Katy Bourne

Is It You Or the Room?

POSTED ON March 28, 2012 | POSTED IN: My Blog | 5 Comments

The New Orleans

 A few months ago, I had a gig at one of my favorite clubs. Leading up to the gig, I did all the requisite promo; I blasted through social media, sent emails to my distribution list, posted on my website and made sure the date was listed on all the local music calendars. Despite my efforts, the turnout was abysmal. As any sensitive artist would do, I left the club that night feeling crestfallen. Although the band and I had a great night musically speaking, the low draw nibbled at my psyche. I took the small turnout personally. I wondered what it said about my value as a vocalist or my relevance. The monkeys of doubt ran loose in my mind and chattered away with cruel abandon.  About a week after the gig, I had breakfast with my friend and colleague Jason Parker, his beautiful wife and fab photographer Darrah Parker and their daughter, the effervescent Zen girl-Sadie Rose. Over quiche and coffee, I relayed the sad story of my gig to J.P.  and shared the feelings of self-doubt that the experience had unleashed. J.P. listened patiently and then asked the following question: “Is it you or the room?” He went on to say that this particular place is a dark dive that a lot of people don’t like to hang out at. He added that I’m not alone and that many others of our peers have had trouble getting a draw at this particular venue. Needless to say, his perspective was heartening and helped to quiet the monkey ruckus in my head. Everyone needs a friend like J.P.




This question has definitely lingered in my mind. Of course, it is incumbent on we musicians to do the work. We need to put in the time, practice and make sure we’re on our musical game. We also have to do our part to get the word out about our shows. But given that we’ve covered our bases, is it possible that the room itself impacts our ability to draw? If so, why?

 In pondering this notion, I have to think about the places where I seem to draw well and what characteristics they have. The first that comes to mind is the Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel.  My friends and fans really like to come out to the Fireside Room. It’s a truly gorgeous room with an elegant décor, comfortable seating throughout, friendly service and a big crackling fireplace. People like to sit around the piano, enjoy a glass of wine and listen. (Although not all crowds at the Fireside Room are there for the music, the past few times I’ve played there the audiences have been so attentive it felt like I was playing house concerts.) Everything about this room is inviting. The fact that the Sorrento is centrally situated on First Hill with ample street parking nearby certainly helps. Another room I tend to do well in is the North Bend jazz spot Boxley’s. On Saturday nights, we always play to a packed room, especially on our first set. The room is spacious and welcoming and has great sound.  The food is tasty and the staff couldn’t be friendlier. All of these seem to enhance our ability to draw. Admittedly, we may simply be accessories to the Saturday night dinner rush but there’s always a crowd all the same. While some may bemoan the fact that Boxley’s is in North Bend, the distance doesn’t neccesarily seem to be a factor. If it is, it doesn’t matter because the locals definitely support the scene there.


Tonight, I am playing the Happy Hour set at the Musicquarium at the Triple Door. I’ve only played there once before but we had a great draw that night. I think there were (and are) a lot of factors that contributed to the desirable draw. The Triple Door is located smack in the middle of the bustling downtown core and I think the room absorbs some of that lively energy. It’s a sleek and modern space with windows that look out on the busy sidewalk. A big tank with pretty fish accentuates the décor. It’s a pleasant place to unwind. The Happy Hour set is also appealing. Food and drink are discounted and I think my peeps like the option of going out and getting home relatively early.  I am very hopeful that we draw as well tonight as we did last time.

 The one thing that the Fireside Room, Boxley’s and the Musicquarium have in common is that they don’t charge a cover.  What role this plays in the ability to draw is probably significant. If my fans are more inclined to come out to a room without a cover, does this suggest that they aren’t willing to pay to hear me sing or is it more a matter of simple economics?  Door gigs have typically been hit or miss for me. Although there have been nights when the band has fared well and we’ve all gone home with a little extra jingle in our pockets, there have also been times when I’ve eaten it on the door and, after paying my musicians, have walked home with next to nothing. It’s a tricky dance and I’ve yet to identify a consistent algorithm between cover charges and the draw of the crowd.

If I am interested in hearing someone play, I’m not usually deterred by cover charges or what the room is like.  That said, if there’s no cover and the club is relatively accessible, then I am more inclined to pop in spontaneously. Along those lines, two of my favorite scenes are Wednesday nights with the Legacy Quartet at the New Orleans and Jazz & Sushi at Hiroshi’s.  In both of these, the vibe is casual and the music is front and center. The other thing I like about these rooms is that musicians tend to hang out in them, so even if I’m out by myself, I know I will run into friends. I might add that the food at both the New Orleans and Hiroshi’s is really good and really affordable. Again, I’m open to most rooms and circumstances and there are a lot of clubs in town that I love going to. The only real deal breaker for me with any room is if the people who work there are assholes. I don’t go to places that treat customers poorly. Unfortunately, there are a couple of nightspots in town that are off my list because they don’t have their act together in this respect.

