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Booking Your Own Gigs, DIY Style

July 1, 2014
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EVERY BAND starts off as a DIY concern. You write your own songs, you record your own demos, you pick out your own stage garb, and—perhaps least glamorously—you book your own shows. Booking gigs is usually the first responsibility that bands would happily hand off to someone else; it can be time-consuming, overwhelming, and even demoralizing. But it’s also a necessary part of the business of being a band. And when you’re starting out, if you don’t do it, no one will.

The good news is that plenty of bands have found success booking themselves. We spoke with a few musicians (and one musician who pulls double-duty as a talent buyer) to find out how they’ve kept themselves on the road and in the good graces of promoters. Like most aspects of being in a band, learning how to book effectively can feel like trial-by-fire. Heed the advice here and ease that burning sensation. As Vincent Joseph from Model Stranger (modelstranger.com) asserts, “Booking is not fun but it is necessary work that, if done right, pays off—literally.”

First Impressions Last Every first contact with a venue is like a job interview, or a first date. Getting to the next step in a booking conversation has almost everything to do with the first impression you make. As Hemmingbirds (hemmingbirds.com) frontman Yoo Soo Kim puts it, “as ‘sell-out’ as it sounds, when you book, you are a salesperson and your product is your band; if you look put together, the venue will see it as less of a risk to invest in you.” At the very least, this means providing an easy way to listen to your music and see who you are. An online EPK is an effective way to present all the most pertinent information about your band to an interested party, including pictures, press QUOTEs, video, and your music. “Make sure the music is easy to find; whether it’s a Sonicbids page or one you make yourself, put your music at the top,” offers Mike Maimone of the band Mutts (muttsmusic.com). He adds, “the promoter shouldn’t have to read much; just introduce yourself, offer a short descriptor of your music, and send ’em off to find out more for themselves.”

Do Their Work for Them Promoters and talent buyers receive hundreds of emails weekly, if not daily. Even if it seems to you like they should be responsible for checking their own calendar and pairing you with appropriate bands, most simply don’t have the bandwidth. By doing this basic legwork yourself, not only will you look like a serious band, but you’re making it easier for the promoter to do his or her job: Book a show. In addition to having played in local and touring bands, Chicago musician Dave Stach also dabbles as a talent buyer for local promoter House Call Entertainment: “I’ve gotten emails that say, ‘Hey, I’d like to play your venue sometime, sincerely, Tom’,” he says. “That gets us nowhere; tell me exactly what you are looking for—keep it simple and give all the details up front so we don’t have to go back and ask any questions.”

Part of this effort means helping the promoter assemble a bill—which means networking. “The greatest success for me has been just trying to obtain as many band contacts as possible,” says Kim, “and when you name-drop to a venue that you reached out to all these locals for a date, they’ll be more inclined to pursue your hold.” Patrick Ogle, who’s toured both solo and as the frontman for Thanatos (thanatos.biz), concurs, saying, “try to get several bands together and work on booking shows as a group; coming to a venue with a full bill can be useful.”

More than one of the musicians we talked to suggested signing up for IndieOnTheMove.com (indieonthemove.com), an invaluable resource for people on both sides of the booking effort. The website provide a list of all U.S. venues that’s searchable by location and sortable by capacity, and allows bands and promoters to post show and touring avails. And it’s free to sign up.

Be Persistent, Not Annoying Sending one email and throwing your hands up when you don’t get a response is no way to book a show. On the other hand, spamming a promoter with an email every hour is a great way to get blacklisted from ever playing his or her venue. “Find the right balance between friendly reminders and pestering,” says Maimone, adding, “every promoter has a different tolerance—if you’re getting three-word replies from someone, keep it short on your end, too.” Joseph believes it’s a boon to go beyond mere electronic communication. “Given the current email-driven world we live in now, I have found that a phone call goes a long way,” he says. In his capacity as a buyer, Stach echos this sentiment, stating, “I still believe a phone call is the quickest and most effective way to book a show; we could go back and forth with multiple emails, or we could get it all out of the way in one five-minute phone call.”

However—and this is a big “however”—pay special attention to venue booking instructions, and follow them to the letter or risk immediate rejection. For example, Cake Shop in New York City (cake-shop.com) specifically requests “No calls, please!” If a venue provides guidelines and it’s obvious that you’ve ignored them, that’s a great reason for them to ignore you, too.

Uphold Your End of the Bargain It’s one thing to land your first gig at a venue; your next move determines whether you’ll be coming back. The work of ensuring you get a second (or third, or fourth) show begins once you’ve secured the initial booking. “Send posters/ fliers to the venue right away so they have time to put them up; promptly announce shows on your website and make sure the venue puts them on its site, too; follow up to make sure the venue got the posters and ask if it has a media list so you can try getting local coverage for your show,” advises Maimone. And of course, put on the best show that you can.

If your first show does lead to more gigs, make sure you don’t oversaturate your market. “Sure, playing Chicago every week would be a gas . . . until you realize your crowd is quickly dwindling,” says Joseph. “Space out your shows so that you aren’t playing the same market without 6–8 weeks between shows, at least.” It’s a simple economic principle that increased scarcity breeds increased demand. The inverse is also true.

The more you think of touring as a business, and each promoter as a potential partner, the more success you’ll find in getting into good venues—both at home and out of town. Offer something of value, exhibit due diligence, and invest in a long-term relationship with a venue and you’ll start to feel that most coveted of entrepreneurial sensations: momentum. Good luck!

Owen O’Malley is a musician and freelance writer living in Chicago.

 

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