As part of our ongoing efforts to get more behind the scenes industry presence on Ovrld, we’re kicking off a new column called Give ‘Em the Business, where we ask Austin industry figures to answer questions from readers. Up first is Austin Music People Executive Director Jennifer Houlihan, who has been fighting the good fight for the Austin musical community, representing musicians and venues alike in city politics. She will be speaking at the Austin Music Commission meeting tonight at Austin Town Hall at 6 pm.
I’m a musician looking to get some practice in and make some cash in the process, so I’m interested in busking. Is busking legal? If it is, what’s considered busking? For instance, could I play with a drummer on a street corner? Are there areas I should avoid busking in?
Saw Once, Now Inspired to Claim a Street
Busking is and is not illegal in Austin at the moment, so you are wise to ask for the Real Scoop.
You do not need a permit to play unamplified music or to otherwise express your creative voice on public property, thanks to our forefathers and the glorious First Amendment, which does in fact apply to the residents of Texas, unless you are Cliven Bundy and do not believe in the Constitution.
The trick – at least through June, when the Music Commission is expected to review a draft of a new improved ordinance – is to sing your heart out while not actively soliciting anyone for money. That’s the point where it’s considered panhandling, which is not protected by any amendment and is expressly verboten in the ATX.
“Well, shoot, Houli. How am I supposed to get tips?” This, my dear SONICS, is where we thank the long-dead but much-admired anonymous inventor of The Loophole.
You may not ask people for tips in words or song. You may not have a sign (even a teeny one in an open guitar case that says “Tips Appreciated.”) You may not have an attractive accomplice working the crowd and asking for tips on your behalf. However…you may have an open guitar case, or a top hat, or indeed a chapeau of any sort, with a few crumpled bills letting people know that tossing a few more bucks in there would be Just Fine, Thanks.
Where can you set up? Just be smart. Don’t block sidewalks, or entrances to stores or homes. Don’t set up in the middle of a parking lot, or street, or I35, or on private property. Don’t play in the middle of the night when every business around you is closed and it’s cold and dark.
Remember, APD likes music, too. They don’t want to cite you (we hear they haven’t written an actual citation to a street performer in six years), but they do have to move you on if you are blocking a sidewalk or breaking the sound curfew.
Keep the faith and stay tuned for news on an updated ordinance this summer.
My band has been approached about one of our songs getting used in a new indie movie. But we don’t have a label and we don’t have the funds to hire a lawyer to go through the contracts. What should we look out for? Are there any organizations that can help us?
Looking for Extra Guidance About Licensing
Mazel tov! Licensing is a badass way to diversify your revenue stream from your music.
Luckily for you, you live in the Live Music Capital of the World, which means free music business resources are everywhere. Your one-stop local shop to learn industry do’s and don’t’s is Austin Music Foundation. Kellie and Alex can refer you to the experts to build your team – from attorneys and accountants to agents and recording studios.
Even better, they can help you learn how to read contracts yourself and research licensing opportunities so that your lawyer only has to look over your work. Not only is it less expensive that way, but it also puts your squarely in control of your own career.
Want to get started ASAP? Go to their free legal panel presentation on June, 30at 7pm at Soundcheck Studios, and learn all about contracts and other legal musical questions. Stay after and network with the experts. You’ll be glad you did.
I went to a show recently that I paid $25 to get into, but the headliner I paid to see never performed, because he said the promoter didn’t pay him his fee. So instead I just got to see a bunch of amateur locals open up. I understand why the headliner didn’t want to play, but I think those of us who paid to see him got ripped off. Is there anything I can do? The promoter has refused to give refunds, but is that legal? How can I keep this from happening again?
Spent Cash on Awful Music
You stumbled into one of the slimiest parts of the music biz…the pay-to-play show. And it’s equal opportunity slime: the fan, the local artists, the touring headliner, even the venue get shafted in these deals. Only the promoter is unscathed, whistling all the way to the bank.
Here’s the Real Scoop:
A promoter approaches a venue telling them she’ll put on a show that will bring a crowd, and the crowd will buy lots of drinks. The venue often gives her a weeknight, figuring anyone who comes in will boost a traditionally slow night. Promoter cost: $0.
