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More on Booking Agents

We've talked about how to book yourself, especially if you're a solo or duo. We've talked about how to work with frat and sorority booking agencies and we've covered specialty agents like those who deal with show bands for corporate gigs. We haven't covered top 40 club bookers and pro level agencies, so let's talk about them today.

Pro level agencies: These agents are typically out of your reach unless you've got a track record. Even if they are right now, it helps to understand what goes on with them and why you may well be better off staying as an independent artists for longer than you might have ever thought practical in years gone by.

I toured in the early 90's with an actor who thought himself a country singer. He was pretty famous for his TV show in the 80's, and because of it he landed a record deal and was able to get an agent to book him for tour dates, which were primarily county fairs and once in a while a club or festival date. The act was handled by Buddy Lee Attractions here in Nashville. This agency, like other agents, booked the dates and collected their fee as the deposit and left for the road manager, which was me, to prize the money from the local promoter. Unless you have some celebrity value, you're not getting on with an agency like Buddy Lee Attractions. Bottom line. You'd need a record deal, some name-recognition value and the ability to take your act on the road to all kinds of venues all over the USA or Canada. 

We toured from one end of the USA to the other, even up into places like New Brunswick, Canada and more. Now, the whole reason I'm bothering to school you on an agency like Buddy Lee and the value of signing with that kind of agency if you have a good amount of name recognition is to give you a reality check on the economics of the whole thing. You'd think that having a record deal, a famous name and a great agency like Buddy Lee booking you would lead to some pretty high dollar dates. Well, that wasn't always the case, folks. Since I was the guy who had to collect the money, I was often pretty amazed at just how low these gigs paid. 

Now, keep in mind that for this actor-turned-musician to be able to do these shows, he had to have a band on call, to whom he paid a monthly retainer of $1000.00 per musician (while cheaping-out on me, the lowly sound engineer and road manager with a $500 a month retainer). These retainers were not counted against the per-show (not per day on the road fee). So with a four piece band and a road manager/sound engineer, the base costs per month to hire a backup band of good musicians was $4500.00 off the top of any income. Add to that the "scud" costs (which is what we called the horrible psuedo tour bus which was a glorified RV), the gas to get to the gigs, the hotels (three rooms per show plus a nice hotel room for the star), and per diem meals on the road, the act required a lot of shows and money for them to cover the costs and even make this worth his while. However, a lot of times these gigs were paying less than my Grateful Dead cover band was making for frat shows. No joke. Sometimes this guy was booked for all of $1500.00 for a fair date in rural West Virginia, in which case he lots hundreds of dollars to take the date. The only hope was making it up in selling autographed pictures, CDs, t-shirts, etc. Sometimes that did well, sometimes, uh, not so much. As I recall, the average gig take was $2500-3000.00. I saw it as low as $1250.00 and never higher than $4500.00. There were far more in the $2000.00 range. When 20% off the top went to Buddy Lee, well, it made it a dicey venture. Fortunately this actor had some nice residual checks for re-runs to help underwrite things. 

Touring is expensive. Its even more so when fuel costs soar like they have the past couple of years. Fortunately this was going on back in the early 90's when gas was $1.24 a gallon, and diesel was actually the same price or lower. I know this guy doesn't tour anymore, and frankly if he was he would be losing his shirt. I worked with him for about a year, though we were not out every week. And the tour dates were a bit of a pain. Because the musicians and myself were paid for each performance, but not each day on the road, nobody wanted to hit the road until the 11th hour leaving very little time to get to the gig and have any margin for error in case the scud broke down on the road, which it often did. 

I bring all of this up because the music business is changing rapidly. Gone are the glory days of getting a record deal and selling millions of records, where touring is simply icing on the cake. Its not anymore. Its now the cake. And more and more "360 deals" are popping up where a record label is taking a cut of all of the income from a band, not just record sales. These days its not unusual for a newly signed act to be asked to give up a percentage of touring income, merchandise sales, record sales, publishing income and more as a consideration for getting signed to a major label. As you might guess by now, the grass is not always greener on the signed-act side of things. 

In certain parts of the country, especially places near tourist destinations, there still exists the Top 40 party band club booker who specialized in clubs more than frats. Often they are the same agency as a frat booker, but sometimes not. When I hit the road looking for a good time as a teen fresh out of high school, I was tapping into a scene that, before the drinking age was raised, generate a decent living for musicians willing to live out of a suitcase. With the demise of a lot of the party clubs hiring top 40 bands when the drinking age jumped to 21, these agencies had a lot less work for bands. But a few years later, Indian casinos began to pop up all over the country in places we never dreamed with ever have casinos again. These casinos have become the new "top 40" clubs of the 21st century, because entering a casino only requires one typically be 18, not 21. Casinos don't want the loud primary entertainment of the top 40 clubs of old, but they do want good bands that can entertain and hold a crowd in-between the slot and table action. 

