Hacking the Performance Business: Part 4 – Booking

(CC-BY-SA) photo credit: Oskar Annermarken

We’re on part 4 of our 8-part series, and as you can see, the title as changed along with the format.

This site is all about hacks — shortcuts and tricks that can enhance your ability to compose, perform, record and create value around those activities.

From here on out, we’ll be looking specifically at hacks you can apply to creating value around your performances. Today, we’re looking at booking and how you can systematically climb your way up from community centers and coffee houses to the biggest stage that makes sense for your act.

One quick note: Being in a performing band means starting local and expanding as you can afford to tour further and further. If you start in the middle of nowhere, your road will be long. We’re assuming you’re living near enough of civilization to have a “local” music scene comprised of small venues, and a “regional” music scene comprised of larger venues. The vast majority of musicians who perform frequently live where the fans are.

Hack 1: The Band List

This hack doesn’t just work for performance, it works for pretty much everything in the music business for artists starting out.

All you have to do is make three lists with 20 bands musicians each. It’s fun. Each list serves a different booking function. You can use a pen or paper, we use a spreadsheet, because eventually this will become more than just a list of bands. And you’ll be growing it to way more than 60.

The first 20 bands on your list should be the ones that influence your band the most. The second 20 should be different bands, and should be your “dream bands” to play with on tour right now. All of these bands should be actively touring.

Finally, add 20 bands to the list that are ones you have opportunities to book shows with right now. This list shouldn’t have any bands you’ve played with before, and this is the list that will take a little bit of time and research to put together.

Bands are easy to network with because you’re both musicians. Lots to relate to each other about. The best way to do this is book a show, or do a show trade with another band — you play for my hometown crowd, I play for yours.

If you can’t come up with 20 off the top of your head, don’t worry. If you’ve been around for a little while, you’ve probably played with all of the obvious acts.

Here are some suggestions for finding bands you can add to your list of “20 bands to book shows with right now”:

ReverbNation is great for this because you can search your local charts within your genre. Instantly find a majority of bands in your area. Go like them on Facebook and Twitter and send them messages about booking a show together, or how much you like their music (if you do). You may be playing with bands that you’re not a big fan of as long as it makes sense genre-wise and the audience is there.

• Check the local venues and see what local bands are playing there. Getting in touch with them is a great way to jump on the bill, or get contact info for their booking connection to set up your own show. Expand your search to include genres that are adjacent to yours,

• Ask your fans on Facebook and/or Twitter who they would like to see you play with, or better yet, what their other favorite area bands are.

You should be able to find at least 20 bands you could reach out to right now. First you’ll have a Facebook page to message, then you’ll get a name of someone in the band, then you’ll either book a show with them or probably at least get some booking contacts or leads on other bands.

Congratulations! You just tricked yourself into booking shows by creating a list of bands to network with. But wait, what are the other lists for?

The first list of influencers is what you’re going to use to answer the most fundamental question a booker or promoter will ask: “What does your band sound like?”

Being able to quickly reference two or three bands that someone would be familiar with is a key networking skill for any musician. It surprises me how many musicians haven’t thought this through in advance. I mean, how many times a day do you get asked “what do you sound like?”

You should edit the list down to 3 bands that you can use by default, and then use the other bands as it serves you. For example, if you have a country music influence and you’re trying to book a show with other country acts, cite those influences.

The second list of “dream bands” can also be used to source your “sounds like” list, especially when dealing with bookers and promoters. Citing bands that are out there right now making money by performing has more strength than an act that may have influenced you but may also be dead.

The “dream bands” list also serves as a goal to shoot for. You’ll be surprised at what you can do by trying to reach out to these bands, or the bands one or two tiers beneath them. It’s easier than ever to contact band members directly, and their teams are also more accessible. Try networking with these people once you’ve gotten your feet wet with the “book now” list.

Hack 2: Make a Venue Fan

It’s useful to think of venues as fans of your band, in the sense that if you bring in people and money, they will be your biggest fans. Since creating value around booking is about being able to ask for bigger and bigger guarantees, it’s important to make the venues fans of your band on the business side.

The quickest way to make a venue a fan of yours: pack the place.

Chances are you know the venue in your area that has the most potential for you to draw an audience to. Your mission is to sell it out.

You can’t expect to move very far up the performance ladder until you can sell out a small venue local show.

Making fans is a one-at-a-time process, and venue fans are no different. Focus on one venue and sell it out. Then pick the next biggest appropriate venue in the next closest area and sell that out. Every successful performing band or musician will be able to tell you, with fondness, all of the venues that anchored their careers along the way.

Hack 3: Steal Tour Itineraries

This one is dead simple and super effective. Be a collector of tour announcements. Any time one of the bands on your list goes on tour, copy down the names of every venue, city, and state. Do the same anytime you see a band in your genre post a slew of tour dates.

Your job is to collect venue names so you can collect band contacts that have played there, or the booking contact directly. Target tours that are “on your level” in terms of fan base and style.

You can also find a source of tour news for your genre, for example, Pitchfork’s list of recently announced tours.

A Note on Pay to Play

The site Never Pay to Play has some great cautionary advice on the numerous pay-to-play scams that exploit musicians out of millions each year. It’s truly an epidemic that preys on musicians’ lack of understanding about how the music business works. But you’re reading this, so you know better!

Don’t pay anyone for the opportunity to play. Don’t buy tickets that you have to sell in order to get paid. Don’t pay to be in a battle of the bands or a showcase. Don’t pay a website a submission fee to be considered for a show. Just don’t do it.