The promoter then contacts local artists, usually inexperienced ones hungry for stage time, with the “opportunity” to open for MC Tour Headliner, who may or may not be anyone they’ve heard of before. This “opportunity” has a price tag, though – the local artist has to pay the promoter cash up front to buy his/her performance slot. The promoter usually puts that aside to pay the headliner. Even an average headliners can cost a decent amount, so promoters line up as many as 20 openers to cover the expense. Promoter cost: still $0.
Sometimes, in addition to paying the appearance fee, artists are also expected to sell tickets that are way more than a usual cover – like your $25 ticket, instead of a $5 or $10 cover. The artist usually has to give the promoter 100% of the sales, or may keep a token amount (say $3 on a $25 ticket). The promoter’s pockets are starting to fill up now, and all he’s paid for so far is ticket printing.
Is he spending that cash on promoting? Probably not. Usually these guys design a poster or have a friend do it for cheap, and only post it online. Maybe they create a Facebook event. No press releases, no media buys, so street team papering the city. Promotion budget: $0.
Touring headliners, especially at this level, are a skeptical bunch. They’ve been ripped off by the best. Often, they insist on a deposit in advance, with the balance of the contract to be paid in cash the night of the show, before they step onstage. If they are not paid the right amount, if someone scrimps on the rider, if the promoter tries to pay the balance by check – all of these unprofessional actions can cause a headliner to walk…keeping the deposit that was paid for by the 20 opening acts, who are now going to be performing for a very unhappy crowd.
In theory, the promoter should be have plenty of money available for refunds. The deposit was covered by the fees from the opening artists, and his seed budget should have covered the ticket printing and any hard costs, like paying the sound engineer. But if the promoter says there’s no money for refunds, your only real option is small claims court. Most people won’t bother with that much work for $25 or $50. So the janky promoter lives to scam another day.
How can you keep this from happening to you?
IF YOU ARE A FAN:
DO watch out for 12 or more opening acts – they probably paid to get on the bill and are not very experienced; even if they are, they are likely performing in a random order, so the show will have no arc
DO watch for hyped headliners that you’ve never heard of – this tour could be their “prize” for winning a pay-to-play Battle of the Bands in their hometown
DO be wary if the ticket price is way more than the usual cover in your town, especially if it’s for a midweek show
DON’T spend more than you are willing to lose, because you are gambling with shows like this
IF YOU ARE A VENUE:
DO check the promoter’s references – call a few bands and venues who have worked with them more than once
DO consider a rental fee against drink sales – if they bring in a big enough crowd, the rental fee can be waived
DO offer bands that draw the opportunity to rent out your venue directly, instead of using a promoter you don’t already know
DO treat good promoters well – they are rare and need to be appreciated
IF YOU ARE AN ARTIST:
DON’T pay to play. It’s just a 3D version of payola, the illegal practice where radio stations used to charge artists for playing their records. (You shouldn’t pay for internet radio plays, either, but that’s another column.)
DON’T take a gig where you are required to pre-sell an assigned number of expensive tickets, if you personally have to pay for any you weren’t able to sell
DO understand there will probably not be any label or other industry people there, and that the headliner is unlikely to listen to your set, much less book you to open for him/her on their next tour
DO play for free, at an open mic or even a regular show – if you are doing it to gain experience or test new material, or if you know you’ll move enough merch for it to be worth your time
DO look into booking your own shows with a few other bands – if you are willing and able to pay for a slot, and are doing the promoting yourself anyway, and, then why not take that money to do a show that can pay you back – and then some?
IF YOU ARE A PROMOTER:
DO put your own money up first. And be willing to lose it.
DO your research and book bands that will draw.
DO pick the right space. If you need to charge your artists to be able to afford the space you’ve booked, then the space is too big for you or too expensive. Scale back and do it right, and grow from there.
DO spend your money and energy on promotion and media. That’s your job.
DON’T be a scam artist. Karma is a bitch.
Jennifer Houlihan is the Executive Director of Austin Music People. She can be reached by email with any questions or comments about Austin music politics. Next month, Give ‘Em the Business will be devoted to licensing as we speak with Terrany Johnson, who performs as Tee Double and has his own licensing company, Kinetic Global. Send us any questions you have for Tee!