Tuesday evening, I got an email from a promoter asking if I was interested in filling in for an open slot on Wednesday night at Wicked Willy’s, a club on the (in)famous Bleecker Street. Though I’ve never played there, just last week I went to the Red Lion, a club down the block from Willy’s, to see a friend play. It was the kind of scene I expected from the strip, a mix of tourists and NYU students, both enjoying cheap margaritas, pitchers of Bud and loud cover bands. So when this email came, after a quick glance at their site (“time flies when you’re drinking rum!”) I knew what I would be getting myself into.
Still, I was up for the challenge of trying to get across to a crowd in party mode, and thought it might allow me to play before a crowd I wouldn’t normally encounter otherwise. Moreover, I had no plans for the night, and there was no pressure to try to promote the gig in the 24 hours before set time. I wrote back and accepted the slot, albeit not without a few misgivings.
I arrived in the place to find abundant pirate-related decorations, unbelievably cheap drink specials, and an acoustic duo doing a decent version of “Bye Bye Love”. The last was promising enough, though after a few more songs I realized they were playing nothing but cover tunes, each in precisely the same style. They sound was decent enough, and there were a handful of people listening to them play, though as soon they finished both band and listeners repaired together to the back room, which is dedicated to beer pong (I wish I were kidding).
The soundperson got me going quickly, and I got going with my set, as upbeat as possible. There were people scattered around the place, and occasionally I earned a glance, but by and large they had their eyes trained on a conversation partner or a football game on one of the TV’s.
No matter what I played, there was no applause. Whenever this happens, I try to just keep the music going as it’s just too embarrassing otherwise. I blew through my dozen songs, said a “thank you for listening, everyone!” from which I drained as much irony as possible, and was rewarded with a few listless claps.
I retired to the bar, and in keeping with the spirit of the place, ordered a Rum & Coke. The modest glass arrived, carried by a bartender who requested $3 of me. Now, $3 was the advertised price for this bottom-of-the-well-liquor special…really, I wasn’t even gonna get a free drink?!? I asked her, “Wait, I don’t even get a discount?” She replied, a bit embarrassed, “Sorry, not on Wednesdays.”
I threw back the drink and slunk out of there. I’d just been told that my 45 minutes of live music wasn’t worth even the few quarter’s worth of cheap booze that goes into this crappy drink. It was a bit shaming, sure, but more than that I was just amazed that they could keep a regular schedule of musicians willing to play for nothing at all. Moreover, though the musicians are all locals, and potential customers, you can be damned sure that I, for one, will never spend a dime in that place. Seems like bad business to me – then again, it was hardly a shrewd decision to take this gig. Now I know.