I want to help you understand how to get bigger and better shows, get a music agent and learn how the live music business works. I’ve made a short video to explain the basics of the whole gig booking process and have posted an expanded transcript after the break.
Playing in front of a paying audience is vital for your career. Sales of recorded music continue to fall and the opportunities to get music on radio & TV are becoming more limited. If your band does not play consistently great gigs, a crucial aspect of the whole strategy to build your fan base and sell recorded music is lost.
Before you get all excited and rush out to book yourself shows left, right, and centre, think about what you are trying to achieve when booking gigs.
Ask yourself two questions:
1. Why do you want the gig?
2. Do you have an audience?
To help explain the reasoning behind these questions, I want you to read an example of one of the hundreds of e-mails I receive every week, this one from a guy who we’ll call “Brad”:
“Hi, my name is Brad. I am in the bass player in my band. Basically, my band is trying to get support slots on tours with more established bands—not massively successful artists, but bands that were recently in the same situation we are and are now attracting attention.
We have no manager and we are releasing our CD with our own money. I have been checking into the possibility of touring through Europe. We have done some research and think Europe may be a good idea for us. Can you please send information that can help us to calculate our costs for a tour that consists of 40 shows in 60 days? How much do we get paid and how is that calculated? What about promotions and advertising? Will the music press do articles on us to help in the promotion? Basically, how much is it going to cost us out of pocket to come and tour Europe?
We as a band don’t want to worry about anything except playing, so most likely we would want someone to set up and take care of everything for us, so all we have to do is get up there and play. This tour would be the debut CD release tour and would continue on into Asia, Australia, and back to the US.
Thanks for your time and have a great day.”
Thank you, Brad. Now, let us have a good look at what you are proposing….
Why Do You Want the Gig?
Ask yourself this question: Why do I want to play this particular show or tour?
My experience (and in the opinions of my industry colleagues), too many bands go out and play live at too high a level too soon in their career.
By gigging before you are ready, you and your band risk exposing your lack of development and your weaknesses to potential audiences and industry taste-makers.
Take time to hone your craft – for your audience as much as to attract the interest from the live music business people. Remember it is your fans that will buy your music, t-shirts, downloads and concert tickets – not artist managers, booking agents or promoters.
I see too many emails from bands asking me to help them hook up a coast-to-coast tour or open up for a national touring act.
You may be thinking about contacting me to ask me the same question.
Before you do, please read Brad’ email above.
This guy wants a 40 -60 date tour with no audience, promotion, or even a CD release.
Do you still think it is that simple?
Do you say to yourself “We are really good. If we play out people will love us.”
Or “How else are we going to get an audience?”
Or “We are sick of playing home town shows. We want to play bigger shows.”
Or ‘We want to tour!”
If you do say those things to yourself you have absolutely no idea how the live music industry works.
To know how to get better and bigger shows you must understand how the modern live music industry works. For instance, to get on a big show or tour you have to connect with a whole load of people. There will be the booking agent, the promoter, the other acts on the bill and their managers.
You have to reach and connect with these people and then impress them—before you even get the chance to ask for a show or tour.
If you get offered a show at whatever level, think about the offer in context, beyond the initial excitement of having a show. As Sam Heineman (former director of international touring/international marketing for Sony Music Entertainment) says, “If [a show] doesn’t make sense, don’t do it.”
Examine the potential of each show you book or get offered:
- What potential is there to build an audience?
- How much money will you spend on transport, rehearsing, flyers and equipment for the show?
- How much time will you all need to take off your day job?
- Will any taste-makers be at the show?
- Are you going to enjoy the show?
In our email example, Brad wants to play 40 shows in 60 days. Why would you want to do that? It would be a hell of a schedule (even if he could afford sleeper buses and a full crew, which he patently can’t). 40 shows in 60 days is a pretty tough schedule.
Worse still, his band has no audience and no CD to promote. Therefore he has no fans. He will therefore waste his time and his money, sitting on top of his own equipment in a rental van, slowly grinding his way along to the next completely empty and non-paying show.
Develop a strategy – learn how the live music business works.
You need to get to the point where you can play big shows with paying customers. You need to reach the industry taste makers. You want to avoid wasting your money and playing to no one. That should be your strategy.
Figure 1. – The Live Music Business
Figure 1 shows the 4 parts of the live music business with you, the artist, in the middle. This article is not going to deal with artist management.
