This week, I'll be in Amsterdam at the International Documentary Film Festival, attending the debut of a documentary about the first 10 years in the history of Twisted Sister.
Invariably, when we tell the story of how the band survived 10 years in the New York and New Jersey bar scene while struggling to get a record deal, people want to hear war stories about shady club owners and how we dealt with the implied "mob scene." Yes, it is true that many of the owners, bartenders, and bouncers had names like Tony, Sal, Vinnie, Tiny, Fat Scotty, Muscles Marinara, and Spicy Potato Salad. (OK, maybe not the last two.) I can also tell you that in the very early days, we were instructed to do whatever we were told. (If they tell you you're too loud, turn it down! If they say you're not playing enough Rolling Stones, add more Stones songs!)
So when it came time to negotiate for more money, I had to figure out how to do that without fear of winding up at the bottom of a bay. I realized that demanding more money probably wouldn't go over well, so I decided to take a much more methodical approach.
Bringing Brains to a Gunfight
First, I started hanging out with the club owners. I'd tell them jokes, and at the end of the night (assuming everybody was in a good mood), I'd ask how many people came to see our show. The answers I got usually weren't very accurate. I was able to size up a room pretty well, and the numbers they gave me were often low. They never wanted the bands to know how well they were doing.
So, I started bringing in a friend to sit at the bar and use a clicker to count how many people paid to get in. Then, I'd ask the club owner how many people came. Even if he said 150, I would know there were more than 200 paid that night. I also started to hang out after hours with the bartenders, and they'd tell me how much they made in tips and what percentage that amount was of their total bar take. I multiplied that amount by the number of registers, divided by the number of customers, and pretty soon I had a good idea of how much the club was making per head on the nights we played.
Then, I would come on nights that other bands were playing--bands that I knew were being paid more than we were--and I'd do the same calculations. If we were bringing in the same amount of sales or better, we could ask for a raise confident that the club owner needed us just as much as we needed him.
The strategy worked, and slowly we got paid more. We poured the money into better equipment, put on better shows, and started to move up the ranks of the club scene. Because the legal drinking age was 18, the pool of customers was huge--and so were many of the bars. Some of them held as many as 5,000 people. In other words, the club owners had a lot invested in these rooms, and they needed to fill them.
As we grew more popular and started to draw thousands of fans four and five nights a week, all within a 75-mile radius of Manhattan, the pressure increased to keep the rooms full. Our approach was to convince the club owners that we were partners. On nights when the gas crisis or bad weather wreaked havoc on the local bar scene, I recognized that just because we had a guaranteed fee, some nights were not financially successful. I would sit with these owners and actually hand them back several hundred dollars. I did it before they asked. That way they knew that I understood their problems. Over time, we built trust. Other bands that didn't do this suffered. They created bad blood, and as soon as their crowds began to shrink, the club owners couldn't wait to cut their pay and be less cooperative in many other ways.
We, on the other hand, had a very different experience. I would sit down with these guys and say that we needed more print ads or more radio advertising. They almost always agreed, because we invested some of our own money into this promotion pool. We would sink or swim together. The band became the biggest guaranteed draw in the history of the New York and New Jersey bar scene. The club owners even started to root for us to get out of the circuit and represent the best rock had to offer from the New York and New Jersey area. Many of them lent us money (advances for future shows, without the "vig") for demo tapes, rehearsals, and trips to Europe.
To this day, the club owners who are still alive remain friends of the band, and some even appear in the documentary. Yes, in the early days some thought we played too loud, and, yes, some didn't like that we wanted to play original material, but the relationship was always respectful. We were never threatened. We always proved our point with an economic model that worked for all parties. To quote Michael Corleone in The Godfather: "It's just business, Sonny. Strictly business."