DIY Venues: Get Creative with Your Performance Spaces

July 25, 2011{ 52 Comments }

I recently saw a video on about how some musicians in the East LA scene, after confronting the fact that their performance opportunities were limited by a dearth of “proper” venues, took it upon themselves to throw their own shows at movie theaters, restaurants, art spaces, etc. With some perseverance and ingenuity, they created an atmosphere where young artists could still flourish despite the lack of an established music-biz infrastructure.

Play Live: No Excuses!

If you live in an area that doesn’t have any great music clubs, make your own magic happen! No, you don’t have to open your own venue or get a liquor license. But you CAN work with established businesses to transform THEIR space into the world’s coolest music spot for one amazing night. Here is a list of non-traditional venues where I have performed throughout the years:

Church, park, restaurant, movie theater, clothing store, bookstore, tented stage in parking lot, busking on the street, coffee shop, art gallery, backyard, basement, a boat, warehouse, corporate party, hotel room, record store, guitar shop

What’s in it for them?

Why would a business owner want to help you host an event in their establishment? Well, many of them won’t. But if you can convince just a few local proprietors that you will be respectful, professional, and handle all the heavy-lifting and precautionary work (security and door-person), they may want to help you because it will reflect positively on their company, store, church, or brand. Also, maybe they’re just nice, philanthropic people who want to support the local music scene.

Where do you begin?

Hit the pavement. Business owners will be more likely to help you out if you present yourself well in-person. Emails are too easy to ignore. So get out there and meet some people! But be prepared to describe the event you’re imagining in detail: how it will be promoted, how the flow of the event will run, how many attendees you expect, how the money will be split, etc. Will it be free? Will there be food and drink? Who will be expected to do what? Think all this through before presenting your proposal. And above all, be polite!

Second, you might need to acquire a PA system. Renting one for a single night from a music store or live-sound company will be far cheaper than purchasing one. However, if you live in a town with no “proper” music venues, you may be throwing a lot of your own shows. In this case, perhaps it is worth saving up to purchase your own PA system.

Promotion,… well, that seems like a whole article in itself.

Have you performed at non-traditional venues?

Did you set up the show yourself? How did it go? Please let us know in the comments section below.

-Chris R. at CD Baby

Sell your music on iTunes, Rhapsody, CD Baby, Amazon, Spotify, and more!

  • Hell yeah, I've been pushing this for years, as I have had personal success with this method of live gigging. In fact, I have written a few articles on creating your own gigs!

    Here, in the Baytown Underground (just East of Houston), we've found renting a meeting room from The Knights of Columbus is far cheaper than a Pay 2 Play gig, with a much better ROI! Also, MIC Dance Studio (who teaches ballet), often transforms into an underground metal venue on a Friday or Saturday night.

    Thanks for posting this. More bands need to know there are alternative to being raped by P2P promoters. Plus, these types of gigs keep it intimate, as they are focused on a more targeted audience!

  • Christopher Blue

    DON'T FORGET BASEMENT/HOUSE SHOWS!!! We did a show on a back deck one time to 100 people. It was packed, there was a grill with hamburgers and hotdogs, and everyone had fun.

    Unitarian churches are generally cool about music as they consider it a cultural event. However, remember, it is still a church…be respectful.

    Also, some apartment complexes have community rooms you can reserve for little to no money. Depending on volume, you may be able to put shows on at your (or a friend's) appartment complex.

    AND, if your area doesn't have a music festival of some sort, START ONE! Involve local businesses, charities, radio stations, etc. You'd be surprised how many people will give money, goods, time, effort, etc. to bring about something cool.

  • unusual venues – Nuclear Submarine base (just like a standard army base gig – set up by agent)

    After show party at a swimming pool. Been involved in a theatre production. After the final performance they booked out a swimming pool for an end of run party. The whole cast, crew and band went swimming and then the band played a set at the pool side. Loads of fun.


    The bassist couldn't make it – so I opted to play bass instead of guitar. After an hour in the water and 10 minutes of finger style bass I noticed the mother of all blisters forming on the tip of my right hand first finger. Never mind I thought. I'll just use my second finger more. That lasted me for two more numbers before another pulsating bubble of pain appeared. The third finger barely made it through one song. I finished out the gig in agony relying on my thumb, little finger and and lots of hammer ons.

    Sorry if that's a bit off topic, but you know – you brought up painful memories…

  • Hey guys,

    I'm a long-time listener and big fan. Yours is the single best resource for DIY musicians like myself.

