How To Set Up Music & Karaoke for Bars & Restaurants

Many people assume that working in the music industry is a dead end career unless you have talent and connections to become a household name. For me, I was always the girl who wished to be on stage with a band instead of listening to them from the audience; however, I lacked the ability to play any instrument. It wasn’t until I turned 18 that I realized I could work with music without being a trained musician.

I moved to Texas in 2006 with a punk rock band after graduating high school with $1,000 between the four of us. My friends generally worked with “pay-to-play” gigs where they would have to sell out a bundle of tickets to their shows and pay the venue back in order to play a concert. We ended up living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with other friends for $470 a month, which seems like pennies now until you consider that we were all rebellious teenagers with useless spending habits.

Luckily, a local commercial diner was desperate for help and thrilled to hire us to bring in younger customers. The diner was used to making money with early bird specials for senior citizens and families, so they weren’t seeing much business from teenagers and young adults who had a disposable income. Those of us who were hired as wait staff made a whopping $1.75 an hour plus tips, which were generally low due to the older customer’s aversion to our dyed hair and piercings. I managed to pick up shifts as a hostess for $6 per hour and the cooks made $12 each hour for an approximately a six-hour shift.

Being young in the time of a social media networking boom, my friends and I were able to network with local Millenials who quickly became our friends and frequent customers to the diner. My bosses and managers were thrilled to see more customers who would stop by for a full-priced meal after school and bring their buddies. The pay-to-play shows weren’t working so well and we were all spending more hours at the restaurant instead of leaning towards our true passion: music.

It was then I had an idea. Since the younger crowd tended to eat at the diner for a late lunch or dinner, how about we offer live music at night? My friends and I had connected to other local bands who really just wanted their sound heard. My bosses agreed to try it out for a night – but no funny business! This included staying true to our fire marshal laws and only allowing a certain amount of patrons in at one time.

Since our diner didn’t serve alcohol, we were able to advertise an all-ages show by posting on Myspace and handing out flyers to our customers as well as around town to local establishments. I invited local bands to play for free to gain exposure and allowed them to give out promotional merchandise to advertise their sound.

To make the job legitimate, I collected donations at the door and the restaurant opened their full menu for customers to enjoy a meal while listening to live music.

The first night was such a success that my bosses and managers decided to make it a weekly event and spaced off the restaurant for those who were here for the music as well as a separate section for those who enjoyed eating their meal in a quiet environment. Bands would introduce themselves and promotions were free, as long as they were able to advertise their shows and market their merchandise. My diner was more than happy to allow me to keep ticket sales at $5 a piece if customers would bring in revenue with food and drink sales. In addition, I was also being paid to serve food when I could get a break at the door. This netted me $50-$75 an hour in sales, wages, and tips. The bigger the bands got, the more popular the shows were.

Sadly, the restaurant took new management who preferred the days of early bird specials and customers who didn’t want to hear a loud band playing while they were eating their steak and eggs. I left Texas and went back to Rhode Island after two years to pursue my college education and became a full-time content writer with my dream of hosting music left to the side.

A few years later, I turned the legal age to consume alcohol. Turning 21 in the United States means finally being able to go to pubs and enjoy social drinking. My favorite stops were always dive bars with karaoke nights. I quickly became such a regular at these establishments that I ending up filling in for the hosts when they needed bathroom breaks or a drink of their own.

By establishing trust and friendship with the staff of my favorite bars, as well as promoting their karaoke nights on social media and word-of-mouth, I ended up being invited to be a host for my own events. Apparently, I had caught the attention of a karaoke company who enjoyed my banter on the microphone and crowd-pleasing song renditions even when my singing voice wasn’t the best in the room.

The rules were simple. Promote events on social media, scout out bars looking for live events, and be as entertaining as possible to encourage people to come up to the mic. They paid me $50 an hour, plus a few free drinks and a meal to go. The company provided rental equipment so I was always careful that patrons set their drinks to the side before stepping up to the laptop, microphones, and monitors.

Country bars were always the biggest crowd with pubs known for special events coming in second. Karaoke gigs at sports bars were never very popular as most customers want to watch the telly instead of listening to someone sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Once I found my groove and signed contracts with certain bars, I was guaranteed an hourly paycheck for every day of the weekend to host and I quickly became known for being a friendly and personable DJ. It also helped having regular customers famous for their voice and style always welcomed at the establishments to draw in more customers. With their drink sales and inviting local fans, the bars made enough to keep hiring me as an entertainer.

While not every customer at a bar or restaurant likes live music and entertainment, I learned that advertising plays a key role in attracting the right kind of clientele. I was paid in advance and extra for different gigs if they needed me at more than one bar a night.

The competition I encountered were fellow karaoke hosts who charged less and other bars who were looking to charge minimum wage for each job, which took a toll when I needed the money for gas and expenses, so I was unable to accept every job.

Many of my co-workers in the karaoke company expanded to hosting weddings and comedy shows for an average of $1,000 per week, depending on the job and the budget of the person paying for the night. Many newlywed couples will spare no expense for an excellent DJ or a band who performs covers that all can enjoy dancing to during the reception.

To sum it all up, as long as you’re able to network both organically and online, you may be able to find success as a music host to make upwards of $50 per hour with added benefits such as drinks, food, and additions to your resume. By establishing your relationship with a restaurant or bar, you can draw in a crowd and not have to pay expenses as long as you sign a contract between you and the owner to which they can make money on food and beverage sales and you receive the pay you deserve.

However, in many places as a server or entertainment provider, you can be taxed 35% on wages and extra on tips in the United States. It’s important to save money to the side as you’re working just in case you’re required to pay back the government during tax season. Although freelance hosting has its perks, it can also be a drag to cut a third out of your entire paycheck in order to not be fined. You can even face jail time for not paying your taxes correctly.

Working in the music industry allows you to establish friendships and form relationships with companies to enhance your career even if you’re not a skilled musician. All you need is to be able to entertain and draw a larger crowd to attend your events in order to be paid a livable wage. By demonstrating your worth as a host and figuring out a contract with owners, you too can make $50-$75 an hour doing what you love and advancing your career to show that you mean business in the music world.

Author Bio: Evangeline is a freelance writer with a knack for finding high-paying side jobs, including but not limited to music promotion, modelling, and event hosting. She believes passion and creativity are the two key tools for creating an independent business.