Amid capacity restrictions and limited ticket sales, bands and solo artists may find they must adjust to an altered financial landscape as live music returns. An in-depth report from Local Spins.
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In recent weekends, gleeful fans have cheered just-as-gleeful bands from Grand Rapids’ Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill to Cedar Springs Brewing’s outdoor Starkbierfest, and from watering holes along the lakeshore to Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.
Slowly but surely, live music is returning to West Michigan venues – indoors and out – as COVID vaccines move forward, with restless musicians and fans seeking a return to some semblance of normalcy.
But that new “normal” in many cases comes with changes to the way performers are paid — or the amount that they’re paid — at bars, concert venues and other gathering spots hosting live music.
With capacity restrictions and limited operating hours still in place, many establishments can’t pay musicians the same guaranteed amount they did prior to the pandemic.
Others lean on ticket sales to pay performers – and those sales are significantly reduced because bars and restaurants are limited to 50-percent capacity via current pandemic rules.
“We have to be fair yet understanding about the pay,” said guitarist and singer Larry Fitzgerald, aka Weezil Malone, just before his West Michigan blues band took the stage at Grand Rapids’ Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill last weekend.
“We are doing shorter shows, but we don’t want to set a precedent and set the money bar lower overall. My compromising and haggling skills have been getting tested for sure.”
Veteran Grand Rapids keyboardist Dennie Middleton noted that after a year with little or no live music, many musicians are just plain eager to get back on stage with the realization that these opportunities offer more modest returns.
“I’m hoping for the best for all my music buds, and so many of us will play for less just to get in front of music lovers,” said Middleton, who recently returned from playing a spate of shows in Key West where the pay per gig was $50 to $75 less than it was prior to the pandemic. “It’s about to be the same up here.”
Ted Smith, co-owner of Tip Top Deluxe and the subject of this week’s “Comeback Road: Destination Live Music” video following up on COVID’s impact on venues, said he’s always given local bands 100 percent of door/ticket proceeds. But the Tip Top also is currently selling a maximum of only 60 tickets per show to meet the state’s capacity rules. That’s less than half the maximum sales prior to the pandemic.
VIDEO: “Comeback Road: Tip Top Deluxe” (2021 Update)
Video by David Darling, Michael Whitenack and Kari Cohen (Presented by Local Spins)
“With the touring national bands, there is a mix of percentage (of the door) deals and guarantees right now,” Smith said. “Some of those are with the hopes capacity will be higher in late summer.”
At The Intersection in Grand Rapids, which hopes to start staging indoor shows in September, talent buyer and partner Scott Hammontree said some financial guarantees are still in place for touring bands. But the venue also is “offering a more generous percentage of the door for artists that are willing to share the risk on a show.”
STRAPPED VENUES ‘NOT AS COMFORTABLE TAKING AS MUCH RISK ON SHOWS’
Still, many financially strapped venues closed for the past year aren’t as likely to take a chance on booking bands without a track record of robust ticket sales.
“I am certainly not as comfortable taking as much risk on shows than I was pre-COVID,” he conceded.
“We’re still paying as much attention as we can to artists that we think are going to break. … For shows that may have underperformed in the past or barely broke even, we are certainly trying to keep our exposure down.”
Overall, he said, venues and promoters are “being a tad less risky with their offers.” It’s also uncertain how all of this might impact local and regional acts seeking to open for national touring headliners.
“I sincerely hope this does not hurt the local bands,” Hammontree said. “We will have ‘one approved local must be allowed on this bill’ in all of our offers. Many times that is not allowed, but if we had our way, there would be one on every single show.”
Due to the pandemic, Middleton noted “there are a few local clubs wanting to cut pay but have the balls to ask for four hours” of music despite an 11 p.m. curfew. He called that “a slap.”
Fitzgerald, who’s celebrating his 41st year of performing with various bands, said musicians and venues “need each other” and should be willing to compromise.
He said that “plants seeds for getting through this sticky time and moving ahead to build the relations needed with the same goal – getting live music available. We’re in this together; let’s work it out together.”
Grand Rapids singer-songwriter Nicholas James Thomasma said he’s still reluctant to book shows at venues amid the current COVID situation and he’s also reluctant to go below what he’s traditional set as minimum payment for gigs.
But he also conceded “there has to be a balance” due to capacity restrictions on businesses hosting live music.
“There are plenty of ways to work creatively to make sure the relationship remains mutually beneficial,” he said.
And of course, there’s the tip jar – a tried-and-true way for fans to support musicians and an income supplement that’s even more important as live music returns.
“We hope the tip jar is louder than the music,” quipped Middleton.
PHOTO GALLERY: Dusty Chaps at Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill
Photos by Anthony Norkus
Photos by Anna Sink
Photos by Dan Terpstra Photography