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

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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

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  • 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!

  • Woah! Excellent post! if you nail a good location and a good bill, that is awesome, but a worthwile show is so much more important than a nailing the “perfect” venue.

  • Ty Gerhardt

    This is probably the best and most useful real world advice I’ve seen in these newsletters so far. Keep this kind of stuff coming.

  • The Madeleine Haze

    This advice is golden! On our bands first tour, we booked through the venues, and therefore not only were our emails ignored 90% of the time, but the venues that booked us then did whatever they wanted with the rest of the night. Our little known Hard Rock band ended up playing with country acts, rappers, trendy hipster bands and everything BUT bands of a similar style to us. The acts we played with were awesome and tried their best to get their fans behind us, but it just isn’t going to happen. Heck, one night we showed up and the club had decided to make us the house band for karaoke night!

    Now, we search the web for bands in the towns we plan to hit and (yes, this takes time) we actually listen to a bunch of them. This way, we can narrow it down to bands that we think will be a good fit for us, and their fans might like us. This has worked much, MUCH better, as you have nights with a better flow musically, and you end up winning over some of the locals who’d never heard of you before. We’ve also found that turn out has improved (it’s pretty shocking how many club owners don’t care enough to actually help bring people into their club). By making friends in towns a few hours apart, we’re finding that or touring capabilities keeps growing and growing.

    And as always, the obligatory plug:

  • 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.

  • JediBret

    The owner of the venue for my regular Friday night gig asked me (for some unknown reason) to handle his booking. It has been a fun and invaluable learning experience! It is quite amazing how many different types of acts can actually fit with one venue. That being said, I believe you to be dead on, here, and this is excellent advice.
    The comments here are also very insightful. Last week I judged a battle of the bands, and did an exhibition performance of my own. All of the other acts were very hard rock ( I do an “Americana singer-songwriter” thing for lack of a better term), and I was quite surprised when one of the “growl and scream” singers approached and asked if I could do “Turn the Page” and let her sing.
    You never know what may happen our how many cool folks you may meet along your journey. So, I advise to always be open to new ideas and types of shows.

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

  • Disneycastmember

    I HATE it when out of town bands email me to see if I can “hook them up” at a venue. I’m not a freaking booking agent, I’m an artist and I’m sure as heck not gonna do all the legwork from some band who A) I don’t care about and B) Will NEVER return the favor. (did it a few times…people get what they want and NEVER follow through on their end of the deal) As an artist who does all my own booking, I also A) don’t have time to go around setting up shows for bands, even if I am on the bill….I don’t care about playing my hometown anymore, so it’s not like it’s a treat for me. and B) I think it’s lazy and non-resourceful for a band to try and mooch gigs from other bands.

    I resent this article, because it encourages laziness and mooching from those of us who CAN get good gigs….mostly because we weren’t too lazy or stupid to know how to get them.

  • 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.

    • Chad Gustafson

      His handle is disneycastmember, should say it all. Yes, I just went dark… apologies. I wish more “other groups” emailed or contacted me ahead of time. And now I own my own venue, I think it’s great advice…btw, in another life, I wasn’t a cast member, I was the MD. Jus’ saying.

  • Campbell

    Hey guys! So I’m in an NJ band and we are booking a lot of gigs. That being said, we are booking several shows at venues in towns we have never played and are concerned about draw. We ALL know that draw is key to the venues success (which makes sense) but how does a band break into a new area with little to no draw? We can do open mics, but those can be scarce. We are afraid of developing a band reputation when we are in fact working our butts off to break into new markets. Advice? Website suggestions?

  • 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