For musicians, few things are worse than playing to an empty room. People don't want to practice long hours and spend time setting up for a show only to find themselves playing for the bartender and a couple of guilt-tripped significant others. In a perfect world, every club would be packed with an enthusiastic audience just waiting for your performance to begin. However, as anybody who has ever tried to get people out to a show can attest, packing the house — especially if you're in a new or relatively unknown band — is no small feat. After all, friends can only make it to so many shows, and most e-mail lists only average a minuscule turnout. Fortunately, there are a handful of straightforward promotion techniques that can greatly increase your chances of seeing a substantial crowd of new faces at your next gig.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The age-old adage “It's all about location” is not just for appraising real estate. The location of the club will also be a determining factor in your ability to get people out to your show. For example, if your gig is on a weeknight and the club you're booked to play at is in the boonies, trying to get people to drive out to see you after they've worked all day is a losing battle. Stick with clubs around town that can be easily reached by foot or a short drive. This will allow you to focus most of your promotional efforts on a specific neighborhood, a much more manageable territory to cover than an entire metropolis, especially when you're on a budget (and what musician isn't?).
Hand out flyers or postcards announcing your upcoming gig at all the neighborhood hot spots near the club. That way, you're marketing directly to the crowd most likely to drop by after work for a listen and a drink. When it's appropriate, say hello and be friendly with the people you're handing the flyers to. There's nothing like a personal connection to help inspire potential fans to come out and see you — but don't be pushy, because that can have the opposite effect.
RIDE SOME COATTAILS
It's an old trick but still a good one: Open for a well-established, popular act. Sometimes, there will be a preferred opening act, but when one isn't available, the event's promoter or the club's booking agent will make the final call. However, don't try to open for an act whose music is of a totally different genre than yours. For example, if you play new-age music and the headlining act is a punk band, you won't win any fans with this crowd and will probably get booted off the stage. Be familiar with the headliner's musical style, and if need be, tailor your set to best appeal to the crowd at the show.
Just because the headliner has its own promotions team working to hype the gig doesn't mean that you get a free ride. If you've been added to the lineup at the last minute or you're considered an inconsequential part of the show, then you will not be included in any of the main act's promotional efforts. Nevertheless, most promoters and booking agents will still expect you to bring in your own number of warm bodies. Consequently, you should still get out in the general area around the club and promote. Of course, having now been confirmed as the evening's opening act, you can add the headliner's name (with approval) to your flyers for greater impact.
PLAN FOR ADS
Running a print ad in the entertainment section of your local newspaper remains a wise way to promote your show. Sometimes, a club's owner will pay for all or part of the cost to run the ad, assuming the ad also promotes the club. The key with print ads is to know when the deadline is to place an ad for a particular issue. Depending on the frequency of the paper, deadlines can be as far out as three months or as soon as three weeks in advance. You'll want to time the ad to come out in the same month or week as your gig, so do your homework, and call the paper for all the details, submission specifications and rates.
A calendar of events aired on a local college radio station is another great place to get exposure for your gig. Inclusion in the calendar doesn't usually cost any money, but whether your event is mentioned on the air is generally up to the discretion of the DJ. For example, if the station has been playing a track from your latest album, chances are good that your upcoming show will get mentioned on the air. Consequently, again, you'll want to plan ahead and get the station a copy of your latest album several months in advance to better your chances of grabbing some airtime.
Promoting your act can be a full-time job (and you thought you already had one). If you're too busy to promote your upcoming gig, there are firms and individuals that specialize in promoting shows and cultivating public relations. However, hiring such a person (or persons) can be costly, and as any good PR person will tell you, specific results (such as write-ups in all the local newspapers and a big turnout at your next gig) are not guaranteed. That said, promoters and PR people can be powerful allies; just don't hire them on retainer (hire them for a specific job, one job at a time) or give them all the money up front for a job that has yet to be done — use common sense.