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Hospo Runs on Handshakes

Words by Muso.

A big fan of unsolicited advice? New to performing live music? An old hand but want a refresher course on venue etiquette? Well, read on friend as we give you some hot tips on how to makes mates with the venues that pay your rent.

It’s sometimes tricky to weave through the murky and esoteric etiquette in dealing with venue operators. Venue staff can often appear too busy/hungover/apathetic to ask, and musos are often left to their own devices to figure out if they’re going to get blacklisted for not playing Wonderwall. As a long-term hospitality veteran (read: failed Arts Student), I’ll give you the skinny on the do’s and don’ts of dealing with hospo crew. It’s like a How to Win Friends and Influence People, if Dale Carnegie used to run a bar.

Make Mates

Hospitality is a game that’s built on handshakes. Venue operators appreciate relationships. It’s the currency that keeps the industry afloat, that and wine-by-the-glass. It’s never a bad idea to cultivate a positive relationship with the staff and management. Simply said, hoteliers appreciate it when you come up, and say g’day.

In hospo, if you rock up at 5:59 for a 6pm shift, you’ve unlocked an efficient way to get your hours cut. It’s certainly worthwhile to rock up with 15 minutes up your sleeve and get the lay of the land. Make sure the P.A.’s working, check in with the manager, read the vibe of the crowd. This is also a great chance to check in and see what music they usually like to have on, and what kind of atmosphere they like to cultivate. 15 minutes of your time will speak volumes to the staff, and ensure you’re off to a great start.

(Don’t) Take the Piss – How to approach a bar tab

Time to chat about everyone’s favourite topic, free booze. Just like the NSW parliament at the moment, there seems to be no hard and fast rules on what’s fair game here. Personally, I’ve always offered my talented minstrels a bar tab. It’s a great way to show some love and build a rapport. However, that’s not always the done thing. You’ll just have to suck-it-and-see.

The math breaks down like this: anything north of $60 is a generous rider, $30 will get you three pints (decent) and $100 will bring with it high expectations of professionalism and performance. You’ll get double points for using a part of your tab to shout a deserving patron, triple points for shouting a knock-off for the bartender pouring your drinks.

Praise be! You’ve scored yourself a little tab for yourself and your mates to imbibe. You’re free to enjoy all the house wines, tap beers and basic spirits your heart desires. I’d steer away from ordering a double martini and a burger before your gig. We’re not at a Byron wedding here, that tab is for you to get a little buzz on, lubricate the environment and ultimately encourage good chat from the talent.

However, not every publican feels the need to provide a rider for their musicians. It’s seldom a personal slight or a money-saving exercise, they simply don’t feel a couple hours of entertainment is worth a few free beers. Their staff aren’t allowed to drink on shift, and neither is the musician in their view. There’s no beef here, just an old school way of doing things. 

No doubt a shame, but thankfully this kind of behaviour is going the way of the dodo. Remember – the good operators aim to cultivate a positive relationship with everyone in their orbit. If you’ve got a couple of drinks on a tab, bonus. If you don’t, bailing them up about it would be a bad idea. It’ll doubtless leave a bad taste in their mouth. Not an ideal starting place for a residency.

BYOB (The extra ‘B’ is for Buddies)

There’s no easier way to the mushy heart of a publican than to bring a crew (read: patrons) with you. Generally, they won’t expect it, but it’d be cooler if you did. This is totally a win-win. If you’ve got yourself a bar tab (see above), you and your mates can grab some free schooies. Meanwhile, the venue’s got more bodies, to help establish a vibe. Chuffed.

Here’s the breakdown – if you bring 5 mates, each of whom spend $20 on drinks, then that’s paid for a third of your wage. A publican can smell that math a mile off.

Read the Room

The most common gripe I hear from publicans regarding musicians is that they haven’t cultivated the right atmosphere. ‘What’s the right atmosphere, then?’ I hear you ask. Excellent question. Most often, venues want a more upbeat vibe that will encourage patrons to stay longer and spend larger. As a musician, you can cultivate this kind of atmosphere by engaging with the crowd and making sure your music matches the environment.

Quick fire, here’s some tips on how to check the vibe. 

1. Pick a table about 15 meters away, if you can hear them laugh, that’s a perfect volume.

2. If everyone is holding their drinks and sipping at a consistent rate – that’s golden. If they’re static on the table for a while, it means that they’re not enjoying themselves fully.

3. Toe tapping and knee slapping, that means they love your sound (obvs).

Feedback Loop

After your gig is a great time to engage the person that pays you. Check in to see how they enjoyed your set. Enquire to see if there’s any favourite songs that the staff and punters particularly enjoyed. Tell them about some of your new music. Compliment them on their venue, and their patrons and see if they’ve got some feedback for you. Just have a quick chin wag. Not only does this showcase your professionalism, but it will also foster trust with the venue crew. Consequently you’re in a much stronger position to expand your set list, bolster your likelihood of a permanent slot and fortify that elusive hourly rate in the future.

Sound Check

One of the most important indicators of professionalism is how little of a pain in the arse a musician is to the venue staff. Double check the equipment requirements of the venue (we do make it ever so easy for you), make sure all your tackle is in tip-top working order and that you bump in with everything you need for a successful gig. I know it sounds like common sense, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a Vinyl DJ rock up without an extra needle. Venue managers often have several balls up in the air at any given moment, throw them a faulty mic stand, and a Stratocaster that screams like a banshee, and they’re likely to drop their bundle.

Live music is a team sport, often an excellent musician or a tight DJ is the highlight of my night as a bar manager, and some of my closest friends have started as DJ’s or musicians I’ve hired. Regardless of what venue I happen to run this week, I’ll always make sure they’ve got a slot. Hospo runs on handshakes, follow these rules, and handshakes will become hugs.

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