Jake Old: A rough night for a power trio

Jan. 11, 2014 @ 11:48 PM

During my not-quite-so celebrated stint as a struggling musician in Middle Tennessee, I had some strange experiences with strange individuals. Notably, the homeless man whose entire body, from head to toe, was painted blue for no discernible reason as he walked the streets of downtown Nashville with his guitar, harassing people with his slight musical abilities and his far greater skill, begging for cigarettes.

One experience that stands out to me is an evening when my old band played a show at a club in my hometown. We joked that it was a speakeasy because shady dealings always seemed to occurring there. When we mentioned this joke to the security guard, he didn’t seem to get it. He actually nodded his head and said that the club was indeed essentially a speakeasy, so we were right.

When we were booked to play there, we were promised as percentage of the revenue from door admission price. Naturally, we figured that with our friends coming out, and potentially the friends of the other bands playing, we would make more than enough money to cover the cost of gas, along with the price of Dr. Pepper and cigarettes, necessary parts of any Saturday evening with my former bandmates.

Initially, we were told that we would be the last band to perform, which was fine with us because it meant we would be able to listen to the other bands and hang out for a little while before playing. When we got there, we were told that we were going first.

Our band was a three-piece power trio. I was the guitar player and lead singer, the bass player provided additional vocals and the drummer was almost completely hammered by the time we started playing, so I could really put anything down for his duties and he couldn’t actually dispute it.

That night, when we got all of our instruments tuned and turned up very loudly, we tested to make sure the PA system was loud enough. It is my experience that if you rely on the PA system at the venue, you’re probably going to be let down. This was no exception.

When I played my guitar and sang into the microphone, I could barely hear myself through the speakers. Someone suggested that we turn the instruments down so that the vocals could be heard clearly. Our drummer scoffed at that idea, because we played rock ‘n’ roll, he said. We didn’t turn down our instruments.

We began playing our first song, and within seconds I realized that, even yelling into the microphone, I couldn’t hear myself at all over the avalanche of drum, guitar and bass.

Several times during our set, someone from another band went to the sound mixer, attempting in vain to get the vocals louder. The owner of the place didn’t like that and shooed him away a couple of times, and actually turned the volume down because he didn’t want to blow out his speakers.

Unfortunately, at the last minute, the owner was apparently hoping to entice another band to perform, hoping they would bring lots of customers, and promised that band a larger cut of the night’s proceeds. And he didn’t tell the other bands about that. At all. We learned about it from this one particular band.

The owner was severely misguided, as not a single person showed up for that later band. But whatever, no sour grapes from us. We would take our smaller than promised cut and go on about our nights. Even with a smaller percentage, it should have been plenty to cover the gas, so it’s not like the night was a complete waste.

When we went to get our pay, the owner handed us a 20 dollar bill. That’s what we got for the nigh. Not $20 each – $20 to split three ways. Obviously, many struggling bands play for nothing, which is a separate problem that can be tackled another day, but when you have been promised a ball-park number, and are actually paid far less, it’s rough.

“I’m trying to run a business here,” the owner said in his New York accent, after admitting that it wasn’t a percentage of anything, he just decided that’s what he would pay us.

We took our $20 and left that speakeasy, stopping by a gas station to grab a liter of Dr. Pepper and a pack of cigarettes, and we were still out the gas money it took to get there. We still partied all night, even with our empty pockets.