And now, time for some actually useful advice from seasoned road dog and tour manager to the stars (the Hold Steady, Drive-By-Truckers, and others—but who’s asking?) Dave Burton. Today’s inquiry: What do you do when the club promoter stiffs you?
There are so many variables out here on the road, so many curveballs both hanging and in the dirt. Sometimes the bingo card is filled by noon, sometimes not. Challenges are teaching moments. It ain’t easy out here. It’s not all sustainable cold brew and farm-to-toilet fare in a mid-century modern setting. Every once in a while, it’s death by decaf and gigatoni on a paper plate. When the road gives you lemons, make limoncello.
Say you’ve spent the winter recording and mastering your magnum opus with money skimmed from your grandfather’s money-laundering operation. This financial windfall has enabled you to record on the best home studio equipment in the back room of the East Nashville Skee-Ball club across the street from your house. You paid some heads to play all the instruments, with you taking all the credit. Thanks to FaceSpace and a legion of former fraternity brothers, you’ve secured your band a string of shows opening for viral sensations the Spectacularly Unremarkables. You’ve been accepted to play a showcase at South by Southwest at 1 a.m. on closing night, so you book some warm-up shows to play en route before hooking up with the proper tour in West Texas a few days later.
Every once in a while, it’s death by decaf and gigatoni on a paper plate. When the road gives you lemons, make limoncello.
You’re psyched. You get the uncredited musicians to commit to coming on tour and set about to learning their songs. A van is secured. A too-big trailer is purchased on the advice of a former roadie who works at the Skee-Ball club. You call in some favors from that older guy at the bar whom your future ex-girlfriend slept with whilst you were in Barbados at Christmas. He makes the best shirts on clothes donated to the local textile recycling. They’re the bomb.
You play your first show at the Skee-Ball club for 100 percent of the door and make almost four figures. You forget to pay the support band, instead texting them for their Venmo account and a promise to hit ’em with $50 later. “A home run of a gig!” claims the utility guy. After a huge celebration, you and the band skulk off, hammered, to sleep it off. “Easy drive tomorrow,” someone says.
Hungover, you all meet at the Skee-Ball club to load the too-big trailer. Everyone has overpacked. You have three weeks with the Unremarkables. You suspect that the utility guy may have actually brought the contents of his apartment.
The next gig is at a ramshackle dump in a strip mall at the arse end of nowhere.
The next gig is at a ramshackle dump in a strip mall at the arse end of nowhere. But they have your poster on the wall, and the club owner, who appears to be higher than hell on a drug you’ve never tried, has even higher hopes for the evening. It’s his 50th birthday, and all his friends are coming out for a rager, he says. You and the band are pumped. You get through soundcheck and hit the BBQ place across the parking lot and kill a couple hours before the 9 p.m. show time. It is billed as “Open Bar With the No Hope Orchestra: Tickets $10.” The promoter is rubbing his hands together at the thought of it all.
The place is jam-packed, and you pull off the 27-minute set with gusto. Shots are provided, cans consumed. Good vibes abound. You send the utility guy in to get paid the $100 guarantee from the promoter and birthday boy. Seconds later he comes shuffling back. “He won’t pay, says that we drank our guarantee and broke two microphones,” the utility guy blurts out angrily. “What are we gonna do?”
I can tell you from both first- and secondhand experience what you don’t do. You don’t find his address and remove whatever valuables you can find—the backwater county authorities will have you eating bologna sandwiches quicker than you can say, “Sorry, sheriff, we were just putting these back.” You also don’t utter any kind of threat of violence, in written or verbal form, toward anyone either real or virtual. As tempting as it is to throw something heavy through the tempered glass window, or call up the aforementioned money-laundering grandpa for the missing page of his Rolodex, this is 2022. Different rules apply.
Instead, you get the promoter in the office for a tête-à-tête and remind him that your agency, Flat Cap Bros Booking, will never give them another band until that $100 bill, rolled tightly on the mirror on the makeshift coffee table, winds up in your pocket. Leverage is yours, anyway, and the contract states as such.
You do have the contract and/or an agent, right? No? Well, in that case, handle it in public—in a very firm and measured tone. Get the sympathetic sound guy or bar staff or significant other in on the conversation. Play all ends against the middle. Hit ’em where they yelp, record them admitting to stiffing you, take ’em to task on Tripadvisor, note all of the health department violations and document them. Hit every social media platform. But as previously mentioned—DO NOT BREAK THE LAW. IN ANY FASHION. That is bad juju. In the modern age, there’s rarely something that can’t be solved after the fact when cooler heads prevail.
Barring that, take all of their toilet paper, if there is any, and sneak it into your too-big trailer. It will come in handy at the next shithole you play because the boss there doesn’t pay the bills. Or sell it from your front porch the next time there is a major weather event or global pandemic. People love that shit.