The Business of Music- Conducting yourself with Venue Staff

Keith Smith and I Hitting it at the oak room

Keith Smith and I Hitting it at the oak room

I just had a conversation about something I thought was common knowledge, but apparently not, so here we go. Let me preface this by saying I've spent my fair share of time working in the service industry. A good chunk of that was at a well known Jazz club in New York City so I do have some background in this.

When you are hired as a musician by a restaurant, bar or club you are an employee of the venue. As such you will be expected by management and staff to behave as an employee and not as a patron (or worse, a performer). Remember the bottom line: you have been hired to help increase revenue for both the venue and staff. Conducting yourself in a manner that has a negative impact on revenue will result in you not being rehired, no matter how great you sound. 

Here are some guidelines for the uninitiated:

  1. Be sensitive to your footprint. The room is set up to maximize revenue from patrons. Having a band can often result in a disruption of this balance. Do not add to this. Try to take up as little room as possible and ask staff before moving any tables, chairs, etc. Ideally your presence will offset this disruption, but know that staff will be sensitive to it.
  2. Do not expect to be served before patrons. They are paying to be there. You are being paid to perform for them. They get priority, not you because you're on set break.
  3. If you order food for your break, don't be picky. Gauging food preparation time is a magical art often negatively impacted by circumstance. Don't rely on food being ready when you are. Likely a good server will "send" the order early so you will get your food on your break, but if the kitchen is on a roll it may be ready early and sit for a bit before you get it. If you get a cold steak in this scenario that is not the kitchen or staff's fault. If you make this error do NOT send it back. This just puts the kitchen behind for something that is ultimately your fault. To navigate this, order things that can sit like salads or cold sandwiches.
  4. Ask Before sitting at the bar or at a table. If the room is busy you often will be given somewhere out-of-the-way to sit. But even if it isn't, you should always ask the server who's section you want to sit in if it is ok as anyone walking in while you sit there will NOT sit at that table and may deny the server potential revenue. 
  5. Expect nothing. Unless there is a contracted agreement that you are personally aware of that guarantees you food/drink or some discount on either, do NOT expect that anything other than water will be free. Always ask and offer to pay. Its looks much better to do this than to walk out on your tab, even if it's a cup of coffee.
  6. Be aware that discounts are time consuming for management. In EVERY restaurant, bar or music venue I have ever worked discounts are applied by management. This means, when you get your bill discounted, a manager has to stop whatever they were doing to come give you a break on your tab. This is often a courtesy so don't get impatient if it takes a while. If you need to load out quick after a gig, ask for you discounted tab at the set break and then pay it at the end of the gig. 
  7. Tip. 15-20% is standard in North America. That said you are not a patron. A service industry professional having a meal or drink will start their tip at 20% as they know the business. Also this applies to the total of the Gross bill. If you are given a 25% discount due to being a performer you tip 20% on the original amount before discount. It takes the staff the same amount of effort to produce whatever you have ordered and they shouldn't have to take a loss just because you get a discount. Even if dinner is included in the contract I will tip 20% on whatever the actual cost would have been.
  8. Finally, don't be a needy customer. Staff are used to dealing with people who's needs take their time away from other customers, but when that needy customer is a performer it is extra irritating. To avoid this; follow the rules above, don't ask for split bills at the end of the gig (ask in the beginning), don't make excessive modifications to the menu items, don't ask for the drink list to be recited twice. In short, be easy going and easy to deal with. 

In closing, you always want the management and staff to like you. This has NOTHING to do with how you play. Most waitstaff are too busy to listen anyway. You want to make an amazing impression with your professionalism. Many is the time I've walked in the following night and asked the bartender, "How was the band last night?" His/her answer often weighed heavily in whether or not the group was re-hired.

Thanks for reading, feel free to add or ask questions in the comments.


P.S. Have a happy holiday season!