Friday, February 10, 2006

The Man Behind the Curtain speaks!

By Steve Sarkowsky

When blues musicians get together in the Jet City, there is occasionally much bitching about the current state of the club scene. The voice always missing from this discussion is the club owner's. Well, no more! Steve Sarkowsky (below), the Man Behind the Curtain at Seattle's Highway 99 Blues Club, gives us his perspective on this issue here.

I am the founder, investor and house drummer of the Highway 99 Blues Club. I do all he booking, marketing, ads and such for the club. I have been a working musician (yes, drummers are that!) for many years, and have played/recorded with a long list of bands and continue to enjoy music as much as ever. I am currently playing with the Highway 99 All-Stars and also with Portland's Robbie Laws in his Bigger Blues Band. My reason for writing this article is to shine some light on the nightclub business by speaking from the club/booking perspective. Maybe this will provide some insight, inspiration, or just some direction for artists and bands that continue to complain about (not) getting work. Here then are my thoughts...

Have you been to the club you are trying to get a gig in? Do you know that they book the type of music that you play? Have you gone into the club and met the staff, supported other acts, introduced yourself, had some food, and dropped off your promo package? Are you being realistic about your chances of being booked into the venue? Do your homework; spend some time and figure out what the club does and why you should be a part of it.

You have a CD now - big deal...everyone does! Make sure that it is a good product; if you have to defend it, don't bother. Bad CD's = no gig. Want to send a copy? Great, label it and make sure that Mott the Hoople’s greatest hits have been erased! Most importantly, is this actually you and your band? If what you send is not what you are going to bring, that is no good. Clubs want truth in advertising.

Does your family come to your gigs? Do you know and willingly embrace the art of promoting your band? Let's face it, when the club is empty it is always the band's fault, but when the club is full, it is because of the club. Truth be told, it is a little of both. If you don't promote your gig at the club you won't be back. Be progressive; take advantage of technology and develop your audience. It's shocking, but clubs don't really like having no one show up for your gigs.

The Clever Factor – Or, why is that band working and we're not? Do ya have it? Good promo, nice merchandise, strong CD's, cool giveaways (SWAG), and a show....that's right kids, you gotta entertain the troops. How do you and the band look? Is the set list the same since '84? Do you just call some players up that day and get together and jam? Who is actually in the band? Will they be on the gig? Do they know your material, or is it gonna be shuffles in G all night?

Show you the money? Show me the money! Stop bitchin' about the money today being the same as 15 years ago. You’re right and you're wrong. It is the same because you have not raised the bar on what you do. Good bands get good money. If you have fans come to your shows then you and the venue can prosper. You want the same money as a 25 year veteran of the Chicago blues scene who is on a label and tours every spring and summer? Guess again. You want the kind of money that a band that is rehearsed, consistent, entertaining, does those things previously mentioned here and works at getting better as a band? No problem. Work at your craft, love the music, cherish the time you get to perform and the people that play with you. Appreciate the gift of your musical talent, challenge yourself to be creative and to strive to improve. It will make a difference.

Some final thoughts: Remember, if there were not places that presented live music, you would have nowhere to play. Clubs are at best a risky, expensive, potentially life altering experience. They require your support as a musician and as a patron. It means a lot to a club when the musicians hang out there on their off nights. We are in the entertainment business. Each time a person visits our club, we have to try to make sure that they have a memorable experience - the service, the food, the drinks, the staff, the atmosphere, and of course the music. We are doing our part, don't let us down. Bring your best or stay at home. Music is its own universe. It needs to be fed, supported, and thrilled every day. Will you…just do it?


Hellmore said...
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Anonymous said...

interesting-coming from a guy that played every other thursday night for a year and played the same songs every night, boring.

Anonymous said...
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Tiny Tim said...
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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

This must be one of those "do as I say, not as I do" lectures. Somebody, please get that dude a shovel, 'cuz the shit is piling up.

Clifton Hurl said...
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Anonymous said...

You got a lot of nerve telling musicians how to get a gig!!
What a bunch of BS!

