Booking Tip: Start With the Bands and Forget the Venues!

September 7, 2011{ 11 Comments }

Build the bill yourself.

When booking tours, so many bands begin the process backwards.  They start by writing to the talent buyers at all the coolest clubs (or the only clubs) in the towns they’ll be traveling through. If you’ve never played in a particular town before, your press quotes and your contacts might help you get a slot on a bill you have no control over, but it probably won’t be a great night. Here’s why:

1) Most bands with a decent draw in their hometown take more than just a passing interest in who else is on the bill. So if you’re being added to a bill by the booker without ever talking to the other bands, chances are those other bands are being thrown on the bill the same way you are. 

2) Meaning,… that all the bands that evening have small draws. Plus, you might be mismatched in terms of genre, style, appeal, etc.

3) Since you went through the booker/talent-buyer directly, you’ve probably not built up any kind of relationship with the other bands. They’ll have little interest or investment in encouraging their fans and friends to stay for your set.

So, what is the moral of the story?

Approach BANDS first! Then propose that bill to a club booker.

So, for example, pretend you live in Portland and you want to play a gig in Seattle that is worth the 3 hour drive and gas money. First, you want to find who the local Seattle bands are that you want to play with. Check out the websites for the Seattle weekly papers. Use Google searches, Facebook, Twitter, and yes, even MySpace, to discover similar Seattle bands. Then contact them.

At this point, you’ll have to use your own common sense when approaching bands. There is strategy and politics involved in booking. If you don’t have a huge draw in Portland, then you probably shouldn’t be writing the most popular bands in Seattle with gig-swapping offers. Opening for a big band in Seattle is a huge opportunity, and that band will want something in return. If you can’t provide it, they’ll ignore your email. Conversely, if you DO have a decent draw in your own hometown but are completely unknown in Seattle, some bigger Seattle acts may be willing to take a chance on you.

If you’re still building your local audience and approach Seattle acts who are doing the same, there is still value in constructing a bill this way. First, you’re ensuring that you’ll be sharing the evening with similar (or at least sympathetic) musical acts. Second, since you’ve formed relationships with the Seattle bands directly, there will be more of that good old social pressure on them to support you, stick around for your set, get their fans out early, etc.

So, next time you’re booking an out-of-town show, consider writing to a few bands first before you email Tina Talent-Buyer at the Cool Club.

-Chris R. at CD Baby

Sell more merch at shows by accepting debit and credit cards through CD Baby’s Swiper Program!


  • This is such important advice. When I was younger I played many gigs at venues which were really well sought after and it was really exciting that we were playing there, only to find we would be on a ridiculously inappropriate bill, booked simply to bring a few feet through the door and nothing more. They are some of the worst experiences in my musical life! Good work.

    • I kind of learned this backwards. By some trick of luck, I actually booked my first tour the way I recommend, by contacting bands. It was great. The second tour, I must've been in a bit of a rush or something, because I went about that one by blasting emails to a bunch of bookers along the tour route. I got gigs, filled the dates, breathed a sigh of relief. But then those shows weren't nearly as rewarding as the first tour. Back to the original method!

  • Thanks, Ty.

  • Awesome. Although house-band for karaoke night does kinda sound fun!

  • Most importantly: The gig you're booking is NOT a one-night-stand.

    The music world is smaller than you might think; you might actually run into those people again. Which is why, when contacting bands, you should always strive to build a personable, responsible, ongoing relationship.

    One of the downsides of initially diving into the 'bands first' approach, is that it's much like a cold-call. The bands you're contacting (more than likely) know nothing about you, and therefor may think very little of your offer, or more importantly your agreement. You, as an individual (or band), don't necessarily hold an aura of importance, or authority (and that's not meant to be insulting)—what's to stop someone from bailing on the show you're trying to bill? Unfortunately, there's no TRUE consequence for the individual—they may not make any friends, but maybe they don't really care.

    The point being, that when someone bails on a booking agent, the fault falls on the agent. However, when someone bails on a show your band booked, it can make your band look bad. Ultimately, you were in charge, so you unfortunately hold the responsibility.

    This is why I stress being as honest, respectful and straight forward with those you wish to play with. Have as much of the details ironed out before you make your contacts to minimize doubt and questions. Make the details clear and concise, and be sure to show your excitement about the opportunity and of course your appreciation.

    The last thing you want to do is come off sounding like many of the creepy craigslist posting you see floating around.

  • Rick Whelan

    One of the most successful gigs I've ever done, I bypassed the booker and went straight to the venue owner with the proposed show including a support act to support us, even though we'd only done 2 shows. They ran with it. I had to do a fair amount of extra work, and the risk was on our/my shoulders. They only occasionally had bands which meant that we had to promote to bring any crowd. I had done a lot of homework trying to find a venue that didn't have a booker who was the only gatekeeper to the hotel, had all the qualities like good acoustics, etc, and had accessable parking. It worked. The crowd came, we made a killing off the door and a cut of the bar and most importantly for the future, we'd established a great working relationship with the venue….. another "stunt" we did was to go on local independant radio and have people ring in trying to score the support act with us, even though we were still green ourselves…. we ended up with a musical comedian who brought a great crowd and he really warmed them up for us, setting a warm mood for the night.

    • Mixing up mediums like that is fun. Music and comedy. Poetry and music. Art opening and music. etc.

    • Mixing up mediums like that is fun. Music and comedy. Poetry and music. Art opening and music. etc.

  • Did she stick to the Seger version? or veer off towards Metallica territory?

  • Smart bills and reciprocation are key to this working for everyone involved. I'm definitely not advocating any mooching. If you get a gig in another town opening for a bigger band there, you certainly should help them out in return in your own home town. I don't see that as lazy. I think it makes good business sense.

  • Here’s a list of possible things to try:
    1) open for established acts in the new area (with the promise of them opening for YOU when they tour through your town)
    2) once you’ve confirmed the date, let every single newspaper, weekly, blog, events site, record store, and relevant radio station (including community and college stations) in the area know about the show
    3) be honest with the venue, and let them know you don’t have a huge draw, but you’re hoping to get in there and prove that you can play and KEEP whatever crowd is there entertained… then build from there with future dates

    @ Chris Robley