The Five Dollar Cover Charge

Steve Goodson




I was talking with some friends recently, and it came up in the conversation that during the 70’s, you could hear a pretty good local band at a neighborhood bar for a five dollar cover charge. The club owner, of course, collected the cover charge and used it to offset the fee charged by the band, or the band simply played “for the door”, so what they took in at the door was what they made. I’ve heard many a group for a portrait of The Great Emancipator, and you could very easily entertain yourself and a significant other for a ten spot. I’ve also been the recipient of quite a few of those fivers in exchange for my exhibiting my abilities with the saxophone. Five bucks always felt about right to hear a local band, but unfortunately, we got a little too comfortable with it.

If we fast forward to 2012, and revisit the same local watering holes, we will find the same five dollar cover charge prevailing for hearing a local band. This can be good, or bad, depending on which side of the transaction you’re on. Good if you want to hear local bands at at bargain price (even at a lowest price of all time if you consider adjusting your dollars for inflation since the 70’s), but not so good if you’re a musician and haven’t gotten a raise in over forty years.

It’s very important to recognize that in the 70’s, buyers had very few entertainment options relative to what’s available today, and that the quality of available options has increased substantially, particularly in recent years. It’s also important to recognize that HBO, Sony, Viacom, NBC, and countless other media giants spend billions of dollars each and every year to attempt us to stay at home and not go out to the local bar. So what does this mean, from a musician’s point of view? Where did we drop the ball?

There’s no question that things have changed, and changed a lot. Other than substantially increase the amount of pissing and moaning we do, what are musicians doing about the situation.

Before you say that consumers won’t pay higher prices, let me point something out. When I attended the last Rolling Stones tour of the USA, everyone seated around me had paid around $300 for each and every seat, and the enormous venue was totally sold out, and had been totally sold out since a very few minutes after tickets went on sale. Very obviously, a lot of people will pay top dollar if you are selling something they want to buy. I offer the Stones tour as an example. There are plenty of them.

Which brings us back to the bands. Musicians need to ask themselves what they are doing different today to compete. I would respectfully submit that typically, they’re doing nothing different. They still act and dress like the members of the audience, they play the tunes they want to hear instead of what the paying customers want to hear, and most importantly, they have forgotten the very most important thing: they’re not in the music business, they’re in the entertainment business. All of those folks at the tables in front of the stage are there to forget their troubles and be entertained.

The standards are higher than ever today. Lots of bands can play. Very, very few can entertain. The ones who can entertain deserve the raise. The ones who can’t or won’t entertain don’t.


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