    A few years ago I started saying "No more shitty gigs!" That meant getting out of crappy venues. See:

    So I started playing in natural amphitheaters by the water all around Austin and it's become the central story and turning point for my career. I've just boiled this down to a short and sweet mission statement in comic form:….

    Here's a post from a gig I did on campus (at the U of Tx where I have my day job as a web guy) that went great (with pics and video):

    Now I'm taking this in lots of directions (like a Gowalla partnership to put my out of the way shows on the map with incentives, games) that I'd love to share if you want more info for the show, just let me know.



    • Chris R. at CD Baby

      Awesome. Thanks for sharing those links. Sounds like an outdoor concert with decent acoustics would be perfect!

  • Brilliant post.

    One great thing about doing gigs in unusual places is it gets people talking, which is what its all about. Another fantastic opportunity to stand out and be remarkable, we wrote about it here:

    One band even did a gig in a launderette! Being unusual is great for sparking off word of mouth buzz.

  • One of the coolest gigs we did was for a tweetup at a local cupcake shop. A tweetup for those who don't know is a gathering of local twitter users to physically meet and connect businesses and people. Great opportunity for us. We played an acoustic gig and met a lot of new people who wouldn't have followed us normally and we connected with them on twitter now too.

  • More and more it is left to artists to do most of the work. In the past others were more willing to share the burden. I do not say that we can or should return to the past. I only comment that there is a general apathy today that must be overcome, and it is not solely the job of the artist or musician to do 100% of the work. Others must "awaken" to the value of what the artist offers (if indeed it is of value). Too many spectators and not enough active involvement of non-musicians and non-artists is not a good mix. Some form of "community activism" is needed? "What's in it for me"? the non-artists may say. Good question: needs some study.


  • Important: ASCAP, BMI and other performance rights organizations have the legal right to collect licenses for PUBLIC performances. One-offs are less likely to get noticed, but are still liable for fees unless the performance can be considered "private."

    Private does not refer to the space as much as how it is promoted. House concerts that have a guest list and do not publicize the address typically get a pass if they are held in a private residence. But many people out there are calling their shows "house concerts" when they are promoted publicly and held in public spaces.

    It is the venue's responsibility to pay these fees, and ASCAP and BMI have shut down many a venue for extended failures to pay licenses.

    The key is this: public venues (coffeehouses, museums, etc.) who have music on a regular basis should figure out a way to promote the events as private parties, otherwise they'll eventually negotiate with the rights organizations.

    Also, remember that there are zoning issues with residential gigs. House concerts use a suggested donation model, but if you start "charging" for "tickets" in someone's house, that can also invite authorities for a visit.

    Make sure you are friendly with your neighbors. 95% of problems happen because of a neighbor complaint.

  • Of course, in this day of musical and creative "independence", it is imperative for the artist to think outside of the box! A band I've worked with since their beginning in high school, Higher Organix, typically looked for alternative venues in their endeavors to play before live audiences. Since that time, they have hosted festivals such as ShireFest (private property on a big field in the woods), Harvestween (at a ski resort), Ott in the Shire (at a private resort), Shangri-La (in a big horse barn), Let It Roll (fields, woods, two barns)and now they are in their second year as the three-day musical hosts for The Big Up at Sunnyview Farms in Ghent, NY. They are involved with every aspect of putting this festival on, including the loading in and out of bands, stage setup, promotion, vendors, sponsors, hospitality, security and strategic planning. The festival continues to grow as does the band…you just gotta get out there and make it happen! peacelei

  • I really like this idea. However, no one has mentioned money, i.e. cover charge vs free. What are the examples being addressed? Lemmeno…

  • Tim

    A number of years back (early-90's), my folk trio got on the Portland, OR lightrail on Christmas Eve and played acoustically on the train while we went down to Pioneer Square to play on the street. Then, we played on the train on the way back to Gresham. Besides all the people that thanked us (and the few people that cried during a sad song), the train driver came out and thanked us saying that we made his night. Of course it was free, but music is not always about the money.

  • I started a coffee house series in a church that was intended at first for a Celebrate Recovery ministry that the church sponsors. I thought it would be cool for people in the ministry to have a place where they could hear good music without being tempted in a bar. We attracted 8 people a show for the first season, the second season we doubled that number…the third year we had a line at the door and the church asked us to move into their auditorium. This year we have been attracting close to two hundred people a show for songwriters in a market where songwriters are not supposed to draw crowds. Now a movie theater has hired us to do five shows in May and the local coffee house scene has been selling out all of our shows. DIY is the best way to go.

