How to book your first gig

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Booking your first gig: advice for bandsMaybe you’ve formed a new band that hasn’t played out yet, but you’re ready to take the stage. Maybe you’re a songwriter looking to transition from open mics to longer shows. Maybe you’re an old pro who’s coming back from a long break and you’re not sure how booking gigs works these days.

Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say, but most musicians I know used some variation of this basic approach in order to book their first gigs:

1. Wait until you’re ready

No sense in looking for a gig if your first show is going to be a train wreck. Patience, grasshopper. You only get one chance to have a debut performance.

2. Make a “demo” recording or video

“Demo” is kind of an outdated term these days, especially when so many people are recording at home and have the opportunity to tinker until they’ve built a finished song from what started as a demo session. But think of it this way: you need a way to demonstrate your talent and your style to the booking agent. A recording of your best song or a YouTube video of you performing (presumably in your basement or garage, since you haven’t played live yet) is the best way to show a booker what you can offer.

3. Ask around

Have any friends in bands that need an opening act? Do you already know any venue owners or booking agents? Obviously whenever possible you want to call upon your existing network within the local music community to make this process easier.

4. Visit the venues and introduce yourself

OK, so you don’t have any connections to help you take a short-cut to your first gig. Then it’s time to do some legwork. Go check out the venues in town that you’d like to play at. Keep in mind, you’re going to need to rally all of your friends and family to come to your first gig. How many people is that realistically? 15? 25? 35? That’s not enough folks to fill a big music venue, so maybe you should start with smaller clubs, bars, and restaurants. Go pay them a visit. Get a drink. See some music. Talk to the bartender. Ask if the booker is around. Make some conversation and get a sense for what they’re looking for from the musicians they hire. Make mental notes.

5. Do your online research

Once you’re back home, get on the computer and visit the website for each of those venues. Read their booking guidelines. Does it still seem like a good fit for your music? Can you deliver what they’re asking for? (For instance: a minimum of 25 attendees, a three-hour set, bringing your own PA, etc.) If so, make note of the booking email address or use their online form to…

6. Contact the booker, venue owner, or talent buyer

Write a brief email asking if you can play at their space. Again, keep it BRIEF. If it’s too long, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be ignored (since these folks probably get dozens or hundreds of emails a day). Here’s what you should include:

* address it to their actual name, not “to whom it may concern” or “hello booking agent.”

* a short introduction describing in one or two sentences the sound of your music, the size of your group, and where you’re from.

* provide a link to your recordings, videos, etc. Do NOT send attachments unless they specifically ask for them.

* personalize it; if you met the booker already, or if you checked out the venue and really thought it was an awesome room, let them know.

* ask for the gig; be specific and tell them what nights or time-slots you’re looking to play.

* mention that it will be your first gig, but you’re ready to make the event a crazy success.

* tell them how many people you can bring out. Be realistic. Don’t lie or exaggerate. That will only hurt you afterwards.

* be flexible and offer to put a whole bill (a grouping of bands) together if that would help, or to open for touring bands.

* provide your contact info (email and phone) and politely sign off.

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Alright. That’s about it. Now you just wait for a reply. Hopefully it’s a YES. If so, congrats. Now it’s time to start promoting your first show (which is a whole different blog post).

How did you book your first show? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Jack Fossett

    Very important for young musicians – never pay to play. I promise you won’t get the exposure they say they’re offering. Musicians provide a service, don’t let venues take advantage of you. Unless you’re doing something like a charity show for something you care about, always make sure you get paid. Which also then means Point 1 is especially important – be performance ready. You should always be paid, but you also need to be an act worth paying.

    • Patrick Hayes

      There are a few instances that I don’t mind playing for free. Charity shows, “fests” made up of mostly local or regional bands and shows where all of the money goes to a touring act that I want to support.

      And maybe since this is about people having their first gig it’s okay to play your first show for free if you follow #3 and a friend gives you a 20 min set on a bill they already have put together for their band.

    • WillR

      I had a gig once and we didn’t realise if we didn’t sell enough tickets they would charge us for the tickets we didnt sell, something like £30 quid each!
      I was so pissed off, I went back stage and stole about 100 quids worth of drum equipment.
      The venue is now closed down.
      Fuck pay to play.

  • stewspot

    No mention of remuneration here. DO NOT WORK FOR FREE!! Know what the fee will be up front. Contact your local American Federation of Musicians office (and perhaps join?) to find out union minimums and give yourself a value. Use a contract. Don’t be afraid to say “No” if the fee is too low.

    • terry

      I ALLWAYS WORK FOR FREE callboxmusic st.denis and I play in front of no one but the bar tender .if you can play on a big stage with a big pa/ foldbacks and lighting for
      1 hr.and have to pay $ 50 do it its all part of the know… and bring all of your equip
      play loud and rock it !

    • jazzvibes

      AFM? When was the last time they did something about non-union musicians taking over your gigs for half the money?

  • The Basement Coffeehouse on East 22nd Street NYC, sometime in the winter of 1974 – 1975. We auditioned in front of someone who just sat there looking unmoved. We were sure we blew it. Unbeknownst to us, there was an audio feed back to the real decision-makers who offered us our first paying gig as we were walking out.

  • Oh, good point. Beware of pay-to-play, always.

    @ChrisRobley

  • gstarrinaz

    As a pianist/composer (playing original works for piano and piano with electronic orchestration), I can’t just play a “regular” gig. Concerts have to be carefully planned to be effective.
    One avenue I have found very effective is playing benefit concerts for non-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity. The organization benefits by collecting contributions taken at the concert and I benefit from CD sales, exposure, and most importantly, gathering email addresses for my mailing list. I give away a few CDs after intermission, selecting the winners from sign-up cards that includes the email address.

  • Donna Friedman

    I go to all the open mics in my area. The smallest is at a Sam Ash, but pays $10. I get to do the “break” set, which is 20 minutes, at THE STARLITE LOUNGE in Pompano Beach, FL. Doesn’t pay, but between these, The Funky Buddha in Boca and my cd getting around, I am starting to build a name & reputation. I go by DEVORAH for all my music, singer/songwriter for many years.

  • Great way to boost your email list. Thanks for sharing.

    @ChrisRobley

  • What if the vast majority of venues just won’t let you past the open mic no matter what… Go on strike?

  • What do I do? I still have never, Got a show. I’ve done everything. The venues won’t reply, the pricks. The booking people wont reply. One booking person replied, and told me i’d have to sell an amount of tickets, if i didn’t i’d have to pay for the tickets i didn’t sell.(which add up to $200) I feel like my musics still, going nowhere. Help. The artist name is Seatheskyeline(im a one man punk band)

    • I’d recommend staying away from ‘pay to play’ type shows. Especially for your first gig when it would be hard to sell a whole bunch of tickets. Have you played any open mics? Sometimes that’s a good way to meet the venue folks, booker, bartenders, etc. If they like you, they might book you on another night for a proper set.

      @ChrisRobley

    • Glade Swope

      Another victim of the forced-dichotomy of real band vs. singer songwriter.

    • I agree with Christopher. Do some open mics and meet other folks. =) It can also help if you do tons of research looking around the area for better venues or even underground venues in your area.

    • I agree with Christopher. Do some open mics and meet other folks. =) It can also help if you do tons of research looking around the area for better venues or even underground venues in your area.