Imagine this scenario: You’re a musically inclined person. You tell people that you’re not that great at your instrument but let’s be honest, you’re better than most people and if you put your mind to it, you could play just as good if not better than the professionals.
You may even be a professional yourself but you don’t play out very often and you’d like to play out more and this thought happens to come across your mind while having dinner with some friends at a nice restaurant. You even think to yourself “this would be a nice place for some live music”.
And then you resume talking with your friends, go home to sleep and dream that same recurring dream you have of playing at a rock concert, jumping into the crowd and then wake up falling on your bed…Oh wait, maybe that’s just me.
The point is the thought never even occurred to you that you could be providing a great service to that restaurant by playing for it. And the greatest thing is you can be compensated for doing something that you enjoy.
This article is primarily geared towards getting restaurant gigs for players who are just starting out and players who’ve been playing for a while and just want a steady gig on the side for some extra pocket change. Not to say that the information in this article can’t be used for other types of venues as well.
All of the ideas are solid never-changing concepts that stand the test of time but the context is different depending on the venue. This system is designed for you to be able to walk into a place that has no music but has potential, captivating the owner and creating a gig for yourself.
Credit goes to my good friend and pianist Sims Kline for helping me write this and providing some of the valuable information contained within. You can see some of his work at https://soundcloud.com/sims-kline.
Let’s dive right in. Restaurants want background music. They want a nice ambience, not a concert or someone who’s being loud. As a musician we have to understand that the people who go to restaurants are having dinner often with friends and family.
They’re paying good money to be able to sit at a nice restaurant and talk to each other and they don’t want the musician to intrude but they like to hear the music a little bit. So that’s the deal: Background music as opposed to a live show.
Step 1: Case the Place
Go into a restaurant that you enjoy frequenting or that is near you. Ask yourself “Is this the kind of a restaurant/menu/clientele that maybe background piano would appeal to the owner?” Because if it doesn’t appeal to the owner, you’re dead on arrival and nothing will ever happen. The owner (or the operator of the restaurant) controls everything.
Don’t go in with a portfolio and CD ready to sell to the owner. This is the worst thing you can do and it will get you turned down quickly. Besides most owners have so many CD’s from musicians that come by wanting to play for them that it’s a problem on how to dispose of them.
Instead go in and sit down, and relax. Wait for the server to bring you a menu, order dinner and a drink. Talk to the server, learn his/her name and remember it. Get a feel for the place – who else is in the restaurant? What demographic frequents the venue? What are the menu prices? If it’s a bargain-basement chop shop, the restaurant is not going to pay to have music, so you just enjoy your meal and leave. If everything lines up, it’s on to step 2!
Step 2: Scope the Space
Look around and ask yourself “Is there anywhere in this whole place where there’s just enough room to plug in a digital piano or guitar and amp?” Sometimes you’ll encounter a place that there isn’t any room unless you take away 2 or 3 tables.
The owner does not like to do that because if he’s already paying you to perform there, he would now have to turn away potential clientele because there’s no room for them. They’re more inclined to only have to move 1 table to make space.
For smaller spaces there’s no need to bring anything more than a digital piano or guitar and music stand. If you’re a pianist and the keyboard doesn’t already have built in speakers, a small amp isn’t going to take up much more space, either.
Don’t be afraid to walk around. After all, you’re just a curious customer soaking in all the restaurant’s little nuances. If someone asks if they can help you, you can simply say “I’m wondering if there’s ever any live music here.”
If walking around is not an option for you, you can simply stay where you are and converse with the wait staff by asking if there’s ever any live music. They may say something like “Only for special occasions” or “Sometimes we have a DJ on the patio”.
Always tip the wait staff generously. They will remember you with special fondness and will even speak well of you to the owner.
Step 3: Give Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse
Ask if the owner is around. If not, make an appointment over the phone. It’s important to note: never close a deal over the phone unless it’s under really unusual circumstances. Phones are to make the appointment only.
Before I move on to meeting the owner I feel I need to say that the ideal for professional musicians is to never have to do things for free and/or exposure. However, this scenario is for musicians looking for a steady gig and supplemental income, establishing long term relationships with restaurant owners, and using restaurants as a conduit into the field of the music business.
The following advice is a one-off type situation and should not be repeated twice at the same venue. I would normally never advise doing gigs for free or even below the $100/hr per player standard base pay for professional musicians as a steady gig because it does hurt the musicians’ economy and it does devalue professional musicians’ line of work.
That being said, this is the restaurant business and I wouldn’t advise any professional musician to depend on restaurants as a primary source of income because restaurants really can’t afford to have live music unless they’re in a very affluent, busy area.
Right now, we’re talking about musicians who are just making their way out into the playing world. Restaurants are a good starting point and for professional musicians. It’s a steady side gig. It’s also a place we can build repertoire and practice and hone our craft for bigger, better gigs. Professional musicians can afford to take a lower pay because it’s a steady paycheck and not a hotel convention that rolls around once a year.
This statement is not to devalue the restaurant business either, but it’s a very tough industry and restaurant owners have to keep an eye on every dollar that goes in and out of that establishment.
Now that that’s out of the way, offer value to the owner without asking for anything in return. In the words of the Godfather, “give him an offer he can’t refuse.” Something that will cost him nothing and he has everything to gain is a win-win situation for him. Offer a trial run on one night so the owner can see you perform.
Don’t nickel and dime asking for food and drink, just give them and their guests a nice ambience they can enjoy during their dinner hour. Order dinner yourself and always tip the staff well.
Remember: you are building a long standing relationship! If things don’t work out, you can continue to be a patron who knows the owner and is friendly with the staff.
Step 4: Get the Gig
Make sure that on the night of your trial run, the owner is present. Even if you have to wait a week or two, make sure he’s there to see you play. After you finish, have a mini meeting with the owner to discuss how it went.
If he likes it, he will ask you to come back. This is when you come back to him with a price that is the standard for the area that you live in. If he agrees, great!
If not then find a number you both can be happy with. If he goes below the number you like it’s okay to turn it down and walk away. Just say “I wish I could but I simply can’t play for that amount” and end on a good note. If he accepts, then you can proceed.
Next determine the time you play and the specific break times. Standard is 45 minutes playing followed by a 15 minute break. I like to give the owner a full 60 minute set in the beginning and then 15 minutes off followed by 45 minute sets.
Extra Tidbit: Amenities
Once the gig is secure and you’ve established a price you can move on with the conversation. If you’re playing 2 hours or more, you can reasonably ask to be fed as well with a comped meal.
Don’t push on this one. It may be settled with an employee discount. Most owners within reason will agree to this, but be prepared for the owner to say no, and you must take that with grace.
So remember these 4 steps:
1: Case the Place
2: Scope the Space
3: Give Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse
4: Get the Gig
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Harry L. Rios
Founder of HarryLRios.com
Harry L. Rios.com
Photos used under Creative Commons from Art&Music*Woo-Hoo, starmanseries, quinn.anya, woodleywonderworks, quinn.anya, devinStein