  • We throw a lot of parties at yoga studios in New York using our own PA. It takes a large team to pull it off, including all promo and logistics, but if you know the right people then this model can help generate a buzz and a niche scene. We usually work percentage splits with the venue. -AJ

  • As a newly arrived artist on the New York live music scene, I understand the difficulties that musicians can have in finding or booking performance spaces- particularly when the bookers main concern is the number of people you cam bring, not how good your music is. I developed a good relationship with some cafe owners and we worked out a great partnership where I play one night a week. There's no money involved but I get a nice meal at the end of it and the opportunity to get my music out to a greater audience. I realize it will take a while before the cafe becomes synonymous with 'live music', but for the time being it has helped both sides of the arrangement. The cafe can now offer live music for it's patrons and I have a regular place to play. There's always room for new music venues- so let's start getting creative!

  • A couple of townships near me host "First Friday" events where business owners will have special deals, open houses, etc with live music. It's as simple as registering as a performer. I have at least 6 gigs a year in one town alone. And the venues have been a photography studio, a thrift store, and a pizza joint (with some great home made food that I get for free!!). The gigs are typically no pay, but if you have CDs to sell and biz cards with you, it's a great way to be seen and heard!

  • I live in a town where there are a lot of clubs/bars to play in, but if you're tired of the bar scene where every cover band plays the same stuff, you're out of luck. We've been making our own venues for years. We play in music stores, Art Centers, coffee houses, peoples living rooms, barns, gazebos, anywhere they let us. We only play our own material so the people that attend really want to hear something new and really appreciate it. Use your imagination and find some unique places.

  • Wayne

    In the 90's, our largest paying gigs were at a college auditorium. It was a smaller school in a large college town, and they typically didn't attract music acts at all. Also, the room didn't have a suitable PA for live music so we had to bring our own. We randomly struck up a conversation with some of the students after a show one evening, and they just filled out a student organization request form with the school. That got us an invitation for a paid show. We handled it professionally and did a great job, and we were invited back two more times.

  • In Belgium, you find fries shacks on almost every market place or main street corner, some of them have begun to organise small singer-songwriters-folksingers shows. You smell of grease after that, but you never saw your fingers move that quickly across the fretboard! A pal of mine has done a few and could perhaps tell you more:

  • Thank you for all the reminders that we so often ignore,

    very creative.

  • Not only do I play DIY gigs, I prefer them! Club owners are often hampered by self-interest — in other words, they don't care one bit about you or your music, your CD or what you're all about. At least in my neck of the woods, bar gigs mean three hours of covers and little pay in front of a group of drunks who couldn't possibly care less about your existence, let alone the fact that you're there playing your heart out for them. So while I do play the occasional "paying gig," I find them to be less interesting and less beneficial to self-promotion.

    What I have found in my area — and granted, Delaware is a fairly backwards place — is a couple really, really cool coffee shops in a couple neighboring towns that let me play. One of them puts on open mics and also lets me plan my own shows. I play shows at the other one all the time as well. These are small venues — you're not gonna get 500 people in them — but the few people I play to appreciate it and come back to see me, again and again!

    The shops don't pay me, but that's okay, for a couple of reasons: First, while they don't pay me they do allow me to sell CDs and usually have a tip cup provided for me, sometimes even passing this around the audience. Now for me, I'm not in this for the money. I have a job for that. Music is a passion and I love to perform and I'd do it for free. So with free coffee house gigs I get to pick what I want to play, I choose when to play, how long to play, and so forth. I've made good money on tips and sold some CDs and made real fans that come back to see me again.

    Back when I was playing thrash metal (20 years ago) my band lived off of home-made gigs, community halls, fire halls, and so on.

    So this is great advice for those of us who just wanna play and be heard! No gig is too small. If 20 people show and you make 1 fan out of it — that's what it's all about as far as I'm concerned!

    Thanks for the article!

    Christian Floyd

    Check out my CD "Dreams Into Daylight" on iTunes, at CDBaby, CDNow, and at!

