of detailed research, I am coming to the conclusion that the answer to the first question is no and that makes the second question moot. You can have a conversation with a potential venue person but I expect that that the first thing they would want to know is what’s in it for them?

Whoa! I need to stop for a minute and put this in perspective. What am I doing here? I am trying to write an entertaining 1st Thursday welcome column for the CBA web site and here I am sliding down a slippery slope to an ROI (return on investment) and business model discussion. How many readers do I lose at this point? Maybe I should go back to finding the lost photos from last month.

Just fessing up, this is really about my band’s elusive goal of getting a semi regular gig. Don’t worry, I am not going to go through the whole “semi” bit again. You get the drift. The sell would be a lot easier if we could routinely bring an audience but we need the gig to develop the audience. Catch 22!!! I’m beginning to think we may need to change the name of our band to “No Commercial Potential”.

Anyway to quote a famous philosopher, “I told you all that so I could tell you this”

I have a place in mind that I believe could provide the needed venue I am rambling about. Without naming names they have the space to accommodate music but it currently is nowhere in their business model. The space is an open private room that is away from the main public area of the establishment and is sized and set up to be an ideal small venue.

I actually hosted an eclectic jam there once but they let me have the jam as a favor and I use the word hosted literally (as oppssed to “no host”…. meaning I paid).

This is where I am putting the second question back on the table. So all you music professionals and promoters, what is the drill, what’s next?

They do know me at this place and that is a start but how does the conversation go. I’m guessing they wouldn’t be overly impressed that I know what ROI means. These folks have been doing what they do for a while and doing it well. The only pitch that I could possibly make is that adding live music would bring in more customers. But can I say that? Will that happen? I think I’m back to the chicken and the egg thing again.

Most likely it would be easier to convince them to have a jam rather than to begin with having bands play. That poses a couple of problems though. The first is that in order for the establishment to embrace the jam, jammers (and / or audience) would need to spend some on drinks and food. I have seen this be a problem in getting other jams established. No spend ….no space.

For me, the second (and more personal) problem with the jam scenario is that it does not score a gig for my band.

Moving on though, let’s say the jam is a winner for the joint, the next step could be proposing a once a month show with a couple of bands on the bill hoping that each could bring a handful of paying customers and maybe developing an audience for the venue and the bands. Logically, hiring pros for these gigs will bring more audience but again, this defeats my original premise of finding a venue for semi – amateur bands

Finally, if any of this actually comes to be, it would seem that I would have to drive this myself by becoming a producer of sorts. I am not sure I am qualified or even ready for that now, maybe after I retire in a few months.

This piece turned out a little heavier than I intended. The intent was to discuss, in a lighthearted way the plight of bands on the cusp (or just below the cusp) and maybe get some ideas on how to move forward. But it is what it is. Maybe an old joke will lighten things up a bit.

Q: What does a professional bluegrass bass player do after he /she wins the Super Lotto Jackpot? A: Keep gigging until the money runs out.

See you next month if you will still have me.
Posted:  8/2/2012

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email