Approaching a Broke Bar Owner Who Refused to Pay

This past Halloween I had the opportunity to wrestle with an unruly bar owner for over two and a half weeks to get paid for a successful party I had DJ’ed. I ultimately managed to get paid, but not without hours of wasted time and extensive agita. Below is the story followed by tips and strategies you can use yourself to ensure you get paid with as little hassle as possible.

It all started when I accepted the gig within less than 24 hours of the event. I always ensure I have a signed contract signed in hand for each and every private event I spin, unfortunately I let that slide given the short notice and that it’s a little harder to get done with bars/promoters.

The night of, the party went well. The place was hopping, a bunch of people requested my card, the bartenders were jumping around to the music and were plenty busy pouring drinks. As I was wrapping up the promoter says he can’t pay me tonight. I get on him because he’s a DJ as well, he knows how it’s supposed to work. You pay the DJ night of, end of story. Something about the registers needing to be counted blah blah blah. Tomorrow he says.

I follow-up the next day. And the day after. And the day after that, excuse after excuse. Finally he says come by this Saturday. Unfortunately I had plans to head to DC for the weekend so that was out. A few days later he says to drop in that Tuesday. I walk in, lo and behold the owner’s sitting at the bar at that very moment with his books open.

Me: Hi I’m Dan, I DJed the Halloween party the other Saturday.

Owner: What are you charging?

Me: $300

Owner: *Laughs* These kids…

Owner: Tell you what. I’ll do $200.

Me: That doesn’t work. Your promoter and I agreed on $300.

Owner: These kids y’know, that’s expensive. Tell you what, we need someone for Christmas, what’s your rate?

Me: *Chuckle* Private parties are different, but I’m not here to talk about that. Look you guys did well that night, place was packed. You definitely got your money’s worth. Your guy already brought me down from my original rate.

Owner: *Delaying* These kids man..

Me: Not to mention Saturday of a prime weekend, that’s a premium night. $300 is a good deal.

Owner: …

Owner: Alright, $300

I deposit the check as soon as I get home with my banking app, I wanted this saga to be over. A few days later as I’m relaxing my way through a Netflix binge a Mint notification pops up on my phone: “You were just charged a banking fee of $12”. What the.. As I’m waiting for the page to load I realize it could be only one thing. This guy’s check bounced on me. Not only was I still not paid for this event, I lost $12 for the pleasure of it! Unbelievable.

Initially I walk down to my own bank to see if there’s anything they can do but they instruct me to check in with the issuer’s bank, the one listed on the check. Luckily Wells Fargo is down the street so I head right over.

After letting the teller know what happened, she confirmed that the payer did in fact have funds in the account and was safe to cash it. Sweeeet.

“If you’d like I can cash the check right here for a fee.”

“What’s the fee?”

“Hmm let’s see. $7.50”

It had been nineteen days too long not getting paid, and I had much better things to do.

*I slide the check back to her*

“I’ll take it”

Proactive Tactics

  • To help reduce any friction in the first place, show up on time!
  • Try to get payment up front
  • Have them sign a contract. Sometimes in a bar/setting this can be a hassle, but even if you have a mini-contract signed on a notecard with just basic logistics this can help greatly.
  • Have contact info- Phone number, Name, get in synch on what you will be paid, when & by whom.
    • You may work with a promoter, but they may not be the one paying you! If they manage to get you out the door without payment, you can follow-up via text/phone.
  • When you have the name of the person who will be paying you, you can then followup with other employees of the bar to find out when they will be in. To boost your leverage even more, find out who the owner or a more senior manager is. Then show up in person, this will improve your case dramatically.

In negotiating

  • Focus on them, not you
    • Highlight how they benefited
    • Call out how good of a deal they’re getting based on the benefits of what you provide(d)
      • Ex. If the place was packed, they made a lot of money. Paying you X in that context is very reasonable. “The bartenders (use names if possible) were very pleased with the night and how many people I brought in (if true).”
    • Know as much as possible about what the going rate is and how you fit into that.
    • If it is standard to pay all bar/club DJ’s in your area $250 for a full night, that is a floor which they’re most likely aware of. If you assertively call that out, you’ll see their micro-expression which opens your window.
  • Be firm, hold your frame. Assertive body language (back straight, shoulders back, head tall). If you look like a pushover they will push you over!
    • Dress matters here. If you go in with a button down, business casual they will respect you more than if you rolled in unshaven, hoodie, ripped jeans.
  • Do not be accusatory or hostile, be as calm as you can. Instead of using emotional words or words that might elicit a defensive response such as ‘you’, ‘fair’, depersonalize the issue.
  • Approach as if you are on the same team, ‘Win-Win’
  • Mirroring: repeat their last one to three words
    • “By repeating the other person’s last few words, just one to three of them, you can indicate that you are listening. Not only that, but it pushes the conversation forward as the person feels free to delve in deeper. Repeating someone’s last words also gives you time to think about your own place in negotiation.” Source

Bounced Checks

This is the worst. Not only did you think you were already paid, but you have to pay a fee on top of it! For their screwup! No need for alarm. If you’ve been dealing with an unruly character, chances are the last thing you want to do is go back to them (again) to get paid.

 

What you can do instead is to go to the bank listed on the check. The teller will be able to see whether or not the person/company has enough funds currently in their account for you to cash it! Luckily when this happened to me I deposited the check digitally so I still had the original in hand. Otherwise you have to wait until the bank sends you another copy via snail mail.

Pricing Your Services

Taking a step back, how did I even know what to charge for my services? Bar and club gigs are different than private events, and prices will fluctuate wildly depending on your geographic location. Right now I’m in the process of designing a tool that will systematically tell you what you can charge each and every time based on all of that criteria. You will readily be able to tap into the knowledge of DJs who have made a living spinning & getting paid, combined with country-wide data based on events in YOUR area, all at the click of a button. FREE! Check out the current version here, and if you want to be the first to know about future updates sign up for my newsletter up at the top.

Note: I am not a lawyer and none of this constitutes as legal advice.