  • I used to sing (original & traditional material) at several local restaurants and wineries regularly (& a church & museums), but then ASCAP started coming in and slapping big fines on many of the small businesses. Now when I approach small businesses, most are afraid to have musicians at all (some large businesses don't mind paying fines), busking is illegal (but if the nearest business is OK with it and no one complains, it's still a good way to perform). Locally there are many laws about amplified music, and as a finger-style guitarist with a not loud voice my little amp is essential, but often illegal. I have played at a house concert, but as someone else pointed out, that's walking a fine line, legally speaking. Several local "open mic" venues and one annual event just went out of business. I have to admit I am often uncomfortable even rehearsing in local parks for fear that someone will complain. Live music is a tough "row to hoe".

  • Me and a few partners created an independent scence here in Hattiesburg MS… For the local artist to perform… Things have been going great

  • Daniel Mitchem

    All my music endeavors to this day have been based around DIY gig spaces. Growing up in Southwestern Virginia, where the only places to play are bars or DIY venues, really helped us understand where we belonged.


    Once, when I was young and naive, I hosted a show for some punk bands in a community room at a local fire department. Not only were they gracious enough to allow us to do it, they didn't charge a lot either. It was their first experience with this and it was my first experience booking at a venue like that. The mistake I made was relying on their "security" for the night. They had no idea what to expect. When they found a bunch of unders drinking in the parking lot they vowed NEVER to host a live music of any kind there ever again. Maybe their stance on the subject was a little harsh, but my name was Mudd with that venue after that. Looking back, I was young and was expecting their "security" to handle the… well… security, but I wasn't well-informed and neither were they. When booking non-traditional venues, COVER ALL YOUR BASES! Know who is taking care of what and plan for anything! Believe me, it's going to happen.

    Also remember that these non-traditional venues are probably not accustomed to booking live music, so be patient with them. Give them information before they even ask for it because chances are, they don't know the right questions to ask. Let them know if people are going to be standing or sitting, slam dancing or line dancing. Let them know the age range expected. Also be very clear on what style of music you play. Anything you can do to avoid surprises is recommended!

    I once booked a show at a community center for some Christian hardcore and punk bands. I told the venue that they were Christian and they heard Gospel. At first they couldn't comprehend Christian and hardcore in the same sentence. To say that they were surprised when a bunch of tattooed, pierced, head-banging hardcore bands showed up with 150+ in attendance would be a total understatement. After they yelled at me for lying to them (which I didn't do) they allowed me to book there many many more times. It was a great venue, but they just needed to be informed.

    One more story and I'm done.

    A former band of mine played a show with some incredible up-and-coming metal bands a couple years ago. The promoter was awful and didn't check with the non-traditional venue beforehand on capacity. This usually isn't a problem with these venues so they didn't know to ask. When the bands started showing up, the subject arose and the venue could only handle 25% of the expected crowd. The venue had to be changed spur of the moment (keep in mind these was some pretty big up-and-coming metal bands) and someone had to stay behind to redirect EVERY SINGLE PERSON to the new venue. They lost a chunk of the crowd and left a bad taste in the mouths of the touring acts and us.



  • We once rented a barge and organized a all day punk show.

    Went really well until a little drunk punk went crazy with a fire hose!

    – Chris

  • Thanks for the reminder, CD Baby, of what I have known for some time now. If you don't like the music scene, go out and make your own. I've been considering some of the WWII military batteries on the Marin Headlands (Marin Co. California) which are like ruins now, and constructed in a way some of them like large tunnels or Greek-type ampitheaters (which housed the cannons) – perfect for live acoustics. One musician (who does Kirtan chanting) did a concert in one of the tunnels one night – I understand it was great. The local park authorities own this land, so I guess I'd have to approach the appropriate Park Services to see if an outdoor concert can indeed be done.

  • We have been doing this, and it has yielded great results. We have played salons, video stores, malls, and small shops, and it is a great way to extend your reach in your city.

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  • Leftturnpromo

    I am a event organiser, in a small city in the UK called Chester. there are no longer any real venues in Chester. I have been approached by many non-traditional venues and I have had some of the best nights at them. I have worked in a library, a biker cafe, church halls and building sites. I really love putting live music in places where it traditionally shouldn't be I think it creates such a buzz

    • LSPCT Normand

      An under construction site would be a very a-propos venue for a band just starting out …or… under construction as it were.

  • Sean

    I would have to say some of the best shows I have played were non-conventional venues. Years ago my old band played a furniture store backroom. And recently my current band played a restaurant in Chicago in front of 300 kids! It was fun and we gained a ton of new fans!

