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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written February 1999




This issue, let's take a look at the back of the room. At every self-respecting folk concert these days, there is a table of recordings - CDs, mostly, and tapes perhaps - and maybe some books, videos, t-shirts or even fly swatters for sale. The reason is simple: the artist's sales are an increasingly important part of the overall touring picture.

First, there is the basic fact of life that the door receipts alone sometimes just can't support the cost of the artist's appearance. A brisk night at the sales table can often overshadow the artist's cut of the door, or the flat fee. Secondly, for many folk performers the off-the-stage sale is the only viable distribution that is available to him or her. The best way for your work to land in your fans' collections is to sell it to them yourself. 

Even if you are with an established label with decent (in folk music terms) distribution, there is just no practical guarantee that the local "Best Buys" will be stocked with plenty of your latest for the weekend after your local concert. More often the scenario is that fans will plead to deaf ears to order your CDs into the "folk" section of the local mega store. And the local mom-and-pop store (if there is one) may not have the budget to stock all the good music they would like. You may sell via the Internet, but not everyone is comfortable buying the hi-tech way. The table at the back of the concert is still your best bet to get the music in the hands of your fans.

Many of the most important decisions concerning the sales table happen long before you arrive to play: First and foremost, you should negotiate the strategy of sales with the venue at the same time you negotiate your contract. There are four big questions: Will they let you do sales without a commission? Will they provide a table or area? Will they staff it? Will the staff be fiscally responsible and cover any shortfalls at the end of the night?

Many of the smaller, friendlier folk clubs answer yes to all or most of these questions. Bless them. Some see this as a courtesy to the struggling performer who is playing for peanuts anyway. But, please, don't assume that this is the case. And please don't take a personal offense if any or all of the above questions are answered with a firm "no." Everyone has a different business sense - or a different circumstance -- and may have some fixed ideas about the way things should be done. Besides, if you are a little past the "struggling" stage, the venue might want a taste of your sales as a way to share the rewards of a well-staged event. But remember -- it is entirely reasonable to negotiate any of these points.

The question of commissions is probably the biggest one. There are, of course, two sides to this question. The club may view the CD sales as a revenue source to be shared - they are delivering an audience to you, after all. And they may see 15% as a small take off the top to help recoup their expenses. But you may argue that the audience came to see YOU, not the club itself, and that selling the CDs is your own side business with its own overhead, inventory and fixed costs. And a little easy math can prove that the simple 15% of gross can quickly approach 50% or more of the profits of your retail operation.

There are no easy answers as to which side of the argument is "right." Each concert situation is different. My point is simply that these things are usually negotiable, just as surely as are the terms of the performance itself. Weigh all the issues when you are deciding the initial agreement. If the venue insists on 30% of your sales, but will not provide you with any support for your table, then you might not give them much of a break on your fee. On the other hand, if you suspect a good turnout and brisk sales of a new release, you might play for a much lower performance fee if the venue will sell your product at no cost to you. 

But it is, of course, in your best interest as the artist and retailer to try to avoid paying any fee for the privilege of doing business. Here are a few points you might consider in your negotiations: 

1. Don't rob Peter to Pay Paul. If the club pleads poverty - that they truly need part of your sales profits to meet their budget - ask about a commission kicking in only if they can't meet their "nut" on the ticket sales. Do they expect your show to be a deficit in their books? If that is indeed their expectation, you should be aware of that fact. It should frame the entire discussion of fees and percentages. It doesn't make a lot of sense for the promoter to take fifteen percent from your left pocket in order to fill your right pocket at the end of the night.

2. Whose crowd is it anyway? If the venue is arguing that they deserve a share of sales because they provided the audience, ask them if they draw the same crowd for every act that appears. Have you played in this town before? Mention your mailing list (and the cost of it) if you send one. Do they sell coffee and baked goods? Or liquor? Do they offer a percentage of those sales to the performer?

3. Quid pro quo. Some venues (often art fairs, First Nights, etc.) will demand a percentage of your sales, but are not providing any support services - no salesperson, no table, no security. If you must pay a fee, try to get something for your money. Ask for help schlepping (or storing) the boxes - ask for a table and some chairs - try to get something in exchange for your loss of profit. Appeal to basic fairness.

4. Know when to concede. It doesn't pay to make an enemy of your partners in concert promotion. Good faith negotiation can lead to some good-natured haggling. But don't let the haggling turn into acrimony. Know your break-even point. Always remember that if you really believe you are being screwed on commissions, you have the option to leave the CDs in the trunk of your car. Would you rather do that? That, indeed, is the bottom line.

Just be sure to broach these issues up front. Nobody likes an unpleasant surprise. Minutes before a concert is not the best time to negotiate a deal on sales. Even worse is negotiating the terms after the sales have been made.

Next time we'll look at the sales table itself and how to make the most of the opportunity to sell your wares.

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