Several years ago, the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce commissioned Each owner/manager Bob Porter to write a piece about nightclub management for its annual entertainment guide. He responded with more candor than the chamber wanted; calling the piece “a cry for help,” they declined to publish it. This draft was later found in Ken Morrison’s files after he left the employ of the Raleigh Daily News.

BOB PORTER on bar management 101

Running a bar is definitely a weird way to make a living. You’re dealing with people at their absolute worst, when they’re drunk ­ or, even worse, when they NEED to be drunk. It’s a delicate equilibrium, getting your customers just drunk enough but not too drunk. You want to get people happy-drunk and keep them that way. If they get hammered enough to have a bad hangover the next day, first thing they’re gonna do is swear off drinking. They never mean it, of course, and everybody comes around again eventually. But in the meantime, you’ve lost a few nights (or maybe even a few weeks) worth of business out of them.

So yeah, I’m what you might call a “facilitator” or an “enabler” or one of those other cute little words. “Pusher,” I object to because I just stand behind the bar and pour. Nobody puts a gun to anybody’s head and makes them come into my joint. You want to leave, there’s the door.

Down at my level, the bar business isn’t a growth industry, but it’s like a funeral home: Demand is steady. While you’ll probably never get rich, it’s even less likely you’ll ever go broke. Good times and bad, people are gonna drink.

As far as how I actually make my money, live music is just another expense. My place is called Each, and like most bars it ain’t real long on atmosphere. So you’ve got to give people a pretense of a reason to show up besides just booze. That’s something I wish more bands would get through their thick skulls ­ most people don’t come to bars to listen to music. They’re there to get laid or at the very least drunk, and the band is background noise to their mating ritual.

There are some exceptions, usually out-of-town bands that are already popular. But most nights, when it’s some unknown local band in here, music is a Loss Leader Item for me and one band is as good as another. I’m perfectly willing to give anybody a shot, so long as they’re not too demanding. I actually had one band who’d played maybe three shows present me with a “contract rider” calling for a case of beer and a deli tray. Yeah, right. Save it for Madison Square Garden, guys.

Bands looking for gigs send me tapes or CDs, and I try to listen to as much of them as I can stand. A lot of them are so painfully bad, I don’t make it too far through. If a band is really terrible, it’s always nice if they’ve sent a CD rather than a tape ­ easier to skip through and listen to a little of each song. I’ve been doing this a long time, and can usually tell how a band will do with one listen to their tape (“I can name that band’s draw in two notes”). Hell, by now, I can just look at their picture and almost always figure out everything I need to know. Such as:

  • If a band is posed on the porch or front steps of a large house; if anybody in the picture is wearing a shirt with a collar, a baseball cap or any item of clothing with a sports logo; and if they look well-fed ­ if they look like the people I hated in college, in other words ­ this is a band that will draw what I call the “date-rape demographic.” Bands like this tend to play sensitive-white-boy (read: limp-wristed) guitar pop that draws ditzy sorority girls, meaning their frat-boy predators are sure to follow. This is a crowd that drinks A LOT, and I can always count on at least a couple of fights in the parking lot. Bands like this pay the rent, but a lot of them are more trouble than they’re worth.

  • If a band is shown posed in some sort of outdoor “natural” setting; if anyone is barefoot; if at least one member has shoulder-length and/or facial hair, a ponytail and/or a beret; and if there is a tie-dyed garment involved ­ chances are good this photo will literally reek of patchouli. Hippie noodlehead rock. The Grateful Dead has been gone a long time, but there’s still gold in aimless noodling. Gold for the band, maybe, but not the bar because noodlehead crowds tend to prefer pot to beer. I’ll clear less on a noodlehead band than a date-rape one, even though the noodleheads usually draw bigger crowds.

    The audience is largely college-age, but with some older hippie types still hanging on. Noodlehead bands generally keep their fans after they graduate, moreso than the date-rape ones. Date-rape bands are kinda like “LUG,” Lesbian Until Graduation, a college thing most people outgrow. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.)

  • If a band is shown in a dark room, and/or out-of-focus; if anyone is wearing glasses; if at least one member has a receding hairline and is making no attempt to cover it up; if someone is wearing either an impossibly square or ridiculously hip T-shirt (“Sesame Street” on the one hand, or some band so obscure I haven’t even heard of them on the other); if someone is covering their mouth with their hand, or has their head bent at a weird angle; if the bass player is a girl ­ hey, kids, it’s the new alternative!

    There are lots of egghead-type bands around here, this being a college town and all. They come and go, and all of them sound pretty much the same to me. True, I’m a jaded old fart and all that. But most of them just don’t have the chops to get away with the weird junk they try to pull off ­ jerky time signatures, non-existent tunings, repetitive drones ­ and it all sounds like badly played King Crimson covers. Bands like this tend to have small but devoted followings, 40 or so people who will show up and hang on every detuned note and off-key yelp. They’ll drink water and soda pop, meaning I usually lose money. But that’s okay, because these bands and their crowds are almost never a bit of trouble. If I had date-rape or even noodlehead bands in here every night, I’d go nuts. Egghead bands give me some downtime, and the occasional one that actually goes somewhere will pull an audience every bit as loyal as the noodlehead crowd. Of course, they still won’t drink…

  • If the photo is posed by a large structure like a bridge or building, or involves a car or motorcycle; if anyone is wearing a leather jacket, or has their wallet on a chain; if anyone is wearing pointy-toed boots (cowboy or otherwise) or mirrored shades, or has noticeable sideburns; and if any cigarettes are visible ­ here is a Keeper Of The Flame. This is usually some sort of old-school straight-ahead rock. They won’t draw squat, but the people who do show up will drink heavily so it all works out. A lot of these sound like mediocre Rolling Stones tribute bands, trapped by their format, because there’s only so much you can do with 4/4 time, guitar-bass-drums, I-want/need/love-you-baby-under-the-moon-in-June. To rise above the pack, you need other-worldly songs and a better singer than bands like these ever seem to have. It also helps if someone in the band looks good, which might draw the more tasteful college girls (and, by extension, their boyfriends). Even though most of these bands don’t do much for the bottom line, their shows are the nights I like running a bar the most. Listening to a bar band in a bar, how can the world get much more right than that?

There are other variations, but these four classifications cover three-quarters of what I book. I can honestly say there are individual bands I like in each general style (even date-rape). But music is like anything else, 90 percent of what’s out there is crap. Kids sometimes ask me about breaking into the music business ­ as if I’d even know ­ and what I tell them is, “If you like music, stay away from the music industry.” Nothing will beat you down faster than being around mediocrity all the time.

The fact of the matter is that there are 365 nights a year, and lots less than 365 good acts out there. I see a few hundred bands every year, maybe two-dozen of which qualify as “good.” Some of the good ones I still hate, but I have to admit they’ve got skills. I probably wind up actively enjoying maybe 10 bands a year, and the rest I tune out. Picking the diamonds out of the barnyard is harder than you’d think. Not that the good bands don’t stand out, but the crappy ones will wear you down so much that you get too numb to tell the difference. Keeping my antenna up doesn’t really do me any practical, day-to-day good; it just reminds me that I’m still alive. Until I get rich, that will have to do.

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