  • Damn!! but I play Instrumental Heavy Metal!! how the hell I can convince to an Art Gallery let me play in his local?? I think that could be successful but it depends a lot of the music style, maybe if I play Jazz or classical music, I think there's no problem, otherewise I'm fucked 🙁

  • Stephen

    Yes, I did this years ago with a local art gallery. Of course, they were really open to the idea. I did a live production of classical/new age/world fusion for which no venue exists. Not in the USA anyway.

    I was really awesome. Word of mouth boosted the audience size each successive night. Some people remarked it was the most engaging concert they've ever attended. I think that goes with the intimacy of the space and the fact that I talked about the music, the inspiration and some of the process. Some of the comments between me and the audience yielded some hilarious conversation and you could really tell people were enjoying the evening. I kept the ticket price @$10 and served some wine, crackers and sodas. A local videographer recorded the all the performances.

    I really want to get out there again. I haven't done this for years. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Flyingturtlemusic

    Been there. I created a show on wheels.

    The "T. C. LaRose Medicine Show"
    All my sound equipment and instruments
    Were in my trailer all I had to do was drop the side which was my stage fire it up and play. I love playing outside and no one has to do anything but enjoy themselves and buy C D s

  • Sounds fun.

  • Or a maternity ward.

  • Nice start! Keep rockin'.

  • I did one:

    Its headliner and about half the slated acts that the people at that store tried to book bailed, so I became the last act on by default, and was thankful I had a long enough set prepared.

    I haven't played solo since for a number of reasons, one being that even used video game stores are becoming a bit scarce- I've had some difficulty trying to determine the right times and places where the people that would be comfortable for both me and my audience (at least according to what demographics I can extract from YouTube and SoundCloud stats and such) but I'm pretty sure I'm not compatible with bars or churches.

    All in time I guess.

  • I did one:

    Its headliner and about half the slated acts that the people at that store tried to book bailed, so I became the last act on by default, and was thankful I had a long enough set prepared.

    I haven't played solo since for a number of reasons, one being that even used video game stores are becoming a bit scarce- I've had some difficulty trying to determine the right times and places where the people that would be comfortable for both me and my audience (at least according to what demographics I can extract from YouTube and SoundCloud stats and such) but I'm pretty sure I'm not compatible with bars or churches.

    All in time I guess.



  • That is great! And totally "punk rock" of you. Sounds super fun.

  • Paul

    My band has created countless shows. We've set up shows in friends living rooms, outside a snow cone stand, and at churches. Our biggest DIY accomplishment was setting up our own mini music festival (with over 10 bands and two stages) at a local park.

  • Chris

    Underage drinking tends to be a problem here when it comes to DIY venues, especially businesses becoming a pop-up venue. You don't want to buzzkill and turn off your fans, but you don't want the venue hating you, but you don't want police showing up. Unless it's strictly 21+ or 18+ with wristband, we tend to make it a no-alcohol thing, where any visible alcohol (inside or outside) gets confiscated with repeat offenders (for lack of better word) getting kicked out.

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  • Evan_Hamilton

    What an awesome idea! Thanks for sharing, I'm tempted to try that.

  • Jazzalele

    Regarding alternative venues: What's killing me is the event insurance! Nowadays, many of the churches and community halls want to see your event insurance receipt, thanks to those who have misbehaved in the past. Event insurance for a jazz musician means that somebody probably won't get paid! Or we'll have to perform as a trio, sans drummer! In Canada they wanted $125. for this insurance. In Seattle and Chicago they wanted $315!!! These fees are probably based on somebody's wedding where the guests ran amok and should be scaled back for a jazz show.

  • Travelertoo

    This is some of the best advice of the whole article.

  • brycestyle

    It can be as easy as getting together performers and finding which part they want to help with. Then checking in to see how minds have changed and reassigning accordingly. I was part of a DIY venue in a barn for two and a half years, threw 2 shows a month, did 2 festivals and had workshops, a zine publication, a documentary, and a damn good time. It's difficult for any group to last and stay with the same vision for years though. Being imaginative with what your venue can be is a great investment of time. We had an improv jazz and poetry band that used a car battery powered generator to play on docks, pedestrian overpasses, under bridges and in tunnels. Quite an ambiance; getting an audience to re-imagine what's possible or "cool" is always fun.

  • But what if your original songs are registered with ASCAP? Dun, dun, dun!

    @ Chris Robley