Jughead, A Loaf of Bread and Thou (August 2004 issue)

You can also view this here: http://web.archive.org/web/20070630032027/www.agouti.com/feature.aspx?id=77 and you used to be able to view it here: http://www.agouti.com/feature.aspx?id=77.

Building a successful venue isn’t easy, although so many people try. You can’t just build something, stick a bar in it and say you’re ready for business. First, you have to struggle to be recognized in the scene, and you have to kiss bands’ asses to play at your hole in the wall. Then you have to get the media to cover events at your place (real media, such as Agouti, not a bunch of hacks, such as West Coast Performer).

People read the reviews, and then, eventually, you can do like Bottom of the Hill and make things cost more and more, and pretty soon even the food at the Sunday barbecues — when they happen — won’t be free anymore. Now you can either spend the profits on cocaine or sell the place and start over.

Getting the average joe and josephine music fans in your venue isn’t too hard, but getting their friends into your place is another story. You have to look at what they want, and then obviously you have to provide it. This is where most operators fail miserably.

Two major groups of people go to places that have live music: people there to see the band, and people there to hang out and drink. The first group is a snap. You don’t really have to worry about their attendance. They would see the band play in a BART station, if they had to.

The second group is a bit trickier. They get really disinterested about five minutes into each set. They even will ask their more-interested friend, “Is it supposed to be this loud?” You know this type. They stand out because they call shows “concerts.” Shoreline Amphitheater has concerts. The Starry Plough has shows.

This second group is the type that gets drunk at the bar, shoots pool at the pool table and never buys any merch. The entire concept of merch makes no sense to these people. But they are the backbone of the venue’s positive cash flow, so they are tolerated. Bored people are more likely to drink more, and because such people are generally so insecure, they tend not to ask their friends that do care whether they want to leave early.

So the smart places have distractions. Bottom of the Hill has those free postcards. Most places have at least one pool table. Thee Parkside has a ping pong table. Other places have pinball machines, but herein lies a problem.

Most places that have pinball machines do so as an afterthought. It’s often either far off in the corner or, oddly enough, close to the stage. The old Voodoo Lounge in San Francisco had theirs right next to the employee entrance to the bar. It’s impossible not to be in their way, and they’ll remember you should you come to the bar later for something. Bartenders are whores, but they don’t like being classified as such, so even a five-dollar tip isn’t going to change their perception of you, the degenerate pinball player.

Pinball is a fading industry. It’s been 30 years since Tommy was released, and video games are much easier to maintain. The 10-year transformation from five balls for a quarter to three balls for 50 cents also did not help. It’s not like the country’s tax base, where raising taxes actually does generate more revenue for the government.

Pinball at a venue is usually a good play. Lots of drunks play it, and generally the score required to get a free game is based on the scores of the other players, so the more lushes that play, the lower required score for getting free games.

But those drunks. It’s not all guns and roses. They spill their drinks on the game, whose wiring is directly below the playfield, so trouble is most definitely being asked for there. And when you used to be able to smoke in California bars, people would often use the glass as an ashtray. When you’re drunk and stupid, the logic makes perfect sense.

The worst is that the owners of the venue don’t usually “get” pinball when they have a machine. And truthfully, maybe they do not need to. Drunks will play anyway, and that’s a significant source of income for the machine. The sharps that exploit the machine are generally not welcome because they get free games and play for longer. It’s not cost-effective for the owner.

The owners fight back. They do things like taking all the lights out of the playfield. At the aforementioned Voodoo Lounge, they had The X-Files. This game has a lot of green lights, but not if you play it there. When a band is playing, all the lights in the joint are obviously out, and it makes the playfield very hard to see. Well, who would go to a show just to play pinball? Maybe a bored music reviewer who is covering the show but can’t stand the bands? But again, they have the pinball machine for the drunks, so that’s just the way it will be. I would like to say the reason Voodoo Lounge closed and reopened was because of the poor management of the pinball machine, but really it was just because of poor management.

The other thing that’s great about pinball is the sound. Funny sound effects and a soundtrack often make or break a machine, but when a band is playing, you can’t hear it. That’s not really anyone’s fault. I don’t think a band would like to play if the pinball machine was louder than they were, but oftentimes, it would be an improvement.

The biggest problem with pinball machines in a club is that if something is wrong, nobody cares. If a flipper is dead or part of the playfield is breaking down, so what? You won’t get your money back, and they won’t get it fixed. Drunks don’t notice these things, and it does cause said drunks to finish playing sooner, resulting in higher turnover, should people be waiting to play the machine.

Really, a venue would stand to make the most money by turning all the switches off, so the ball just goes straight down every time. Then they can focus on increasing other revenue streams. Perhaps they will start charging for water.

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