Paid To Play… Or Not.

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starving artist


On a friend’s facebook page, there is a brough-ha-ha that’s going on about paid vs non-paid music venues, and it revolves around the The Starving Artist Bistro in Clovis California.

The Starving Artist Bistro (SAB) is a retaurant that provides a stage for musicians and comics to go up on stage on a whim and perform. Note that the stage is small, so regular full piece bands are not going to fit on the stage. This is a venue geared toward the singer / songwriter and comedian. Musicians usually end up playing about six or seven songs and then surrender the stage to the next guy who is waiting in the wings. Some musicians are ticked because the place doesn’t pay performers, other than tips you might make from customers who are dining there. They have the view that SAB is ripping you off and you’re getting exploited if you play there.

I disagree. I see it as no different than stopping on a street corner, opening up the guitar case, and playing for the passer-by hoping they’ll appreciate what you’re doing, and leave a tip in your case. It’s called busking. When I’m busking, I can do whatever I want, try new material and see if it’s ready for prime-time. I can perfect my art without the pressure of disappointing a paying audience. I’m not contracted to play. I’m doing it because I chose to. I can play six, seven, eight songs. I can play two and bail if I’m not feeling it.

Busking is free, I don’t get paid except for tips, and I have freedom to let it all hang out and see what happens. I have the freedom to mess up and not feel guilty or stress out. I’m just a guy on a sidewalk.

Same with Starving Artist. Everything I said is the same as busking, except it’s indoors, and you have a stage and sound system set up so you can plug right in and go at it. There are songs I would never try and play in front of a paying audience because they paid money and are expecting me to put on the best show possible. I have the freedom to try things out at the SAB and see if it works. I would not let other artists step up on stage with me, grab a guitar or drums, or another instrument, and start jamming with me at a paid gig (unless I knew them and trusted them and I invited them). I can and have done that at the SAB. Sometimes it falls flat. But sometimes I make a new musical connection. I got a gig doing that

They sell food and drink and are making money. Yep. And so do most of the open mic venues that I’ve played at. At one, buying something is a requirement.

I’m not a marquee artist at Starving Artist. I’m not booked in advance. No one has come there to see ME play. Hell, much of the audience may not even care that I’m up there playing. That gives me a tremendous amount of freedom… freedom to play songs other than the typical ones everyone plays ad-nauseum, such as Hallelujah, Sweet Home Alabama, Free Falling, or Freebird (which I will sometimes start and never finish as revenge for all the times I’ve had to endure an audience member yell “FREEBIRD” for all these years). More often than not, I play obscure songs, things that no one has ever heard, but are great songs and deserve to be. Every once in a while, an audience who WAS paying attention will ask me if i wrote it, and then I tell them about  that unfamiliar song and artist. Maybe I’ve just turned someone on to a new artist they never would have discovered. I couldn’t play many of those in a cover band at a paying gig, because people pay bands to hear songs they know and / or grew up with.

I’ve had great experiences at Starving Artist. They are not a venue that pays, and I’m fine with that. Again, this is busking, but in a place that’s better than a sidewalk. There are artists who won’t play there because it doesn’t pay. Fine. If you don’t want to play unless you get paid… More power to you. I fully support that. But don’t knock SAB for what it does. It provides a stage for performers to hone their craft in front of an audience, something that has been sorely lacking in this town. When we were younger musicians, we all…. EVERY ONE OF US… complained at one point or another that there was no place to play. For the singer / songwriter, there is. Plus, when I have my next paying gig, I can go to SAB play a few songs, and generate some interest for those in the audience that may like what I play, and maybe they’ll want to pay to see more.

There is value in what SAB does, if you open your eyes and see it. I play there because I love to play, and it gives me a place to do so on my own time. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE to get paid. That’s great. But I simply enjoy playing for the sake of playing. It’s a rush. It’s kind of like sex… It’s great when I get paid…

OK. That never happens. Poor analogy. Never mind about that.

PS. The food is really good too!!! And where else can I go up on stage on a whim and play bass to “Girl From Impanema” with a friend??? 🙂

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