by Ann Vriend
The tips I’ve written below are things I mostly learned the hard way, either as an independent artist, a booker of a venue, and/or as an artist who has been represented (sometimes badly) by booking agents and managers. I hope it helps. I am by no means more of an authority on the subject than many other independent touring artists out there, so feel free to dispute or disregard any of these points and ask around.
BOOKING THE TOUR:
1. Where to begin: get a google or ical out, map out your ideal tour in a certain colour, and label it “tentative” or something to that affect. Per date it is good to put a number of options of towns and venues in that town; some flexibility will probably be necessary. As dates become confirmed put them into the calendar in a different colour (labelled “confirmed gigs”) and delete the options that were previously in the “tentative” colour. Remember to mapquest/google map distances between places, keeping in mind time zones. (Canada, for instance, is BIG. Ontario never ends.) Write as many notes to yourself in the calendar to keep organized, because things can easily get confusing. Usually the best thing is to centre your tour around an anchor gig or festival that pays decently, and work towards and backwards from that.
2. Aproaching venues and artists. The golden rule is: DON’T WASTE PEOPLE’S TIME. People in the music business don’t have very much time. Nearly everyone is wearing a lot of hats in order to pay the bills. Most of the next points are in regards to this, one way or another.
3. Research a venue a bit first. Check it out online or find out from other artists what it’s like, what the best strategy is to booking it. Look at who’s playing there– does your music fit? Are the artists playing there at similar levels in their careers as you? Do they even HAVE live music on the day of the week you’re asking about? Some of them are folk clubs that book at least a year ahead. Some of them only book local acts. Some of them you have to actually call. Others get very annoyed if you call (the latter is more common; generally try email first). Some are great but the sound is bad– bring your own sound gear or guy. Stuff like that.
4. Ask other artists about venues. Getting contacts and references from other artists is usually a way faster, more efficient way to find out info and connect with the right people at the venue. But also keep in mind asking busy artists for tips and contacts is a time consuming thing for them to give you, so be grateful when people do help you out, and be willing and ready to offer something comparable in return. Having said that, know other artists have spent a lot of time and energy on these contacts and connections and have every right to decide you’re not an artist they want to hand that over to– either for artistic reasons, or simply because they’re super busy, or because they don’t feel you’re ready in your career for the kind of thing you’re asking them for. Or any other number of reasons. Everything in this country is about helping each other out and most people are kind if you can make it easy for them but it is in no way their obligation to help you.
5. Think of booking a gig from the perspective of the venue: they need to make sure the venue is well-attended; if no one’s there they lose money and have to shut down. Some venues, God bless them, give you a guarantee and don’t seem to mind either way if you bring out a crowd, but they are few and far between, and still, no one wins if there’s an empty house. So, if you don’t have a draw in a town find other local artists who do have a draw to team up with– maybe in return for the same in your territory. Or be willing to play open stages and not very awesome bars first, to build a fan base. Or tell the venue truthfully you are just starting out your following there but would love an opening spot for someone else (and realize there’s typically not a ton of money for opening acts). But DON’T lie and say you have a fan base somewhere that you don’t, or exaggerate the number of people you think will come out.
6. If someone turns you down for a gig or doesn’t get back to you after one or 2 attempts consider it a dead end and move on, or find out if maybe there’s a different person to contact. DON’T keep bugging the same person. I know there is/was advice floating around out there for a while saying that you should just be persistent and in a moment of weakness or exasperation someone might give in to you just to get you off their back, and while that may occasionally be true, people should not book you because you are incessantly annoying. They should book you because you’re a good performer and your music is good, or preferably great. If it is and you work hard and smart, eventually that person will hear about you and you’ll get to play there.
7. Include very the date or options of dates you are looking for in your first email to the venue.
8. Include what size of band you’re touring with, or if it’s a double bill with 2 songwriters, etc. If another songwriter include links to their stuff, too. If the band members are people you think the venue bookers knows, mention that, too, but otherwise don’t bother.
9. Mention if there is a professional publicist behind the tour (and name them). Or anything in this regard that will make the venue booker feel like you’ll get some publicity (again, DON’T LIE). If you have radio play in that area or some press in that area from a previous tour send the playlist or the link to that.
10. By now it should be clear that sending a generic email to every venue you want a show at on your tour is actually not very effective, as time efficient as it may be. Again, see #2.
11. When you are approaching a venue who you know may not have heard of you, send them active links to your music/bio/website/myspace/youtube— whatever has the best stuff on you– info wise and music wise. Usually the venue booker has 30 seconds to check you out, max. Don’t make the info hard to find, and make sure the info you give them is how you want the 1st impression of you to go. But DON’T send a large attachment such as a high res photo or mp3 to clog their inbox or smartphone data plan. Again, think of it from the perspective of a venue booker who gets a LOT of messages from musicians looking for gigs per day.
12. Make sure that info you’re sending is something you’re proud of. Would you book you? Change your presentation (maybe even your music) until the answer is yes. You may have to spend money on better photos, get someone to write your bio, improve your website, etc. Your live show could be the best thing since sliced bread but remember the link people click on first is very often their first impression of you, and if it’s not a good impression they won’t look or listen further.
