New Dodge Lounge blasted for ‘pay to play’ live music policy

The Hamtramck bar has been working out kinks under new ownership

Feb 10, 2023 at 8:00 am
click to enlarge The New Dodge Lounge reopened under new management. - Viola Klocko
Viola Klocko
The New Dodge Lounge reopened under new management.

When it was acquired by new owners last year, Hamtramck’s New Dodge Lounge promised that the long-standing bar and music venue, which had a reputation for not paying artists and a crappy soundsystem, would be turning over a new leaf. But so far, things appear to be off to a bit of a rocky start.

This week, a band criticized the venue on social media following a pay dispute, and the venue’s talent buyer went public with her resignation in a Facebook post after she says management asked her to start requiring acts to sell a certain amount of tickets or pay for sound engineers and use of equipment out of their own pockets — what critics have labeled a “pay to play” policy. In response, the band the Strains announced it was moving its scheduled Paczki Day show to another venue, and the social media posts have led to calls to boycott the New Dodge Lounge.

However, venue co-owner Jonathan Hartzell tells Metro Times he believes the backlash is all one big misunderstanding, a conflation of two separate issues as the new New Dodge Lounge works out kinks and establishes itself in metro Detroit’s entertainment scene.

“We’re not a pay-to-play place,” Hartzell says. “We’re a venue that’s supporting music and the arts.”

The pay dispute stems from a Friday night gig by local band Blood Rune Sigil, which describes its sound as “high-intensity psychedelic prog metal.” After dealing with issues under the venue’s former management — including not being paid after one show, and being forced to wait outside in the cold for the doors to be unlocked despite arriving at the agreed-upon time before another — the band says it was looking forward to performing on the New Dodge Lounge stage again.

“We were excited with the new ownership to go in there and try to get something together,” bassist Grant LeDee says.

Typically, venues pay artists at the end of the show, to accommodate touring acts or performers who drove in to the gig from out of town. But the members of Blood Rune Sigil say that at the end of the night, they couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone at New Dodge Lounge as to when they would get paid, or even how many tickets were sold. Eventually, they were told that they would be paid by check after payroll was processed.

“The new dodge is out here paying bands a week after they play like it's my 9-5,” guitarist Daniel Decker wrote on Facebook. “Sheesh. C’mon Detroit. Smh.”

click to enlarge The new owners have put money into the New Dodge Lounge, including installing TVs and arcade games. - Viola Klocko
Viola Klocko
The new owners have put money into the New Dodge Lounge, including installing TVs and arcade games.

The band also says the venue promised drink tickets and to print fliers, neither of which materialized. Regarding pay, Hartzell says a new general manager who did not fully understand the venue’s payment process was working that night and is no longer with the company. The band members say they later met up with Hartzell, who apologized for the mix-up and cut each of the four bands on the bill a check for $77.50. (The bands say they were told that 25 total tickets were sold, a figure they dispute.)

At the same time, Cheri Clair, the venue’s former talent buyer, says she resigned after management sent her a panicked email last week, warning that the bands she booked on Friday and Saturday nights were not selling enough tickets to cover door and sound costs. It proposed requiring bands booked on prime time nights “to commit to selling at least 30 tickets” at minimum.

“That’s per band,” says Clair. “I book three-band shows, four-band shows. They want every band on the bill to sell 30 tickets. That’s ridiculous, especially for an opener.” Clair, who says she has more than 20 years of experience booking bands at small venues in metro Detroit, also worried that the policy would incentivize bands to buy the required number of tickets to play the show and then give them away to friends and family who might not even turn out. The email also suggested asking bands playing on off-nights to pay for the sound engineer with their own money or bring their own equipment.

Noting that Clair had booked shows months in advance, the email also instructed her to reach out to all acts with the new terms. She tells Metro Times she then felt like she had no choice but to resign.

“I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I’m friends with these people. I’m part of that crowd. I’m not part of the corporate crowd that’s running New Dodge Lounge right now.”

She adds, “This is a corner bar in Hamtramck, not some big venue.”

Blood Rune Sigil performing at the New Dodge Lounge on Friday, Feb. 3. - Vision Immortal
Vision Immortal
Blood Rune Sigil performing at the New Dodge Lounge on Friday, Feb. 3.

Local performers Metro Times spoke with under the condition of anonymity say it’s normal for venues to take a cut out of cover sales to pay for sound, someone to work the door, promotion, and other costs. Some venues take a percentage of the door, while others take a flat figure or charge a rental fee.

Paul Smith of the band the Strains maintains that he views the policy as “pay to play” and says he decided to pull his show to send a message to New Dodge Lounge, but regrets that the situation blew up on social media.

“The intention of my post wasn’t to call them out or bring them down, because the last thing I want to do is see a venue vanish,” he says. “I want to see venues flourish.”

He adds, “I by no means intended my post to get the New Dodge a bunch of hate.”

Smith disagrees with venues requiring bands to sell a certain amount of tickets — “it can be a crapshoot” he says of audience turnout — but concedes that all parties involved have a responsibility to promote shows.

“Promotion is kind of on everybody,” he says. “It’s on the talent buyer, it’s on the band, it’s on the venue.”

He says he believes New Dodge Lounge misstepped by trying to ramp up its music programming too big and too quickly.

“With every venue, that’s what they want — they want bands to come in that are going to draw people to come to the venue, buy beer, and help put the venue on the map,” he says. “But you know, the New Dodge hasn’t had that chance yet.”

He adds, “They need to get their profile up. And that takes work. It’s gonna take a while.”

Hartzell says the internal email was less about putting pressure on bands to sell their own tickets in order to play at New Dodge Lounge and more of an attempt to encourage the talent buyer to book acts that would hopefully draw bigger crowds.

“All we did is we told our booking agent that we need to cover the cost of the sound guy, because he’s an independent contractor and he’s only coming to work for the bands,” he says.

Last year, New Dodge Lounge was acquired by Happy Life Hospitality, the management group behind the Detroit Shipping Co. and Lansing Shuffle food halls, replacing the previous owners of nearly 40 years. In the final months of the previous ownership, a talent buyer quit amid a pay dispute with an artist, resulting in previously scheduled events to be canceled and ill will among some in the local music community.

The new owners have put money into New Dodge Lounge, cleaning it up, adding TVs and arcade games, and replacing the bar’s plastic cups with glassware, among other upgrades.

Hartzell says they’re committed to making New Dodge Lounge a fun metro Detroit music venue. It’s a work in progress.

“As we go through, we’re continually upgrading it piece by piece by piece,” he says.

An earlier version of this article misstated how much money the bands say they were paid. It was $77.50 per band, not $77 to split among four bands.

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Location Details

New Dodge Lounge

8850 Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck Detroit

(313) 874-5963