An interview with Lucan Wai of The Central & The Smiling Buddha (Part 1)
[This article was written by Alex Andrews of Ten Kettles Inc. and originally appeared on their blog. Check out their new app for aspiring songwriters: “Waay: Music theory that matters.” Click here to learn about its bite-sized video lessons, interactive exercises, and progress-tracking tools!]
If you’re in a performing (or soon-to-be-performing) band, then booking shows is a regular part of your life. Picking the venue, deciding on the cover charge, organizing the bands, choosing between bookers and a D.I.Y. approach—you’ve likely seen it all. But maybe you still have some questions.
This week we dive deep into the topic of booking shows with someone who’s got a lot of experience: Lucan Wai. Lucan is the owner of The Smiling Buddha and co-owner of The Central—two very popular music venues in Toronto for new and returning bands.
I recently sat down for a chat with Lucan at The Central to talk about his experience working with bands and promoters, organizing great shows, and his advice for new bands. Lucan works with over a 1000 local and visiting bands each year, so you’ll want to check this out. Here is the first part of our conversation (some edits for length and clarity).
Approaching a venue
Alex (Ten Kettles): First off, thanks for meeting with me. The Central’s been around for about 10 years. Have you always booked bands the same way or has it changed over time?
Lucan: We used to do mostly our own booking, my staff and I. In the past, when we just had The Central, it was easy to book it ourselves. Most of my staff are musicians, got some comedians… I’d say 80% are musicians between the two places. It makes us pretty well connected with the local music scene. There are a lot of people in the scene. I got a lot of promoters working with me now, like Gabe Koury from Little Monkey Press. In the past, we’d do most of our own booking—my staff and I—but now we have more promoters come on.
Alex: Out of the 30ish bands a week you book, how many of those were booked directly by the bands and how many were with promoters or bookers?
Lucan: I’d say here, at The Central, maybe 3 or 4 shows a week are with promoters… In the winter we tend to do more stuff in-house as bands tend to be less active. In the spring and fall when there’s more happening, more of it goes through promoters just because more promoters are trying to get stuff out there. At the Buddha, we’re doing CMW (Canadian Music Week) and NXNE (North by Northeast) so both those weeks are strictly for those festivals.
We deal with Collective Concerts a lot now. I’d say at the Buddha, maybe 5 out of 7 nights would be through promoters. It kind of depends. I’ve got some guys, I don’t know if you’d consider them promoters, in our bartending staff who have their own small promotion companies. Whether you’d consider that through a company or in-house, it’s kind of a grey area. Most of my promoters, other than Collective and some of the bigger companies, most of the people who do promotion work also bartend and serve for me.
Alex: As a venue owner, what would you recommend to bands looking to play their first show at one of your venues—do you prefer they get in touch by email, phone… drop by?
Lucan: I prefer emails, because it’s a good way to send links. You can send links to your material, your Bandcamp. And then it gives us a good chance to vet the bands, look at what they’re doing, what they’ve played in the past.
Alex: OK, what are the main things a band should send in an email to you?
Lucan: Links to their material, to their Facebook profile, Bandcamp, SoundCloud. I’d definitely recommend that.
Alex: What are you looking for in these emails? Are you looking for the music, the band’s popularity?
Lucan: It depends. I mean we’re here putting on shows every day. If it’s a weekend and we have a lot of staff working, we want to make sure it’s busy. Most of my staff are local musicians, and they rely on this job to support their music, support their touring. So, I want to make sure we’re busy on certain nights. So, on a Friday or Saturday, I look for someone with more draw or more mainstream music so if someone’s popping their head in, they can think: “I can get into that, I can come in and have a good time with my buddies.”
I don’t think it’s that hard [to get people out]. Toronto’s a pretty big place, so whatever music you’re into, even if it’s kind of niche-y, there’s going to be enough people also interested in it. Especially because my venues aren’t super large. I’ve got like two smaller-sized venues, you don’t have to be that popular to kind of fill them. (Dinner show at The Central with tables is 65 capacity, on weekends we move furniture and it’s 100.) If you have three or four bands, and each member of the band brings out five people, you’ve got a good audience.
Getting an audience
Alex: For a show that a promoter is organizing, who’s generally responsible for bringing an audience?
Lucan: I would say it kind of depends on what your arrangement is, it depends on the promoter. Some promoters have a better reputation or they’ve been doing it long enough that people just gravitate to their shows. People see that this guy is doing a show, they know what to expect, they know it’s a good bill. There are also some promoters just starting out and are a bit smaller… there it would probably be like 95% the bands’ responsibility. You kind of have to speak to the promoter and ask them, but they should make their expectations known. Speak to the promoter in advance to get a feel for what’s happening.
Alex: Would you say that when the bigger promotion companies expect the bands to just show up and play (and not really promote), that it’s geared towards more established bands?
Lucan: Not necessarily, because if you’re maybe not as established a band, if you’re opening for a larger act you can count on the promotion company and the larger act to draw. I think you have to look at the bill and ask the promoter, what are your plans? Are you putting out fliers? Posting on Facebook? Selling tickets? How much promotion are you actually putting into it? There are a lot of smaller promoters who are just starting out, they might hustle and they might put a ton of effort into it, but you don’t have as much exposure so it’s more up to the bands.
Alex: There’s a lot of musicians who think “I’m gonna play, the venue booked me, they should sort out the audience.” What’s your perspective on that? There seems to be quite a variety of opinions on this amongst bands.
