How to get the gig at a venue that fits your music.
If you’re an up-and-coming musician, you’ve come to terms with an undeniable fact. Your art is also a business. The success of your enterprise depends on your marketing acumen just as much as your ability to make music. And if you want to see progress, you’ll need to spend time outside your studio, away from your instruments.
When it comes to live performances, it’s crucial to select the right venue — and that means you might have to do a bit of research. Musicians earn money from various sources, but live shows build fan loyalty and reputation. If people like what they hear, they’ll download your music. Therefore, choosing the optimal venue will prove critical in getting the exposure you need to launch or build your career.
Who contacts whom? Do you contact the venue or wait for them to come to you?
When you’re trying to break into the music biz, you need to focus on the groundwork. That means you need to contact venues, not the other way around.
Like any other business, venues care about one thing above all else: achieving financial success. To gain a positive reputation in an area, venues need to pack the house. They want to know how many people you can realistically draw.
You’re going to have to send a lot of emails — or even pick up the phone — to get your foot in the door. The process can feel like applying for your first job. Every listing out there requires experience, but how are you supposed to get that experience if no one’s willing to give you a chance to prove yourself?
Expect to start small. Yeah, you could have to work your way up by performing gigs in dive bars. It can mean summoning your inner Sandler and playing weddings. There’s no easy path to success, but if making music is your jam, it’s all just rungs on the ladder.
Identifying potential venues
You’re lucky to live in the age of information. Had you launched your career as a member of an ‘80s hair band, you’d have paper cuts from turning phone book pages and carpal tunnel from dialing a rotary phone. Now all you have to do is hop online.
When researching venues for your next gig, think outside the traditional nightclub box. For example, if you’re starting out playing your friends’ weddings and the like, the event size dictates the space you need.
Many hotels and convention centers offer a variety of meeting spaces. Typical meeting rooms hold anywhere from three to 500 people, and banquet rooms 50 to 1,000. Some facilities offer flexible spaces with removable dividers enabling them to hold up to 5,000 guests.
If you decide to go the nightclub route, prepare to do some footwork, especially if you’re working without an agent (and that’s mostly everyone reading this article). Visit potential venues and introduce yourself to the booker. Though beware! Lots of these people don’t like to be called bookers; they’re “talent buyers.” Yeah, they’ll probably seem pretty unenthused and bored — since they deal with hundreds of artists a week — but now they can put a face to a name. Even if they reject you initially, they’ll recognize and respond to you more readily on future revisits.
Again, you’ll have to start small. Large nightclubs often seek specific talent based on their demographics. You stand little chance of breaking in unless you have connections with a better-known band who’ll suggest you as a potential opening act. Instead, concentrate on mom-and-pop venues that may not pay much other than a percentage of cover charges to start making a name for yourself.
How to break into your local scene
How do you get a gig without experience? By showing you can do what venues want most — draw a crowd!
Have friends and family share information about you on social media. Create a publicity scrapbook you can share with bookers showcasing how many people follow and like your work. Have a camera-savvy friend post your music videos on YouTube.
Make a demo of your music. Venue managers don’t book based on the music they like, but on what they think will pack the house. They need to hear what you’ve got.
Use your connections. Do you have friends in more established bands? Do they need opening acts? Do you know people working in the media who’d be willing to give you a write-up?
Questions to ask venues
When you approach a venue, you need to know what to ask. Savvy questions will help establish you as a conscientious professional. There are a lot of flakes in the music biz, and many venue owners are all too familiar with artists who behave like divas, amateurs, or both.
Ask the following questions once you’ve identified your list of potential venues:
- What gear, if any, do you provide? For smaller venues, expect to bring your gear from home. For this reason, pass on launching your debut too soon. Wait until you have the quality sound system you need to put on a show that’s pleasing to the ears.
- Do you help with promotion? You’re going to need to do a lot of self-promotion when you’re new. However, even small venues can assist in this endeavor. They can post signage prominently to let patrons know about your show. They can mention your act in external advertising they use.
- How do I get paid? When you’re first starting, you’ll likely get paid a percentage of the cover charge. How does the venue split the covers? Can you sell LPs and other merchandise? If so, does the venue expect a percentage of sales? If you agree on a flat fee, get the amount in writing. While many smaller venues don’t require written contracts, this protects you in case they fail to pay. When can you expect to receive payment? Will you get paid the night of the event, or will you have to wait? The last question proves particularly crucial if you get paid in cash and travel to perform.
- Am I responsible for any fees? What insurance coverage, if any, does the venue carry? You don’t want to think about a drunken fan swiping your favorite guitar, but things happen. Does the venue’s umbrella policy cover you, or do you need to carry insurance? Plus, depending on the venue, you may need to pay for the door person or additional security staff, etc.
- Do I get a guest list? Like any business, your career success depends on building a strong reputation. You want to be able to share upcoming events with show attendees. If you’re playing a ticketed event, can you get the names and email addresses of those who buy so you can add them to your contact list?
Teaming with the right venue boosts your career
Booking your first gig can prove challenging, but if the music biz was easy, everyone would be in a band. Once you form a partnership with the right venues, nothing stands between you and your future than a lot of hard work — and solid jams.