The public may or may not treat a place in accordance with what an establishment is called, or what that establishment looks like.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
I’ve talked about this before. It’s a theme that I’ve returned to in various places. I’m covering it again because I think that it could do with having its own space. I find it to be especially relevant when the “periodic wave of blaming” comes back around to the idea that venues don’t promote live-music enough. I’ve covered that idea from different angles, with my current favorite approach being to point out that advertising is primarily for people who are already interested in something. (For instance, it makes sense to run broadcast-media ads for cars if you’re selling in the United States, because people in the USA are very likely to be car drivers.)
More to the point is pushing back against the idea that a place which hosts live-music can just decide to be a place where there’s a ton of “walk up” traffic. What I mean by “walk up traffic” is the phenomenon of people going to a public establishment for the establishment itself, rather than because a particular event is taking place at the location. The former is the traditional model for a bar, and the latter is the traditional model for a live-music venue. The point of consternation is the unspoken assumption that the public is magically compelled to abide by whatever label that the establishment has chosen for itself. If the public must accept that label, then the business not experiencing patronage consistent with that label must mean that the business is doing something wrong. If the business is doing something wrong, then getting something different to happen is just a matter of fixing whatever has gone awry. (The attitude seems to be that a proprietor can just advertise their way out of a difficulty.)
But this is not what my experience suggests. Over the past several years, I have come to strongly believe that the establishment’s chosen label is irrelevant in the face of what the public decides. Obviously, a business that is very strongly geared in one way or another will tend to be perceived in accordance with the setup. However, the lines are not always sharp and bright. Especially when an establishment has mixed methods for generating income, it can be easy to misjudge the primary view that the public takes of the business.
Is This A Music Place With A Drinking Service?
In the case of a bar or club, there are two major categories that the public can assign:
1) A place for drinking and socialization that offers music as an additional service.
2) A place for music that offers drinking and socialization as an additional service.
Whatever ends up being the primary pull to get folks in the door is what the establishment becomes. If the public’s consciousness labels a place as being a hangout – a spot you go to because it’s just generally fun to go there – then that’s how the business will operate. People just show up, and so booking live music is an exercise in figuring out what will keep the “walk-ups” in the building for a longer time. Flip that around, and the ballgame is very different. If the public decides that the business is a music venue that just happens to serve refreshments, then booking live music becomes the process of figuring out which bands draw a crowd. After that gets settled, the food and drink equation is worked to maximize what the already-drawn crowd will buy.
Different bands thrive in different environments. Groups that are more about getting paid for musicianship tend to be better served by a “hangout” model, whereas groups that are built on nurturing their own specific audience are more suited to a straight-up music venue.
Research Beats Assumptions
Where this becomes hairy is when assumptions are made. There are plenty of bands out there who are content to accept the designation that was originally applied by the proprietors, or the label that the band thinks is applicable. This can be a kind of self-deception. There are musicians who look at a place with a prominent bar, and immediately assume that the place runs on a walk-up traffic model. Remember, though, that the public has the final say. If the public has decided that the business is a music venue that happens to offer tasty food and cool beverages, they are unlikely to just show up to see what’s going on. Rather, they will stay home (or go somewhere else) until their favored band is booked in the room. THEN they’ll show up.
I suppose that a natural question to answer is how to tell one business from another. One starting point is to try to determine the focus regarding the band. A place with lots of production support (and/ or a stage that makes the band the focal point of the room) has a high chance of being treated as a music venue. A place where everything except music seems to be the focal point has a good probability of being perceived as a hangout. You have to couple this with a business query, though, because it’s possible for an establishment to be set up one way while the public treats it the opposite way. If you ask how many folks show up regularly on a particular night of the week, and get a firm number, then you might just be dealing with a place for drinking and socialization that offers music as an extra. (Geography matters of course, as well as whether or not there’s some kind of “house band” involved.) If your question returns an answer with a lot of variance, or just a general lack of certainty, you probably have a “music venue” on your hands.
In the end, the trick is to know how the public treats the business, and what works for you.