A music agent is a live music business professional who will find you paid gigs and other live engagements. These gigs are known as bookings, hence the term booking agent. (It is generally accepted that a talent agent is any agent who can find work for their client – film, TV, book writing for instance. A talent agent who concentrates on finding gigs and tours for their client is a booking agent.
An individual music agent usually woks as part of larger agencies comprised of a number of agents. The agents are responsible for their own revenues and use the agency’s infrastructure (including telephone, ISP, legal and accountancy services) to help run their own “micro-business” within the overall framework of the agency. The agency then takes a cut of the agent’s revenue to pay for these services and to (hopefully) generate a profit. The most well known agencies are Creative Artists Agency (CAA), William Morris Agency (WMA), Artists Group International, Montery Peninsula Artists, The Agency Group, Solo, X-Ray Touring and International Talent Booking (ITB).
A music agent makes money by taking a percentage of the artist’s gross income for a performance. If you play a show for $1000 then the agent will take $100 of that as their percentage. You should not pay your agent money commissions on anything other than what you earn from gigs and tours.
Music agents are regulated in the US by the major entertainment unions, AFM, AFTRA, SAG & Equity, who have capped the agent’s percentage to 10% of the artist’s gross fee for each show. (AFM in fact allows up to 20% for one-off appearances.) In the UK there is no such regulation but 10% of the gross fee seems to be the norm.
Having a good and successful agent will enable you to get more shows and, more importantly, bigger shows opening up for larger acts. However, getting a music agent will be just as hard as getting a record deal. Booking agents work on commission and so they are going to ask you two important questions:
- Can you draw a paying audience to your shows?
- Once you can draw a audience, can you keep the same number of people paying to see every show you play?
You are unlikely to get a booking agent to work for you unless you are already pulling in at least 200 paying people to every show you play. It does seem like a catch catch-22 situation: you need gigs to build your potential career, and you need a successful career to get the shows!
Do not despair; you just need to build your fan base by playing more shows. To do this you will need to approach the promoters.
The promoter takes an event, puts it into a suitable venue, and sells tickets to the public. Some venues manage their promotions (‘in-house’), but usually venues are hired by the promotions team to stage the show.
There is an enormous risk involved with promotion, but a good promoter will look at turning a profit over the long term by developing good relationships with the booking agents. A good relationship with the agents means direct access to the agent’s roster and his or her more successful acts.
Most promoting today is done by companies that (like booking agencies) consist of a number of individual promoters. The last 20 years have seen the creation of several huge concert concert-promoting companies. The major players in the US are Live Nation and AEG, with a host of smaller companies such as Outback Concerts and Paragon doing well. In the UK, Live Nation is again are very strong, along with DF Concerts, SJM, and Metropolis Music Group.
Hopefully, by now you have thought about why you want to play shows and what audience draw you may have. It is time to approach the promoter and get yourself some gigs!
The Booking Process
To get bigger and better gigs for your band you should follow three simple steps.
Step 1:Researching and Targeting Venues
Do some research into the different types of venues in your town or state. Think about how your band is going to fit into that environment. Some venues are known to audiences as having a certain genre of music or audience type. For instance, an alternative rock band based in New York should not try to get a gig at Birdland (famous jazz club) but would probably approach Arlene’s Grocery (small alternative rock venue).
Your town may have a bar that books deep house DJs and targets a young ‘club’ type crowd. There might also be a local House Of Blues type venue that books blues -based rock as well as alternative bands. .Both venues are considered to be cool places to go and check out music – which one is right for you? Each venue’s music booking policy attracts a certain audience type- will your band’s music really fit in a particular venue?
You will probably be familiar with the venues in your home town from attending shows there yourself, but it may be harder to judge your appeal to audiences at out-of-town venues. In the case of an out-of-town venue you should look at that venue’s website or local newspaper ads. Check out what other acts are playing and what kinds of bands are being billed together.
Ask your friends, your fans, and other bands about their experiences performing at or attending a particular venue. Venues can get terrible reputation for a variety of reasons. The only effect of these reputations, as far as you’re concerned, is that audiences may tend to stay away from shows booked there.
The other factor to bear in mind is the size of the venue.
It would be great for you to play in a nice 2,000-seat theatre, especially if you are opening up for a national touring act. Remember, though, that it takes quite a long time for 2,000 audience members to get into venue. By the time they all decide to enter the gig, you may have already played and be out in the street, packing your van.
Be realistic and keep it small. Work out how many paying customers are likely to come to the show, halve that figure, and book a gig to hold that number of people.
I am serious!
