Photo by Saroyan Humphrey
Meet Zachary Cepin, a booking agent for Bay Area agency High Road Touring. For the past ten years, High Road has helped many high-profile artists develop or maintain their live-music careers, including Lucinda Williams, OK Go, Robyn Hitchcock, Wilco, and dozens of others. Cepin puts together tours for his bands like puzzle pieces, making sure that the routes make sense and will help artists build their fan bases while hopefully turning a profit in the process. He negotiates dates, terms, and guarantees with club bookers all over the map. Here, Cepin offers advice to bands that want to play great shows on the road and gain more exposure without breaking the bank.
What can bands with decent track records do to persuade you to work with them?
The quality of the music always comes first. I want to work with artists who are making music that I love and who I enjoy working with. The last thing I want to do is book shows for a band I don''t like personally or musically solely for the paycheck. Write good songs and put on a solid live show. Be straight-headed, surround yourself with goal-oriented people, and work as hard for yourself as you expect others to work for you.
How can bands most effectively pitch club bookers outside of their hometowns?
Press kits are of the past, so forget they ever existed. Online one-sheets and social-networking sites have replaced physical press kits. People want information as quickly as possible without putting in much effort, and sending a package with a CD, a picture, and a bio is more likely to end up in someone's trash than on their desk.
When emailing, ask about being on specific, like-minded shows, ones that look like they have a spot open on the bill. Be persistent, but don't expect to open for the Rolling Stones immediately; start with the smaller clubs before moving onto larger ones. Take a slot as part of a local show, promote the hell out of it, and bring as many people to the show as possible. Treat the club employees with respect, play your best, and don't expect to be paid. As you develop a fan base, getting booked will become easier and easier, and eventually, club promoters will be asking you to play shows.
What kind of leverage does a band need to negotiate guarantees in cities outside of its hometown?
Expect to lose money or break even the first time you play a market. Unless you have an agent leveraging money for you based on the relationships he or she has developed, expecting someone to guarantee you money without some kind of press, past history, or a fan base is not realistic. As you develop a fan base and relationships with promoters, and prove that your band is worth their investment, the guarantees will increase.
Is it important to hit key markets multiple times to build up the fan base, and then expand to smaller markets?
I'm a fan of using your geography to your advantage. So, for example, if you live in San Francisco and are making a trip to L.A. to play a show, if you can pick up a date in a secondary market like Santa Cruz or Santa Barbara on the way home to break up the drive and pick up some additional money, even better. However, unless you have friends in a city like Fresno, a tertiary market, or are playing a style of music that does exceptionally well there, you generally need some level of success in a market like Los Angeles before folks in Fresno start paying attention to you.
What mistakes have you seen bands make that they could have avoided?
Don't put the cart before the horse. Many new bands want to tour when they have no reason to. Focus on the quality of your songs, develop your live show by playing locally, and garner an audience in your hometown before branching out regionally and then nationally. If you live in a major city and cannot sell 100 tickets in your hometown, there's little reason for you to be out touring. Touring is expensive, and the last thing you need is to go broke for little-to-no gain. Be patient, realistic, work hard, and be great at what you do, and good things will come.