Want to Host Live Music at Your Bar? Start Here

By Andrew Turnwall


Andrew Turnwall

June 19, 2018

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

Hosting live music in your bar

Hosting live music in your bar or restaurant is one of the most classic, time-tested event strategies in the history of the business. But, like most things, you’ll find that there’s a surprising amount of specialized work that goes into running a successful music event. Here are six steps for successfully hosting live music at your bar.

Listen to a demo or see them live

We’ve talked before about how you should match the band to your bar’s demographic. But, simply picking a music genre isn’t enough. Accurately describing bands by a prescribed genre—punk vs. rock vs. alternative—is so difficult because there are so many variations and nuances with music. Simply interviewing a band doesn’t really give you a good impression of what their music sounds like.

Similarly, bands that you find through advertising sites or bands that contact you directly about playing a gig aren’t necessarily, well, good. Asking to hear a demo or recordings of them playing at similar venues will give you a good feel for their style, sound, and energy.

Want to experience their vibe for yourself? Ask them if they are playing another bar near you and pay them a visit. Experiencing a band live is truly the best way to decide if they are a good match for your bar.

Get it in writing

You always want to get any kind of agreement in writing. Formal details, such as arrival time, set length, payment schedule, conduct rules, and whether you intend on comping food and drinks for the band should be understood and legalized from the beginning. This protects you in the case of a bad experience, and makes life easier in the case of a good one.

Contracts are also helpful for tracking your experience with a band. Take notes of every act you hire for future reference, so when you’re getting ready to either rebook a band or research someone new, you have a paper trail to reference.


Do I need a license? Probably.

While you may not be playing the music yourself, as the owner of the bar, you are still responsible for acquiring all the necessary permits and licenses.

If the band you hire plans on playing cover songs, you’ll need to purchase a copyright license from a performing rights organization (PRO). These organizations make sure that the songwriters and publishers get royalty payment for the use of their songs. In the United States, the three PROs are:

Keep in mind, paying for a license with one PRO may not cover every song that a band plays. It’s safe to get a license with all three to avoid any copyright issues.

Once copyrights are covered, make sure you get the proper city and state permits to host live music. For instance, in the city of Boston, establishments need a live entertainment license if they want to host instrumental and vocal music, karaoke, a DJ, dancing, or theater shows—a pretty broad range of activities. Some towns or counties may even have different permits for amplified music vs. acoustic. Do your homework!

Consider charging a cover

Depending on the band’s popularity and where they are in their career, they could potentially pull in a fairly large crowd. This is great. In fact, it’s the entire idea behind hosting live music! But, you don’t want a large group of friends or family coming in to show support without buying anything. Charging a cover, even if you offer a first-drink-free promotion, ensures that you don’t lose money in the deal.

Run a sound check

No band worth their salt opens cold. Schedule the band to come in during off hours and run a sound check. Getting everything set up and tested early can relieve a myriad of woes. You’ll be able to test the volumes and ensure the speaker alignment is broadcasting a decent sound (a bad one will leave you cranking the volume for a similar effect.) Doing the sound check ahead of time also gives you space to set up the floor layout before anyone starts filling in the tables and standing room.

Record the event

Once you’ve gotten the proper permits, paid the appropriate licenses, and signed contracts, start promoting the event. Advertise each event on your website, on your social media channels, and in the bar itself. Consider recording each live event and devoting a page of your website to live events, or show off the event highlights on your bar’s Facebook or Instagram page. You can use this video portfolio to attract new acts or as free advertising for those curious about your live shows.

There’s a lot to consider when hosting live music in your bar. But when it’s done right, it’s both a great draw and a fun experience. Rock on!

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