  Whether we like it or not, our ability to draw a crowd to a room usually dictates whether we will get hired to play there again. It’s a simple fact of the business. But it is interesting and maybe even a little ironic to consider that the room itself may be a huge factor in whether or not we can get our peeps to come out. As such, should we pursue work accordingly?  When booking gigs, should we put more thought into the rooms we’re working and what qualities they have (or don’t have) that will influence our fan base? Or do the rooms really matter? Is the bottom line the quality of the music we’re making? Is it us or is it the room?


 I would really like to open this one up for discussion. I’d love for any musicians reading this to share thoughts on the “Is it you or the room?” question. How do the places you play impact your ability to draw? I would also love to hear from anyone who goes out to listen to music. How much does the venue impact your decision to go out and see a show?  Have you ever passed on seeing someone play because you didn’t like the club they were playing in? Conversely, have you ever been motivated to see a show based on the venue alone?

The comments are now open.


5 responses to “Is It You Or the Room?”

  1. Vicky Rose says:

    Ah! I remember this conundrum well when your sis, Martha (a.k.a. Mothra)and I played the rock scene in NYC in the 80’s. It was complicated by the fact that each month a new place opened and became the flavor of the month. Some places, however, were true blue for making a few bucks. Sometimes it felt like a popularity contest. My understanding now is that things have changed and that now bands pay to play. I know that to be true here in L.A. as well from my son’s recent live gig experiences at the Whiskey and even little joints out in the Vally. I do not know the jazz scene.

    I have passed on going to see someone at the “wrong” place due to distance or comfort or parking. And I am surprised that, I haven’t up till reading your article, thought it would affect them personally although dismal night surely DID get to me back in the day. Time is more important than money for me these days. I can’t be out until 2 A.M. A show ending at 9 is great!

    All that said, I guess as an artist you throw it at the wall and see what sticks; whether it’s the room, the set list, a new cover, different drummer, whatever. And I can’t help thinking that your question, “Is it you or the room?” is a great metaphor for all those things in life that can make us feel somehow totally inadequate and completely responsible for the actions, opinions and welfare of others.

    The “room” can really get that chatter going. The environment is as temporal as the perfect note you sang when no one or everyone was there to hear it. Who knows? One night you play at Loser’s Nightclub and the place is packed next week you play at an outdoor concert venue opening for THE BIG Jazz guy and get rained out.

    You can make the best choices based on carefully collected data and if there’s no one there and you played great, know it’s not you, it IS the room and find pride in that.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comments, Vicki. Sounds like this issue runs through all genres of music and, apparently, generations. Lots of good thoughts in your post. Much to chew on. Thanks for dropping by the blog!

  2. This is great, Katy. I think it’s true that there are some rooms audiences love to go to, and the reasons can be the many you touched upon: cost, location, overall vibe, and so on. But there’s also that mysterious X factor, and it can show up in the room itself, and in why your band draws well one night but not so well another. Here’s a little story: about five or six years ago there was a venue in NYC. I went there several times to hear friends play. Then I did a gig there myself, and the room was packed to the gills—I’d never seen it that crowded (I’m guessing it seated 35 – 40 people, and it was crowded through the night, so more than that number showed up). Several months later I played there again and all of two people came. The owner wasn’t happy, and cut my pay because he didn’t make any money. Of course, he didn’t remember that the previous time I’d played there he’d had one the best crowds he’d ever had. Who knows why there was there such a difference? Could have been any one of a number of things. I’ve had gigs I’ve promoted the hell out of only to have a disappointing turnout and other gigs where the crowds surprised me. I agree it’s easy to take it personally, but I’m seeing this more and more lately, at other people’s gigs as well. I just try to remember that some of the greats, our jazz matriarchs and patriarchs sometimes played to very small “crowds.”

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your comments, Andrea, and also for sharing your stories. I agree about the X factor. In fact, the room that started all this would fall into that category. I’ve done OK there before and have had turnouts like I described in the blog.

      The thing about draw is that no matter what we do, how well we’ve been doing it or how well we do it, a crappy draw still has the capacity to punch one’s musical self-esteem in the gut. However, the bigger issue-as I discussed in the blog & as you touched on here-is how the club owners view the draw. The size of the draw will impact your ability to get subsequent bookings in a room. Nothing is worse than being on the bandstand and having half your brain worried about the number of people in the seats.

      Ultimately, if we’ve done our part, we should not be penalized if the vibe and/or environment of the room hurts our ability to draw. If you look at the comments on my Facebok page, some music fans give insight into what they do and don’t like about a room.

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Katy Bourne is a Jazz Singer and Writer.