Oliver Teethout said...
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Mike Lynch said...

Jesus, nine comments so far on this article, and not one of you cowards had the balls to use your real name! What are you afraid of? Fuckin' pathetic!

Anonymous said...

Oh dear... someone has his panties in wad!

Hellmore said...

Sorry Mike, the genie is out of the bottle,I suggest you sit back and enjoy the ride. After all ,this was your idea, wasn't it? I suppose this could be spun to make Steve look like a victim, if that's the direction you want to go.

Mike Lynch said...

I'll call him/her Anonymous #2 (since there's so many of you)-You say that "...You treat musicians worse than any other club I've had the pleasure of playing in." Let's hear the details, pal! My band played at the Hwy 99 most Mondays in 2005, plus did a harp show there without any problems whatsoever with the owners or the staff. Please tell us about your awful experience.

Hellmore said...

Well, I can't speak for anonymous #2,But I've got a story for you. Last time my band played 99 we played for an 80/20 split of the door, or so we thought. At the end of a pretty good night we were given about a 65/35 split of the door and told by the employee who paid us that the "owner" didn' think musicians should make more than 150 per man.Needless to say I didn't like that, and "the owner" wasn't there to talk about it. But the part that sucked the most was having to tell my band who had brought friends and family who paid cover, that we were getting hosed. It wasn't the worst experience I've ever had (considering I've had ash trays thrown at me ) but I have no plans to return to the scene of the crime. Some (not all) of the money owed was was paid to us, but only due to the hard work of the person who booked the gig for us. The End?

Tall Cool One said...

The Highway 99 Club is a good joint, I think. I like its location (under the viaduct, underground), I like the big stage, the house sound system with experienced sound guys that care about what the band wants to get across, I like the big stage, dance floor, I like the way it looks in there, I like John Lee in the kitchen, I like the Sheriff's photo of "Zydeco Mona Lisa" Rosie Ledet on the wall, and lots of other good pics too, I like the fact that pool tables are well away from the bandstand, and that there are lots of good seats surrounding the bandstand for people who want to listen. The staff at this club have been unfailingly helpful and friendly to musicians when I've been there. I appreciate the fact there is a club that dares to call itself a "Blues Club" in downtown Seattle in this day and age. I've played on the floors of enough sports bars and microbreweries, dumps where the staff can't even be bothered to move the tables around so there's room for the band to set up, and where the bartender has to be reminded to turn off the Muzak after every break, so that I can definitely appreciate a club that sets out to feature live music on purpose, from the get-go, and is willing to stick with it even when times are slow. Thanks, Steve.

Anonymous said...

You know, the problem with blogs is they tend to turn into emotionally charged back and forth debates. They just go on and on in a futile attempt to get the other person to see the light. At the end of the day no one has been converted to the others point of view. So Mike, I'm glad you've had a positive experience with Steve and the club. I have not had a positive experience and I am not going to get baited into a drawn out rebuttal defending my experience. Call me what you will, but I've spoken my mind about the matter and that is that.

Blues-2-donts said...

blues-2-don't here
It's great he has a night club.
But I'm sure his interests go beyond Music. Maybe it's more like a million Dollar property investment. So the suck factor is
pretty pretenious on his part. I have no gigs to win or lose.
It's a nice room, poor location considering the viaduct. But I'm sure he realized that he when invested in it a quick turn over and a big profit. The Blues for him is a facade to make money.
His mentality is he can't play with them so buy a club and brow beat the musicians into playing for next to nothing. It's the same old club owner tune!
And his contribution to the music scene is miniscule compared to the
salmon bay eagles, the New Orleans,
Jazz alley Etc. You get payed better at the eagles club then playing there and it promotes it self to be Seattle's Premiere Blues Club. I hate it when an owner trys to layer himself on to Bands gig.
HOw Lo rent is that.

Blues-2-donts said...


You know I have the up most respect for you as a musician

and a supporter,employer and advocate for local blues.

And in no way does my blog inpune your character or your

integreity as a good musician with a good band..

