[In this post, guest contributor and full-time DIY musician Ari Herstand talks about the importance of focusing on big local shows early in your career — and how to make those shows successful. Throughout the article, he's sprinkled links to other good information to help you along.]
I’ve played over 500 shows in 40 states and have booked nearly every show myself (I’m still DIY). I started, though, in my (former) hometown of Minneapolis. Before ever leaving the state (of Minnesota for those struggling with geography) I had chalked up about 30 local shows.
From the moment I made the decision that a performing songwriting career was to be my life (mid-freshman-year of college after giving my dad a near heart attack) I began playing out as much as possible. I made a local goal: sell out the Varsity Theater.
The Varsity Theater is a 700 person capacity venue in Minneapolis just off the University of Minnesota campus. Nearly every band that has toured through Minneapolis has played it at some point. I lived a block from it when I decided to make music my life. I’d walk by it every day from the sub shop I worked at and salivated as I passed the 40 foot tall marquee with a hot touring act’s name in lights.
In one year, I not only played the Varsity Theater, but filled it. And two years later I sold it out.
Before even thinking of touring you need to figure out how to conquer your local market. It sounds a little aggressive to say conquer, I suppose. Hipsters would say “simultaneously satiate the collective consciousness of the city.” But I say conquer (because it’s a true battle – and hipsters are assholes).
You have to figure out early on what your niche is going to be. Everyone has one. I started with the University of Minnesota (of 40,000 students). Hardly a small niche, but a niche nonetheless. I was part of that community so I understood the hot coffee shops, Greek houses, dorms, the grassy mall, the union, had friends at the newspaper and on the ultimate frisbee team and so forth. I took a blanket approach and plastered the campus with posters for every show – just to get my name out there and begin the conversation. I also started playing every possible venue on campus (in coffee shops, dorm lounges, bars, open mics, music venues, sorority lounges…yup, frat houses…bro, and…elevators (that’s another story). Eventually everyone started to take notice.
One person seeing a poster or a Facebook ad or a YouTube video won’t get them out to your show. They have to be hit from multiple angles and from multiple people.
Get a street team together of 10 friends (yes call it a “street team” – or give it a creative name; you can then build this up with true fans eventually) and go around town putting up posters, pass out handbills in the niche community you are targeting and have the more personable members of your band start up conversations with those you think would get into your music (getting personal is much more effective than just handing someone a handbill).
With all the social media out today it’s so easy to convince yourself you’re doing effective promo work behind your computer when in reality it’s not nearly as effective as you think.
No social network or YouTube video can change the electrifying energy of a physical experience. Get out in the world and meet people!
Go to local concerts OFTEN and meet all the other bands. I used to go to 4-5 LOCAL shows a week when I started out. If they see you supporting them maybe they’ll support you. Follow the local tastemakers on Twitter and find out where the hot shows are around town. When you’re there go up to these people and introduce yourself. Maybe even reference their blog, tweets, whatever and maybe hand them your CD (“I love what you wrote about Grizzly Bear. I think you’ll dig our record”) and an invite to your show (AFTER youhave a great conversation). Then begin the Twitter conversation online. Eventually they’ll write back and welcome you into their community of fellow gatekeepers.
Target your local promo efforts to specific groups that are unique to your band. Is anyone Jewish in the band? Hit up the local Moishe House, “young adults” group, Hillel house, synagogues, etc. Get your members to make sure everyone in the office comes to the show. Legitimize it with customized posters for that show (put it up in the office), pass out handbills, encourage them to buy tickets. Don’t feel embarrassed about getting your co-workers to buy tickets. When they get there and see a packed house they’ll think YOU’RE THE SHIT and will happily buy more tickets in the future. Is anyone in the band involved with an intramural sports league? Get the team to come! Is anyone in a ski club? Offer group discounts. Is anyone in the group gay? Target the local LGBT community. You have to target very specific groups. Targeting enough small groups will eventually add up to a sold out venue.
I recommend playing a big local show like this once every 2-3 months as to not overwhelm your audience. When you’re starting off you’ll want to play anywhere and everywhere just to get experience playing. After you have a bunch of shows under your belt and you feel you’re ready for the big time then start spreading your local shows out and promoting the bajeebers out of each one.
Make sure you get people to film these shows as you’ll want footage of you playing to a packed house (this may only happen a couple times a year). Then promote this footage to the local media outlets along with the winning point: We sold out our last show. If you sell out a hot venue in your city I guarantee everyone who’s anyone in the local music world will start to take notice. But, this is only the beginning.
Ari Herstand has been a full-time DIY musician for over 5 years. He’s played over 500 shows in 40 states and has opened for artists such as Ben Folds, Cake, Joshua Radin, Matt Nathanson and Ron Pope. His songs have been featured on TV shows like One Tree Hill and various Showtime and MTV shows. His latest studio album debuted at #11 on iTunes singer/songwriter charts. He writes an independent music business advice blog, Ari’s Take: http://aristake.com.