For some bands, a freeloading fanbase is better than none
Bad economy might be best thing to happen to local music scene
There's a strip of Charles Schultz's 1950s "Peanuts" comic that's striking a chord within the Atlanta music scene as of late. In the comic, Charlie Brown shuffles by Lucy, seated behind her lemonade stand. Instead of selling lemonade, she has scribbled on the front of her booth, "Psychiatric help 5¢." After studying the sign, Charlie Brown asks why she's charging a nickel. She replies in her typical, know-it-all tone, "It's what the market will bear."
Lucy's predicament isn't far from the reality percolating within Atlanta's music nightlife. Since the summer of 2007, the Star Bar, Little Five Points' gruff local music haunt, has hosted a series of free weekly shows every Thursday night. Likewise, since early 2009, 529 in East Atlanta has done the same every Monday night. The strategy is clear: Dropping the cover charge increases the volume on what's otherwise the slowest night of the week. But what started as an experiment is becoming the norm. This week 529 is in the midst of a 10-day streak (Oct. 31-Nov. 9) of shows that won't cost a dime. When asked why, the club's promoter Randy Castello of Tight Bros. Network answers as though he's reading from that same old "Peanuts" comic. "It's what the market will bear," he says. "The free Monday shows were always good for us, but in the meantime we were charging covers every other night of the week and struggling to pay the bands."
With the economy in such dire straits, club owners and promoters are wracking their brains to keep people coming through the door and buying drinks. While some artists feel that free shows lessen the value of local music, dropping cover charges could be the best thing to continue fostering a strong local music scene.
Star Bar promoter Bryan Malone recalls business being painfully slow in the summer of 2007. "We were doing anything we could to get people in here," Malone says. "Pop Death Squad promoters started booking free Thursdays once a month, and they were so good that eventually it became every Thursday and it turned the whole bar around."
Nowadays promoters, including Malissa Sole of 4th Ward Heroes and Luis Sandoval, hold down the free Thursdays, which have become Star Bar's signature nights. Typically, bands are paid about 20 percent of the bar's sales, but the real payoff comes with the large crowds that show up, crowds that even a $3-$5 cover charge might scare away.
In East Atlanta, 529 pays bands on free nights through bar sales and donations taken at the door. Granted, the room's small capacity (under 100) facilitates such benevolent economics. Because the bands that typically play there are on the upswing, most charge small performance fees that are rarely more than a few hundred dollars.
Other slightly larger venues around town — the Earl, Drunken Unicorn, Masquerade — have a harder time pulling off free shows because of higher costs. "If you have a band on stage with a $1,000 guarantee, and you're paying them off of the bar, you won't have anything left," says the Earl's promoter Patrick Hill.
Smaller bands have the most to gain by playing free shows. "Invariably there are more people at free shows, and to me that's more important than getting paid," says Andrew Wiggins of Atlanta noise rock bands Wymyns Prysyn and Hawks. "A lot of times touring bands make more money on donations than they would from the door, at least in the case of lower-tier DIY bands."
But not everyone agrees with such voodoo economics, especially artists and promoters that feel local music is cheapened as a result. "Nobody wants to pay even five bucks for a good show if they've seen the bands for free in the past couple of months," says Mary Collins who books the Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge and plays guitar for local punk bands Ice Bats and Can Can. "If that kind of thinking goes on long enough, live bands won't be worth an admission price at all — even if they're a great band."
The long-term effect of so many free shows remains to be seen. But if they're exposing more people to local bands that they wouldn't normally pay to see, then the value lies in the broader audience.
"It's not much different from the pay-what-you-want format in the download age," says singer and guitarist Joseph War. "There's a shit-ton of music out there, a shit-ton of bands and a shit-ton of records. It's always been that way, but what's different now is the platform. And that platform says, 'Hey, why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?"