But for Mr. Sarkowsky to say that we better lump it or leave it

is a bit too much for me to stomach. I guess he has supported your monday night

jam and all that is good and I think you get paid marginally well for your hard earned efforts.

That's not my point. I just get tried of Club owners who don't walk the talk.

Your blog is a very uptown presentation of the blues scene in seattle.

I will post this.

I hope you see my point

Bill Freckleton

Rusty Williams said...

I guess I need to add my two bits.

I played blues in this town when we ("Backbone" feat. Dick Powell) were the only blues band in this town. And to a crusty old veteran like me, it's great to have a club in downtown Seattle that has "blues" in its name. Seattle needed a roots music club desparately. Regardless of how successful the effort has been to this point, Steve Sarkowski's should be appluaded. Would you rather have another alternative rock club? How about some more Karaoke? Go down to Portland and see how much better the blues scene is flourishing in a smaller city.

I have played the 99 Club a few times and no, I didn't make enough to retire, but it was a fun, professional gig and provided a great showcase for my band. And most of all, my followers had a clean, classy and convenient place to see me play.

If Anonymous wants to make more money, Anonymous shouldn't be so anonymous. Steve is largely correct in his promotional and performance advice. If you disagree, you most likely aren't doing too well in The Biz. There is more to success than stealing licks off of records. And if you want to see blues succeed in Seattle, you might consider supporting the efforts of Mr. Sarkowski and his crew.

Rusty Williams

B.I. Cycle-Town said...

I am frankly amazed and rather disappointed at what I have been reading here. Many of the responses to the original posting seem strangely hurtful, vindictive and poorly written.

I was a professional musician for many years. I believe that the original posting you are all responding to was a gift to you—which you are apparently unable to understand. The gift I am talking about is the gift of truth.

There is a business to art and an art to business and doing both well is a very delicate thing. Many artists (musicians) while fabulously talented have little to no business acumen and experience. I can see how this lack of awareness and understanding might make a talented musician very frustrated as to why certain things are the way they are.

When you are sitting in a rehearsal studio practicing your heart out you can have all of the dreams and fantasies you want about your future. The truth of the mater is that there are market, economic, and real considerations and reasons why things work—and why some things fail. It is so easy to blame everyone else for each and every roadblock you may have and make excuses for these events by lashing out at the very people who have attempted to help you.

The gift that Steve Sarkosky gave you was the inside skinny—the real deal. It was an opportunity to see that bridge where the art of business meets with the business of art. He was honest with you—he didn’t pander to what he thought you wanted to hear.

The reactions were predictable—anonymous cheap shots hidden behind a veil of sudo-acronyms. If you feel so strongly about why you are such victims—why don’t you stand up and say so with your names visible?

I have watched the club scene in Seattle for a long time. There have been success stories and failures. Let me tell you—it takes guts to invest the time, energy and money as well as to put your reputation on the line in an attempt to try and do something. To make something. To create something.

When I read the insulting attacks on Steve Sarkowsky—and bringing his family into the thrashing I had to make a comment.

This is addressed to the folks out there who want to complain about the club, the way the club is run and anything else that is none of your business: Exactly what have you done to contribute? It is incredible easy to sit back and complain—it is entirely different to actually attempt to give the city something is says it wants and needs.

I watched the Highway 99 club grow out of an idea into its present form. It is a class location, great room and a fun place to watch a show. Period.

Joel Levin

mx said...

First of all ... Anonymnous posters are pussys !!

Having played in the original
"Underground" scene for many years & then the local "Blues" scene where I have to haul my own PA it's really nice to play in a club that has it's own PA w/ a tech that knows how to run the system. The weekday hours are great, earlier start & end time so a geezer like me can play & then get to bed @ a decent time for work in the am.

The money sucks all over ... if you can't draw or entertain, why do you want to play? If you want money, play County, Classic Rock or Top-40.

I'll Shut up now !!

Mike Lynch said...

What surprised me about the response to this article is the amout of fear and loathing and jealousy it revealed. I'll be careful not to invite any other folks involved with running Seattle nightclubs to contribute here - why should they be subjected to the kind of BS spew that this article generated?