From a musician’s perspective, changing the standard minimum cover charge to $10 is the only thing we can do to save original music. I know that sounds harsh and apocalyptic, but it’s true. We know that no one is paying for recorded music, despite there being a greater demand for it than at any other time in the industry’s history. We know that streaming sites pay next to nothing and that making a life in America in any field is increasingly difficult.
I have come to understand that my recorded music is nothing but an elaborate business card to drive traffic to live shows. You can’t download a T-shirt. And that’s how I make my living.
The $5 cover has been around forever. My dad remembers paying $5 for Led Zeppelin in Scranton, Pa. in the early ’70s. I remember paying that in ’96 for Jawbreaker at a DIY punk space in Washington state. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $5 in 1986 had the same buying power as $10.81 in today’s dollars. Logically, it would seem that, after adjusting for inflation since 1986, we should be paying roughly $10 for a show at our local bars and venues today, at a minimum. That means no more $5 cover. Whether or not you think that is a fair sum for live music depends upon its value in your life.
A look at the numbers: Two to three acts on a bill is standard. Generally, there’s a local opener, a regional touring act, and either a local or national headliner that’s a pretty safe bet for drawing a crowd. Let’s say you had a pretty solid night and got 200 folks out, each paying a $5 cover. That means you made $1,000, right? But remember that village? They need to get paid too.
First comes the production fees for the door man, security, hospitality, and the sound man. A standard production fee in a 200 capacity is around $250. That leaves roughly $750. To get that many people out might seem easy, but remember we are talking about live, original music here. That’s a lot of people, and unless you want to risk potentially making zero dollars if not enough people show up, you might need a promoter. They will take another 15 percent of the net, or $112.50, leaving $637.50. Now split that evenly between three bands, and it’s a little over $200 per band. If each band spent $30 in gas to get there, that goes down to $170 per band. Split that four ways, and each man in each band walks with $42.50.
Now, let’s do the same math again with a $10 cover. Assuming the same attendance, same fees, and same percentages would work out to roughly $465 per band, and around $115 per member. Add some merchandise sales to that, and it’s now a living wage for a solid day’s work.
If you’re reading this thinking, “I shouldn’t have to pay $10 to sit in the bar I always sit in just because there’s a band playing,” I hear you. If you just want to chill with your friends, drink some beers, and listen to some cover songs but not pay a cover, I get it. Live, original music is not for everyone. There are more options than ever in Charleston in the form of breweries and restaurants that offer live music. Go there instead of lamenting a $10 cover.
It all comes down to how much you value live, original music and the atmosphere in which it’s presented. I’ve played in just about every situation there is, and musicians play a better show knowing they will be paid. It is an entirely different experience, as a musician, to play for a room that appreciates your art enough to pay for it. I think music lovers should think of themselves as patrons or mini-Medicis after the famous family that funded Da Vinci and the Renaissance. Music fans are the only reason musicians can have a career. They fund our art through ticket sales and T-shirts, $10 to $20 at a time.
What that gives a musician is the means and confidence to make music a career and continue to write and perform original material. People are less likely to yell over the music when they’ve collectively funded it. They buy merchandise to basically become walking billboards for the bands they love, driving more people to the next show. The staff performs better knowing that the production fees will be met and that drinks are being poured. Everyone from the bar to the band and fans benefit from the excitement that naturally stems from a roomful of people who have come together to support the language of our souls — music.
We vote with our dollars in this world, and if live, original music elevates your existence as it does mine, we owe it to ourselves to see that this art form continues to exist. Ten-dollar ticket sales mean musicians can pay their bills and continue to make music, if that music can generate a demand for it. You get what you pay for, and the cream rises to the top.
Megan Jean Klay is one-half of the husband-and-wife duo Megan Jean and the Klay Family Band. Once based in Charleston, Megan Jean and her husband Byrne have relentlessly toured for the past several years and recently performed at the renowned SXSW festival in Austin.
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