You are better off with people standing in line to get in and the people inside being packed like sardines than you are having your audience saying to their friends, “It was great, but there was nobody there,” because you were persuaded to play in a venue too big for your draw.
You have to make your audience perceive that you are incredibly successful, and playing half-empty rooms is not the way to do that.
Always think of your audience. This is probably the only time in your career when you will be able to think directly of the people paying to see you. Thinking about your audience is an investment for the future.
You need your audience so take care of them.
You should ask yourself whether your audience can get to the show. More importantly, can they get home again? What kind of public transport is there? Does the venue have lots of car parking? Is the venue in a relatively safe part of town? Is the beer cheap? Does the venue charge for tap water?
Step 2: Who Books the Shows?
I have already explained promoters and promoting; I also explained to you the differences between in-house and outside promoters. Be aware of the difference; it can have an impact n your ability to secure a show.
Research the promoters before you start firing off demo CDs to the venue. Does the venue have an in-house promoter/booker? Or do they rely on outside promoters?
The venue will probably fall into one of these categories:
- A small bar, pub, or club will usually have an in-house promotion team, often the owner or a long-term employee. You should be able to find out who these people are through telephone research and then approach them directly.
- A larger venue may attract outside promoters who merely hire the venue and its facilities for each show. You will be able to tell by looking at the show posters and website of the venue. Look for “Somebody presents…,” where somebody is a big local or national promoter, such as Live Nation. There may still be a local intermediary based at the venue, but the contract will be issued by the national promoter. You will therefore need to have a huge audience draw or a booking agent in order to get a show at one of these venues.
- Chain venues, such as House of Blues and Barfly, may have a national promotions team that works with other independent promoters to book the shows. This way the chain can book a successful act into each one of its regional venues as a full tour or as part of a larger tour. Again, you will probably need to have a huge audience draw or a booking agent in order to get a show. It is always worth trying the actual venue manager, though—he or she will be able to tell you where all booking inquiries should be made.
- I get lots of emails and phone calls from bands starting out who want to get on a large festival bill. Again, do your research. Go to any festival and observe the acts on the bill. You may look at these bands and say you have never heard of them, and that you and your band could/should be up there instead. That may be a fair point, but let me tell you something now: Even the bands at the bottom of a main stage running order will have a label deal, a major booking agent, or a substantial audience draw—or all three. Do not waste your time trying to pitch yourself to festival organizers…yet!
Step 3: The Approach
Pitching your music/band to venues and promoters in order to get shows is exactly the same as pitching your music to a record company, a publishing company, or an artist manager. There are rules and conventions, and your career will be affected by the mistakes you make by not following these rules and conventions. Pitching your music to industry professionals is fraught with the potential to make mistakes, so the next few sections will cover a few guidelines in case you do not know how to approach people with your music. These guidelines also include information specific to the live music industry.
Identify the Key Contact
Salesmen and saleswomen talk about key contacts within a company or organization. These key contacts are the people with the job titles and responsibilities who will be more useful to you when trying to sell goods or services to that company. When trying to sell your band to a promoter, you need to identify the key contact.
Remember what I said in earlier about promoters, the promotion company staff, and promoters’ reps? Many, many people work in a club or a national promoter’s office, but only one or two people can actually place you on a bill for a show. Your job is to identify the decision-maker within the organization—that is, the person at the local bar, out-of-town club, or national promotion company who actually decides what bands are going to play and how much they should be paid.
The best tool you can use to identify key contacts is still the phone. Yes, you will be able to establish broad contact details using the phone book, music business directories, and the Internet, but you have to ensure this information is up to date and relevant to you.
Get the number of the bar, club, or office and call them up!
Physical versus Electronic—How to Send Your Music
Many music industry professionals (me included) have gone off receiving CDs and now prefer to listen to music online, through a link to a dedicated website or via a MySpace, Facebook or YouTube page. Put the relevant URL for your website or MySpace page (such as www.YourPageAtYourSite.com) on all the e-mails and letters you send out.
Keep the music file sizes available on your site as small as possible, but not so small that the audio quality suffers.
Never, ever send MP3s or WAV files as e-mail attachments! As well as running the risk of having your email rejected by spam filters attaching any kind of large file, such as an MP3, should only be done after asking the recipient for permission.
You now have the key contact at the venue that is responsible for booking the shows. You need to send your contact the music and the information about your band that will persuade him to book you.