13. Don’t go on and on in the body of your email about yourself and your music— that’s what the links are for. But a quick summary of your genre, a few of your major achievements, and a press quote or 2 are not a bad idea.
14. Have your music on your CD match or at least somewhat match what you’re going to sound like on stage. Or, if it doesn’t, point that out in a BRIEF description of what you WILL be presenting so that the venue knows what they’re getting.
15. If you are booking house concerts know the etiquette of that. Homeroutes.ca and Acousticroof.ca can fill you in on this.
16. Book far enough ahead that you’re not scrambling and desperate. People feel bad and annoyed when you grovel and they can’t help you. Generally it looks quite unprofessional if you ask less than 3 months in advance, give or take the nature of the venue. If you book REALLY far ahead the typical response is that they aren’t working on that time of year yet– then you can say, ok, i’ll get back to you closer to the time– and at least you’ve touched base, though be aware that sometimes this is just a polite way of saying they’re not interested. Know the difference.
17. Thank them for their time. Be easy to work with. Be easy to get along with. No one has time for anything else. You can be a diva when you’ve sold a million records and have an entourage to protect you from the real world of people who would like to be treated with respect. Until then… (actually, don’t even do it then).
18. Money. Most importantly, know what is reasonable pay for that venue for an artist of your level (of recognition, not talent– unfortunately) AT THAT VENUE. Ask around what’s “normal,” or just point blank ask the venue what their ballpark is, or how they do it (door deal, guarantee, combo thereof). Don’t email a set fee to people in your first contact with them. It’s pretty presumptuous and can come across as offensive. Booking agents for very established artists can do this but even then it’s a series of negotiations and conversations most times.
19. Money part 2: But, don’t be afraid to stand your ground if what they come back with doesn’t work for you. Politely refuse, with a (TRUTHFUL!) explanation (ie: in the past I’ve played your town for x dollars so I need to stick to that or I’ll undercut myself), or, thanks very much, I am trying to strictly book guarantees for this town, or I’ve got a band to pay so I don’t think those numbers will work for my budget, etc).
20. Make an expense budget. Make a projected income budget (merch sales included). Both will fluctuate as you book and as you tour. But it will help you not get in over your head. It will also help you to determine how many band members you can bring, and what you can pay them. And make sure you have a buffer zone of income (credit card, line of credit, savings). Things can go wrong, vehicles can break down, shows can get cancelled, attendance bad due to weather, etc. (On the up side, things can also go right and you can make way MORE money than you thought. But err on the side of caution.) If you are hoping to get a touring grant or some sort of funding for your tour, know the grant deadlines and the number of confirmed shows you need in order to get it, and plan far enough in advance accordingly. GETTING grants is of course not guaranteed so have a budget for if you get it as well as one for if you don’t.
21. Don’t undercut other artists. Do not offer to play for next to nothing in order to get yourself on a bill that the venue/promoter was planning on paying a different artist for. Not cool. Also, try to get away from playing venues where there is no cover or just “pay what you can.” This is what artists have to do when they’re starting out, but keep in mind that eventually, as your career builds, if you keep doing this you’re undercutting other pro artists and making it harder for ALL of us to get paid– venues and patrons will get too used to music being free– no matter what the calibre, and then soon NONE of us can make money at this. If your show and music is great people will pay for it. Be confident in that. You have to find them and they have to find you, but they will and do.
22. Contracts. Sticky subject. I’ve had contracts that weren’t honoured (despite both parties signing it), and hundred of gigs that were just agreed upon and honoured in an email or even phone call or text. As far as I know an email trail (with date and sender info intact) stands up in court as proof of payment– but don’t quote me on that. The sad reality is that usually the disputed dollar amount is not worth going to court over. Luckily, everybody talks– artists, venues, festival bookers, industry members, publicists, agencies– and word gets around that someone has ripped someone else off astonishingly quickly. So, thankfully that keeps most people inline. Generally a contract will come at you from a venue/promoter/club/festival, and not vice versa. Though having your own template is not a bad idea. Also having a tech rider on hand is good for when these types of gigs come around.
23. You need to be a bit tough. Don’t take it personally if someone turns you down for a gig or doesn’t like your music or simply is too busy to get back to you. As soon as you charge money for what you do you are running a business, and not everybody wants your business– not every person likes every kind of artist and art. If you get easily offended or are super sensitive about your music frankly you better stay home and just play for your friends and family (assuming they are nice ;)).
24. Patience. There are a LOT of people who want gigs, far more than there are gigs to be had, so it usually takes time, hard work, and a great product to really start being able to make some decent money out there. Often your first tours into a new territory will COST you money rather than make you any, so unless you’re mainly doing this for fun, you need to think of serious touring in a long-term way; like any business, you have to think of it as an investment. If you have a great product and presentation and play it smart your investment will pay off. There is no absolute guarantee, but generally the smarter decisions you make from the get-go, artistically business-wise, the faster you’ll be able to have financially successful and artistically rewarding tours.
Stay tuned for a follow up blog on advice for the actual tour!