Before you play a club, find out its rep

Volume 112, No. 6June, 2012

Matt Plummer

Before you take a gig, you might want to check out, where musicians rate various clubs in New York City and beyond.

Two years after its launch,, billed as the “Yelp for musicians,” is providing an interesting glimpse into the NYC music scene.

On the site, which was set up by the AFM Freelance Services division, musicians review venues they perform at, writing anonymously about their experience and optionally listing details such as the club’s backline, sound quality, room size, whether the club promoted the show and how much the band was paid.

Since launching in NYC, the site has expanded its reach into several regions, including Rochester, Portland, Seattle, and Dallas/Fort Worth. Participation levels were low initially but they’ve grown significantly in the last year.

Targeted to union members and non-union musicians alike, the site is partly an outreach tool for the AFM and partly just a useful resource for anyone booking gigs. Musicians give clubs an overall one to five star rating, and write an account of their experience performing at the venue.

Feedback on Venuology is obviously anecdotal and unverified; nonetheless it’s fascinating to see how musicians on the website judge what’s good or bad about music venues.

The two primary drivers in musicians rating a club highly are the quality of sound and whether they’re accorded respect by venue management and staff. This is hardly a surprise. However, if musicians are treated well in these ways, compensation doesn’t necessarily carry much weight. For example, all three reviews of Rockwood Music Hall in the Lower East Side give it five out of five stars, with accolades for “excellent sound” and “lovely staff,” at the same time indicating they were paid solely by tips and made between $0 to $50 per person.

Musicians posting on the site were highly critical of rude behavior from venue management and patrons. Bands that had been shafted on pay or double-booked were particularly incensed, drawing perhaps the strongest statements on the website, along the lines of “Do not play at this club.” Pay-to-play situations were universally decried.

Among clubs that actually did pay their musicians, whether by a percentage of the bar receipts, cover charges, or guarantees, low pay was cited as a serious problem.

Of course, clubs that never agreed to pay musicians anything – where bands play for tips – avoid any accusations of shafting musicians or low pay. Though the evidence is by no means conclusive, one might posit that some musicians look at venues that pay (be it well or poorly) more critically than venues that do not pay.

Admittedly, in some cases, musicians actually make more money from the tip jar than they do from cover charges. However, the question isn’t necessarily whether an individual’s economic choices are rational, but whether the system as a whole is sustainable for musicians. Does the club scene in New York (and beyond) work for musicians economically? Is it fair that clubs can make significant money from the audiences bands draw in, yet not be responsible to pay the musicians?

Venuology may not yet serve as a rallying cry for reform, but review by review, musicians are making plain the working conditions we’re commonly expected to work under. They’re probably nothing new to those performing in the clubs. On the other hand, a look above the fray, and a dialog about labor with a community of like-minded musicians, might be just what we need. After awareness comes action.

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