Assuming you now understand where you as an individual musician now stand in the circus that is live music, you’re a lot more ready to approach a venue and achieve some positive results. Again, remember the basic needs of promotion: good video feeds on youtube, active social media page (we’ll get into what we as presenters want to see from a page later), good, solid website, and tunes people can listen to on your website. Without these basics, forget it, presenters will link to your page, and potential ticket buyers will go to your page, watch videos, listen to music. They will use this information to decide whether or not they’ll go to your show. Have some clips of a live performance that shows how you relate to an audience. Thy want to see the in-bewteen song stuff as well. Bad jokes, conversation with the audience, you’re “relatabilty” factor.
Years ago (like, before most of you were born) the promotor was responsible for all posters, press announcements, advertising, etc. Those days are long gone. It’s now teamwork. You won’t be expected to buy ads for any shows (if you are, run from that presenter or venue) but if you’re not able to generate any interest through your website or social media accounts, you’re not pulling your weight. Again, going back t0o prehistoric times, record labels took care of a lot of the PR, getting airplay, pushing tours, helping presenters promote. Now, I’m pretty darn sure you don’t have a label, and if you do, they suck at PR. Actually, I’m positive of that, because if you had one of those labels, you’d be of stature as an artist that you wouldn’t need to read this.
OK, you’ve got your promo stuff nailed, now back to the “how to” part. The first step, as always, is to do research, and more research, and more research. The more you know about a specific venue, the better. It’s called target marketing. I learned from the early master, working on a campaign to sell corporate jets that was so effective the manufacturer couldn’t keep up, eventually forcing bankruptcy. Oops. I guess you also need to be prepared for what comes if your approach does achieve the desired results, too.
First step, recognize the various types of venues:
1: Large performing arts center. Self explanatory, usually one in each major city or area. Can make big bucks, but need time to build a career and get there. You can charge really nice big fees, and the venue has the capability of charging enough to cover those fees. But, you need the name, and that takes years. Very few bands progress to the point where they can expect to play at these spots in fewer than 10-15 years.
2: Small performing arts center. Non-profit, but has a big endowment, fund-raising capabilities, paid staff, and usually has some sort of food or beverage service to supplement income from shows. A friend of mine who runs the bar at one such place recalls many times during the early years where the manager would run back, raid the bar till in order to cover the musician’s fee. Can be really small, like some urban areas, or mid-size, around 250 seats, in more rural areas. While you can do OK financially here, you can also expect some to pay pretty low fees just due to size. You’d think demographically playing in the cities would help, but you’re wrong. The cost-per-square foot for urban venues is huge, which limits their size, and the entertainment competition is also fierce. Rural areas usually are larger, and have a dedicated following.
3: Small boutique performing arts program. Usually all volunteer; no one makes any money save for the musicians, and tries to present a “curated” line-up. Downside is limited seating at times, which limits income, but the upside is the ability to connect with future fans like no other venue. The presenters really want you as an artists; you’re not a product, you’re you. Again, size limits income, but the splits are usually a lot better, so these can be a real sweet spot for many artists. Take note of the words “all-volunteer” and remember they may not respond quickly, and respond better to a nice, calm, factual approach. As many are business people outside of their passion for music, they know an under-prepared, time-wasting blowhard when they see one. I can supply many examples of the latter if requested, but why embarrass the musicians and their mothers. Literally, I mean mothers as in “mom and dad.”
4: Bar/Restaurant. There are exotic ones that call themselves music venues, but really use that as a draw for food and beverage sales. Getting into those is tough, as they use nothing but Pollstar numbers to book really safe bets. They charge a lot, and weekends are the big buck players. With a $60+ ticket and expensive food and wine, it’s easy for a couple to blow $300+ on one night, so the performers better be big-time. Do, however, look at their mid-week schedule. If you have a bit of experience, you might get into one of those slots. You’ll make very little, and no one will remember seeing you there, but you can say you played there. Which really won’t help much, as we all know you played there on a Tuesday night, when I could probably get a gig. And of course, there are the low-brow bars, some are really just bars, and you might as well be a jukebox, and some really do cater to live music, and do everything they can to help musicians, but, yeah, it’s still a bar and people are drinking and talking.
With all that, you need to realistically cull the venues you have no shot at. You’re wasting they time, and certainly waisting the time of the venue volunteers/employees, and that’s not good. Once you’re seen as a time-waster, that’s the end for that venue. Only approach when ready. Next, look at the venue schedule. Do those artists match your skill level and experience? Type of music? Size of band?
I am still shocked over the number of emails I get from some old blues guitar player who has played nothing but bars with a bunch of other old guys, probably all retired accountants. Maybe a sweet young singer-songwriter who’s songs are “filled with the passion of life, love, and heartbreak.” Barf. Did you check out my venue’s website? It pretty clearly states we specialize in alternative string players, heavy on violin through bass-sized things. A quick read of our mission statement will show that no matter where you come from, I probably know who your teachers were, and know all about you before I ever hear from you. So why on freakin’ earth are you wasting my time? A look at the bands/musicians we present also show that they’ve all had a lot of experience. You may not know of them, but they’ve been woodshedding for years, and quick look at videos shows they know what they’re doing.
If you’re a young inexperienced band, reaching too high won’t help you either. I know this will sound depressing, but don’t reach for the stars: YET. Pay your dues. I’ve given up on a few bands that might one day be good, but right now, the videos show 4 young guys standing stock-still, looking like deer in headlights, playing well, but playing different tunes that all sound identical. No entertainment value, no outward creativity. They may think they’re playing a cool line over a cool chord change, but so does everyone else, and most in the audience won’t care. MAKE me watch and listen.
Check the venue’s website to see if there is a protocol for submission for consideration. Follow that. Do NOT circumvent. Do not message through Facebook or just send an email when there’s a form to fill out. This really pisses venues off.
It’s all in the research and not wasting your or anyone else’s time. Start with small venues that are open all week, and looking for mid-week slots to fill. Work on your game. Don’t get dismayed if people aren’t paying attention to the music. Look for cues. Even if they’re playing pool or talking, are they moving their heads or feet to the beat? Are they somewhat there? If not, it’s a cue for you; work on improving your presentation. Play tunes with hooks. Pop music sells because it has lots of hooks. The best of the alternative string bands, from Crooked Still to Driftwood combine killer skills with great hooks. If you can’t get people moving, it’s not hooks.
Weekend-only places, like the boutique, all-volunteer venues will probably not have the space for a really young band. Some of them, however, just might, if you present yourself really professionally. Again, see if they like total chances on inexperienced bands. Offer to play for a fixed-fee here, and for relative chicken feed. The lure just might be that the venue can keep a little more cash in the coffers to pay for some sound equipment upgrades that they’d normally be using cash from their own pockets for. But still, have the product, as their reputation is at stake, too.
Play in places where you have no friends. You need feedback, either verbal or visual, as to whether or not you’re connecting. Friends aren’t good at that. Do NOT use your mother as an agent. Do NOT use a friend as an agent. Use yourself. You need to learn to sell yourself. It’s all part of the musical M.B.A. that you’ll be working on for the next 10 years.