Every night in Nashville, hundreds of musicians take the stage in up and down Broadway, playing covers of everything from George Jones and Merle Haggard to Morgan Wallen and pretty much every ’80s rock song imaginable, all to entertain drunk tourists and bachelorette parties and make a few bucks from the tip jar at the end of the night.
One of the most famous of these bars is Tootsies Orchid Lounge, the bright purple building that greets visitors as they step onto Broadway for a night of partying.
First opened in 1960 by “Tootsie” Bess, the bar has played host to legends of country thanks to its location right behind the Ryman Auditorium, making it easy for artists to leave the Ryman after the Grand Ole Opry was over and walk right into the back door of Tootsies to hang out after the show.
The bar was bought by current owner Steve Smith in the 1990s, when Broadway was just a shell of its former self and filled with adult bookstores and sketchy bars thanks to the Grand Ole Opry leaving the Ryman in the 1970s. But as downtown Nashville was brought back to life, so was Tootsies – and the honky tonks surrounding it.
Smith also owns several other bars on Broadway, including Honky Tonk Central, Kid Rock’s, and Rippy’s, and the large crowds that these bars draw makes them an attractive place for musicians looking for both exposure and a good paycheck.
But now, those musicians aren’t happy with a new contract they’re being forced to sign in order to play on the “Tootsies circuit.”
Before we get into the contract though, some background information is necessary: All bands at Smith’s bars are booked by an organization called Honky Tonk School. A project started by Smith’s brother John Taylor and Scott Collier, the Honky Tonk School bills itself as a talent agency that provides not only booking but also development for the artists that are signed up to play Tootsies and its sister bars.
But recently, a new contract has surfaced that Honky Tonk School is allegedly requiring artists to sign before being booked for gigs at these lucrative bars, and the musicians are crying foul.
The contract, which has been posted on Facebook, Reddit, and was reported on by the Nashville Scene, calls itself a “HTS Development Contract,” and requires artists to give 10% of their base pay for gigs back to Honky Tonk School.
So to recap: Artists must sign up with Honky Tonk School in order to get booked for gigs on the Tootsies circuit, and then when they’re paid by these bars, they have to turn around and give 10% of their base pay back to Honky Tonk School for booking them these gigs.
Yeah, I can see why they’re not happy.
(The contract, aside from being full of typos and grammatical errors, also cites the Honky Tonk School’s development of artists like Tyler Farr and Chris Janson as a benefit to signing with them…)
Of course base pay only makes up a small portion of what artists make from a gig. The majority of their income comes from tips thrown into their buckets by customers. And according to the Nashville Scene, base pay at Tootsies is only between $200-400 per band for a show, depending on the stage and time of day they play. That means that a band with 4 members will split that $200 for a gig, for a grand total of $50 per person – and $5 of that has to go back to the Honky Tonk School.
(And just in case you haven’t been to Nashville lately, that $45 probably won’t even cover the cost of parking downtown for a 4 hour gig).
The Scene reports that some musicians have been told that the contract has been “dissolved” after the resulting backlash from going viral, while others say that they’ve heard nothing about it being “dissolved.” Still others have left the Tootsies circuit after the Honky Tonk School prohibited them from playing at other bars downtown in order to get booked for gigs.
Either way, it seems like this isn’t a great way of protecting the main reason that people come to Nashville in the first place: The live music.