These agencies work much like the frat and other agents. Same fees, but your more likely able to go to a casino for a week long gig which includes a few rooms for the band and meals, where you'll live while you gig then go off to the next casino for another week. Pay is not great, but its not terrible either if you want to be a full time musician. You can expect a five piece cover band to command about $1000 a night plus rooms and meals. Considering you stay there for four or five nights at a stretch, its not a bad life for a young person getting their feet wet in working on the road. Of course, the agency fee still has to be paid, but often with casinos booking an act for a week, the fee to the band is net of the agency fee. It sounds like pretty good money, and if you're comparing it to digging a ditch, its not bad. Of course, $800 per person for four nights of five 45 minute sets at a casino for a week's work is gross, includes no tax withholding, no social security contributions, no health benefits or 401k contributions, so keep all that in mind when the dollars dance in your head. 

Most of the casino gigs I've seen did not require a band to bring a PA along. That helps. You bring your backline and costumes only. One bummer about casino gigs is the volume you have to play at, which is usually very reduced. I've been in casinos in Vegas where there is a top 40 band playing in the lounge off the casino and their total stage volume was so low it amazed me they were having a band play at all. Digital drums, instruments going through Pods or similar devices, all routed through the PA system which is kept very quiet. Its a long way from the old top 40 bar days where we turned it up and shook the bottles at the bar. 

To get an agent's attention to hit the casino and club circuit hiring top 40 acts, you've got to package yourself exactly as that. Your group needs to play a massive array of hits, note for note to the original albums. The talent buyers have no interest in your original music, don't even want to know you have original music, and would shy away from an act that might deviate from known hits to promote their artistry. Like the show band groups, top 40 groups are a service act, not an artistic endeavor. You'll need proper stage costumes, not t-shirts and jeans, and a degree of showmanship not far from the Nick Winters impersonation of a lounge singer from the old Saturday Night Live shows with Bill Murray. It beats a real job, but if your goal is to get signed and be an artist, you're going to be pretty miserable singing in a top 40 act entertaining in Vegas-style Indian casinos. The work can be fun playing beach clubs during Spring Break, but its more casinos than spring break gigs. 

Bottom line to all of these posts on agencies is known your act before you approach them. Make sure you're matching up what you do with what the agency sells. Don't try to force the wrong kind of act on an agency that doesn't already book what you do, you're wasting your time and theirs. Some good homework before approaching an agency, some networking with acts they already book allowing for an introduction to the agent, and a reality check on what you're really ready to do with an agent at must-haves to take your act on the road. 

Posted: 1/2/2009 10:39:16 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Corporate Gig Agents

Yesterday I focused on college booking strategies and how to get in with a booking agency that specialized in fraternity and sorority parties. Today I want to focus on the second of four kinds of booking agencies that I outlined in yesterday's blog post. The second is the corporate party band agency that focuses on booking show bands for high-dollar gigs, along with weddings or other special events held in ballrooms and country clubs, rarely in a nightclub.

Now, as I said yesterday, sometimes you'll find agencies that mix all kinds of booking services, but my experience has been that an agency either focuses on one kind of client, or has their clients serviced by different agents within the agency. Today, I'm talking "show bands." A show band is a whole other breed apart from bands that would gig at a frat party or college club. Often these bands are assembled by the agency themselves and "owned" by the agent, with the agent recruiting the members of the band, creating larger or small versions of the acts as need, even spinning some of them off into separate bands when business is good.

A wonderful example of this is my first agent, Tip Top Attractions in Mobile, AL. I talked about them in an earlier post. They have a show band, The Tip Tops, which has had a couple of core members for years, but other personnel come and go with time. These bands are started by the agent, their wardrobe/uniforms as set by the agent, the whole look, package and set-lists are determined by the agent based on what he is selling to his clients. The clients are typically corporations having annual holiday parties or conventions, or wedding receptions. An agency like Tip Top will represent other acts but not necessarily exclusively, working with their clients to get acts the client requests, but often networking with other agents to get their client the act for their event. 

If you have a solo act, as I did, you can't expect much work if any from an agent like Tip Top Attractions. If you are a college party band, same thing. Where you stand a chance with an agent like Tip Top is if you've got a well-groomed, professional appearing and talented dance band that plays hits from the 50's through the 21st century, with horn sections, backing vocalists, flashy stage clothes and willingness to take requests from the patron who hired you. Mostly R&B dance tunes, we're talking "Let's Groove Tonight" and "We Are Family" and "Freak Out," not Nickelback and Nirvana. Another popular kind of music for these kind of agents to book is "Carolina Beach Music" which ironically has nothing to do with the beach. Think "Under the Boardwalk" and you're in the right ballpark.

