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What Do S.F. Gigs Pay? It Depends -- But Not Much 

Wednesday, Feb 12 2014
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Perhaps, while standing inside a club, sipping a beer, and staring up at the stage, you've wondered: What is that band making for this show? You know you paid $15 (or $25, or $40) to get in, but how much will the band see at the end of the night? Here in San Francisco, where a decent burrito costs $8, and a month of rent for a decent apartment runs at least 200 times that, how much does a live gig pay?

The answer: It depends.

Talking to club owners, bookers, and the musicians who play local live venues, what becomes clear is the vast range of amounts musicians get compensated for their performances. Their pay depends on the size of the club, the kind of music, the price of the ticket, the number of acts on a bill, whether it's a weekend or a weeknight, how much money the bar made, how well the show was promoted, and what deals were negotiated in advance — plus, of course, how many tickets were sold. But here's one thing we can say in general, for most local live venues: If you're not the headlining act, you probably aren't getting paid very much.

"It's a tough business," says Another Planet Entertainment's Allen Scott, a longtime local promoter who oversees the 500-capacity Independent on Divisadero Street as well as some of the company's arena shows. "[It's] until you get to those 1,000-capacity rooms where you can start breathing as a band, and that means around the country, not just San Francisco."

How much is not much? At a smaller club like Brick and Mortar Music Hall on Mission Street, which often hosts local bands playing their inaugural gigs, the first band on a three-band bill playing on a weeknight might expect to make $50, says owner Jason Perkins. On a weekend night, that might go up to $100. The next opening band may make somewhere between $150 and $300. Clubs typically negotiate a pay system with the headliner — either a guaranteed amount, a split percentage of the door revenue, or a combination of both — and then give acts farther down the bill a set amount. At smaller shows, it's often up to the headlining act or the band that booked the show to decide what the other bands make. Which means the other bands can get screwed.

Jasper Leach, who fronts the upstart local band Brasil and has played in many outfits, recalled a time at El Rio that his band put in lots of promotional work and drew the majority of the crowd to the show, where it played second on the bill. Afterward, the club gave all the door money to the out-of-town headliner that had booked the show, leaving its members to split up money among bands. Though Leach's group had clearly drawn most of the audience, the touring band took $210 in door money, and left Leach's group with only $100. They ended the night cursing the touring group's van as it pulled away on Mission Street.

Such stories are common in the trenches of small-time rock 'n' roll. And in some scenes, getting paid $50 or $150 for an opening slot looks posh. When punk bands play at underground warehouse shows, for instance, it's common practice to give the entire door proceeds to the band that's on tour, and let the local bands play for free. The expectation is that the system will be reciprocated once those local bands go on tour to other cities — and it often is.

For acts that can headline larger clubs, things look much different. Robbie Kowal, who runs Sunset Promotions and has been putting on big and small shows in San Francisco for 20 years, has a rule of thumb for figuring out what a headlining act's gross pay should be: Ticket price times venue size divided in half. For a sold-out show, that's a rough but consistent way of calculating what an act will make regardless of where it's playing.

At the Independent, out-of-town acts want to bring in a minimum of $2,500 per night, and can earn as much as $10,000 for a show, says Scott. (Kowal's math works out: The Indy's average ticket price is $20, times 500 people, equals $10,000 — which means a typical headliner whose show sells out might make $5,000.) But with most larger clubs, the artists, usually working through a booking agent, will negotiate a guarantee in advance. They may also make a certain percentage of ticket sales on top of the guarantee, after sales rise above a certain amount.

At smaller clubs like the Chapel on Valencia Street, which has a capacity of about 400, bands usually go for a "door deal," where they get a percentage of the ticket revenue after expenses. For a Chapel show with a ticket between $12 and $15, a band would get between 55 and 60 percent of the door, says Dawn Holliday, who books Slim's, the Great American Music Hall, and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, and also works with the Chapel. A higher ticket price would mean the headlining band gets a higher percentage of the door. Such a show will include a fixed budget for opening acts of between $250 and $500, usually to be split among two groups. On a good night, the first performer might get $150 for filling a half-hour slot.

At most clubs in the city, at least the ones with kitchens, acts typically also get a meal and drinks along with their pay. "I've heard of clubs that charge back for beer," says Holliday. "I just never came from that school. The school that I came from is that the band is going to be happiest with a hot meal and good sound."

At the higher end of the S.F. club scene, for a headlining show at Slim's or Great American with a pricey ticket, a band might walk out with $12,000 or $15,000, Holliday says. But even that is gross pay — it doesn't include the 10 percent or so that goes to the booking agent, another 10 percent or so to the manager, or the cost of gas, transportation, or any of the other things that go into a touring band. And it still has to get split up among the members.

Whether money is even a consideration for artists, then, just depends on the size of the show. Larger bands with booking agents frequently call ahead to check on ticket sales for a given night, and thus their likely income. But smaller acts focus on other factors when deciding where and when to play. Often, says, Brasil's Leach, the calculus depends on whether a gig that might pay $100 will expose the band to a new audience, or put it in the company of other good groups. "It should be about reaching people and associating with bands that you want to be associated with," he says. "If I was doing this for the money, I would have quit a real long time ago."

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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