Lucan: I think it depends on the venue. There are some venues where they just seem busy all the time. and there’s a lot of paid gigs where that’s the expectation. I know a lot of pubs around here… they have people in the seats right, they just need someone to entertain them to keep them around longer. There’s a wide range. There’s one kind and the other.
You look at the Buddha for instance, most people are there going to the shows. Like, they’re not really interested in the specific music, they haven’t heard about it. With The Central, we have people walking in, popping their head in, checking it out. But again, you have to convince them to come in and sit down. (We keep the second floor free, and only charge cover on the main floor.)
You just have to ask questions when you book a show, just ask them, do you have a regular crowd? Do you have an audience for us, are we expected to bring people? Our arrangement is usually we’ll give them the door and that’s incentive for you to bring people. If you bring people, you get the benefit of that.
Alex: Cool, I think that’s really good advice for people.
Lucan: Before booking a show or working with a promoter, just ask questions.
Alex: So, a band comes in and they play one of these nights, what would make you say “that was a good draw?”
Lucan: It would depend on the night of the week. My expectation for a Sunday or Monday is a lot less than a weekend. And then we look at how much lead time you had: if you’re booking something last minute and it’s not super busy, I’ll take that into consideration. I just want to see that bands are putting an effort into it, that they’re taking it seriously, that they’re showing up early, at least on time. That they’re being professional.
But I try and not stress draw too much, because I know it can be different. There can be so many factors: weather, what else is happening around town… you can book a show and then somebody else books a similar show somewhere else just up the street. There’s so many venues. And I know things happen, like subways stopped working, or weather’s crappy. In Toronto there’s so much happening, so it’s hard to predict. I’ve had amazing bands who, unfortunately, for whatever reason, not a lot of people come out for. You don’t want to put too much pressure on that. Being a musician is tough enough, much less being good at your craft and being asked to pull out a big draw all the time.
Alex: So, main thing is that they’re really putting in an effort and most of the time they can pull a decent audience…
Lucan: I think if you’re putting in an honest effort, eventually it’ll work out. Not every show will be super-packed, but you’ll see that the person is putting in an effort. And it gives you confidence that next time there will be more. If they keep putting an effort into all their shows, eventually it can work out.
The venue’s gotta do our share. Promote in Now Magazine, The Star, our Facebook page. If I see some bands and they haven’t bothered to put a Facebook page together, or I see that they only sent out like 40 invites to the concert…
I’ve got some older bands that say “I don’t do Facebook and I’m not into that,” and I’m cool with that. But if I see some younger bands who haven’t done that, I’ll ask “Are you guys on Facebook, do you have a reason for not having an event page?”
Alex: And if they’re gonna bring people regardless, I guess it doesn’t matter…
Lucan: Right, so at least I know they’re putting in the effort. You’ll see they’ll come, they’ll check out the venue in advance, they’ll speak to my staff, to my audio engineer, they’ll ask them questions about the night. So, even if they’re not bringing a huge audience, they’re taking it seriously. Putting in effort.
On paying the bands
Alex: What’s the normal arrangement, is it mostly that bands take all the cover charge income?
Lucan: We do guarantees with some bands, like if we’ve dealt with you in the past and we’re confident that you’ll still promote.
Alex: Do you ever do something like 10% of the bar?
Lucan: Yeah, we can do a percentage of bar. Yeah it depends. If you do a dinner show where you’re not really sure what kind of draw you’ll get, we might just do a percentage of bar. But for bands though, if you can just charge everyone $5 or $10 that’s a whole lot more than any percentage I could give you. Then you’ve got your money whether or not your fans are buying at the bar… money up front. But if you’re starting out and not really sure what to expect, we can do a percentage but we would have had to have dealt with you in the past to discuss guarantees and stuff. If you’ve had one or two good shows and I trust that you’ll still promote.
I’ve had a few bands, you’ll give them a guarantee and then you’ll see they booked a show a week later somewhere else. Then you know they’re not gonna bring many people to your show. We try not to give radius clauses and stuff. I just ask “Are you playing any other shows?” If somebody asks for a guarantee, I look at where they’ve played in the past, what they’re charging at the door, I’d ask how many shows they’re planning when they’re in town.
Alex: And for any readers who don’t know what a radius clause is, it’s that the bands aren’t playing shows too close to one another?
Alex: So, for bands who want to be playing as much as possible, how frequent would you recommend without setting off red flags to the venues?
Lucan: I would just say be honest. I’ve got a lot of guys who are like “You know what, we don’t necessarily know if we have much of a draw downtown” and we just talk about it. So, maybe instead we’ll do a percentage of bar instead of charging at the door, or maybe put them in on a dinner slot where we’ve got good food and people are coming out for that.
A lot of guys say they can only do weekends. If you can only do weekends because some members of the band are working weekdays, I can understand it, but if you can only do a Friday/Saturday because you’re offended by Thursday or something like that, I don’t understand. Yeah, just be honest and say “Hey, we just want to get more exposure” and then maybe we can pair you up with someone with more of a following.
Full disclosure: I’ve had the fortune of playing both these venues a number of times over the years.
Author bio:Alex Andrews is an engineer, musician, and runs Ten Kettles Inc. in Toronto, Canada. Ten Kettles is an indie app company that builds apps for music education, including Waay for songwriting & music theory, hearEQ for ear training, and the upcoming BeatMirror for tempo-tracking.