As I keep mentioning, any promoter you approach will want to know that you can sell tickets and that your audience is going to buy lots of drinks, food, or coat-check tickets while in the venue. The type of music you play may leave the contact cold personally, but if you can sell out the venue or add 250 ticket sales to a show, then they will book you…period.
You may not be in the position to sell that many tickets now, but your blurb (the content of your e-mail or letter) still needs to make a serious impression on your potential promoter or booking agent. This applies to your webpage or MySpace site as well. The following two sections provide my top tips for pitching you and your music more effectively.
The Musical Content
1. Do not include any more than three tracks. This applies to both CDs and websites, but it is especially true for a CD. Your listener will be hooked after listening to three tracks or they are going to pass on your material. Either way the decision will be made before reaching the end o the third track. You putting 12 tracks on a demo or website a waste of your resources (upload time, bandwidth, copying time, label printing etc) and the listeners time. Think about it – if you hear a song you do not like by a new band do you immediately ask to hear another song by that band? Of course not.
2. Put your best song first. Do not save the best until last. Even if your listener does like the first track, she may not have the time or inclination to check out the last track. Open up with your killer tune – if it really is your best song then you are going to have to stand or fall by that track.
3. Never submit a cover or tribute song—unless you are a cover or tribute band! Presenting someone else’s song in a demo is a massive waste of time and opportunity; it tells the listener absolutely nothing about you or your music. Don’t do it!
Your music is your most important offering to the prospective promoter, booking agent or A&R person. It is very rare thought for any industry professional to take the music in isolation. They will want to know about you, your history, your current status and your future plans. You need to convey your situation and your plans in words.
The temptation is to write your life story in order to convey how passionate you are about your art. This degree of details is not necessary and in fact is a complete waste of your time. Instead you should introduce yourself and music in the most concise way possible.
The information you present is known as ‘the blurb’ (like the description of a book on its back cover) and should follow these guidelines:
1. Keep it brief. The key contact needs to know a bit about you, and that’s all. She does not need to know where you and your fellow band members met, how long you have been together, where you went to school, or that your mom thinks you are going to be the next Dave Matthews Band/My Chemical Romance/Beyonce.
2. Never apologize for the quality of the recordings. If you are ashamed of them, don’t play them for anyone. How can you motivate someone to see you as a serious artist when you start defending your own material?
3. Give stats. How many shows have you played? How many people do you usually draw? How many CDs or tracks have you sold? How many people are on your MySpace site? How many forum members? What radio play do you have?
4. Name drop. What other bands or acts have you played with or opened for?
5. Provide testimonials. Do you have a glowing review or e-mail from a music industry professional or a well-established band? I am not talking about press reviews here. I mean a short quote from someone with authority in the industry—maybe a reply from a record company to you, praising your music.
7. Be honest. Tell the contact you are not ready to headline large shows, but you can bring a crowd for a support slot.
8. Give a timeframe. Are you available for shows now? Or are you looking to play as part of a tour in a couple of months?
9. Finally, make sure your contact information (e-mail address and home or mobile phone number) are on every item you send out or list online.
List all this information as concisely as possible. Ideally, you want to get it onto one side of a legal/A4 page with another page for press clippings.
Do not just e-mail off your message or letter, sit back, and expect the key contact to ring you immediately. In fact, be very suspicious if a promoter does contact you right away. Either he is not very busy (which means he is not very good at promoting) or he is going to offer you some kind of pay-to-play deal.
Your e-mail or letter should be followed up by a phone call. Wait about a week, and then call up your key contact. Use the phone and don’t rely on email or Facebook. A phone call will help build relationships.
Building a relationship is the important issue here. Even the smallest of promoters will have contacts or will be contacted by label scouts, booking agents, and other promoters, all of whom will be looking for new talent and the next big thing. By being upfront, honest, and businesslike with the promoter, you are not only trying to get shows for your band, but you are also creating a network, without even really trying.
Follow the three steps to create a concise strategy to get bigger and better gigs for your band. Always target your key contacts before sending out or e-mailing the letters; don’t rely on random email mail outs,
Any band with who wants a career in the live music business wants opening slots on shows with national touring artists. I get many e-mails every month from bands asking how they can get on shows or tours with major artists.
Unless you know the headline act, their management, or their booking agent, you are going to have to appeal to the promoter, and the promoter will not be interested unless you can pull in enough people to help sell out his or her show. Unless you have a fanatical (and very large) following, you do not stand a chance of getting one of those national shows. Assuming that you can will mark you as naive and unrealistic.