The customer type hiring these kinds of acts is really not interested in your original music, don't care if you have a CD out or have opened for anyone famous, they just want a quality act that can entertain their group for whom you've been hired. Play an original song at one of these events and odds are folks will use that as a chance to hit the restroom or get another drink. Don't take it personally, that's just how it is. They are at that event to socialize with each other, dance and you're providing a service for the event. You're not there to be an artist, you're there to be a service provider.

Quite often these agent-owned show bands are on some kind of small retainer and then paid a little more per gig, with all expenses being covered by the agency. And while I'm not speaking for Tip Top here, in general these kind of gigs can be very lucrative. Its not unusual for top corporate party bands to play "fly-dates" with back-line equipment provided by the customer's party planner, where the act flies in a for one-nighter at a rich person's wedding or other event, and these fees can be, believe it or not, upwards of $25,000.00 a show. I know, sounds crazy, but it happens every week in this country, party bands playing balls, weddings, or other events for that kind of money. 

So, do yourself a favor and don't try to sell your act to the wrong kind of agent. You'll be wasting your time if you do. Again, visiting an agency's website will tell you all you need to know about them and if what you do is a good fit. 

Posted: 12/30/2008 10:22:58 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Playing Gigs in College Towns

 Here's another topic that is laced with a healthy dose of mythology among musicians, the booking agency. If you're a solo or duo act, you're mostly out of luck when it comes to getting a booking agency unless you fall into the third kind of booking agency described below, in which case I suggest you refer to my earlier blog postings about getting gigs. You are likely not able to command enough money per night to make an agency want to bother booking your solo or duo, so you have to dial for dollars on your own to keep that calendar and your belly full year round. However, if you're in a full band, you've got a shot at an agency, but you need to know how they work before you try to get on their roster.

Booking agents coming in four primary flavors. The first is the cover band agency that focuses primarily on the college market where the bands are hired to play frat houses and sorority socials, typically during the spring and fall seasons each year. The second is the corporate party band agency that focuses on booking show bands for high-dollar gigs, along with weddings or other special events held in ballrooms and country clubs, rarely in a nightclub. The third is the pro-level agency that deals only with signed or previously signed, famous acts that play ticketed club dates, festivals and concerts performing original music. There 4th kind of agency books top 40 bands in nightclubs for a week at a time, where the bands traveled to the hot top 40 dance club in each town, bringing their lights, sound system and spandex with them, staying in a band house or apartment, then moving on to the next club with the same setup in the next big town over. Sadly this kind of agency and these kind of bands reduced to near extinction with the raising of the drinking age to 21, which effectively killed this kind of club and these kind of bands.  

Today I want to focus on the first kind of agency, that is, the frat band agent. Now, keep in mind many of these agencies might mix and match the kind of work they do, but for the most part they focus on particular markets where their strengths are best used.

The frat band agency is going to typically take 20%, which they earn by way of a deposit leaving you to collect the cash from the drunken social chairman at the end of the night. You'll be expected to be a real party band. You'll be expected to specialize in a certain kind of easy-to-label act. When I was in a very highly-paid, successful frat band, we did Grateful Dead music, and that's all we did. Easy sell to a frat into the Dead. My old agent tells me he couldn't book a Dead cover band now to save his life. Times change. Makes sense, really. In the early 90's and late 80's the in vogue bands were from 20 years earlier, hence, Grateful Dead. Now its 2009 in a day or so, the crazy kids are listening to (YIKES!) 80's music. Yeah, I know. Cringe, well, to me anyway.

Kids at the frats now are into 80's cover bands, everything from hair metal to 80's dance bands. Rarely, and I mean rarely, are frat kids even in the south looking for a country band unless they are having some themed party as a lark. With this kind of agent you need to specialize, so if you're a dedicated 80's top 40 party band, and your setlist is the big songs from the 80's, you can't go mixing into the list something from Uriah Heap or the Deep Purple when these kids hired Prince, Cyndi Lauper, OMD, the Cure and Big Country.

These kind of bands work seasonally, primarily around college events like football games. If the college is having an away game, don't expect a frat party in that town. If its a home game, every frat on campus is having a party and hiring a band, and they are usually paying $2000-4000 for the gig. Unfortunately in 2009 that's the same money we got in 1990, but hey, its good money, right? Knock off $400 from that $2000 for the agent, hire a local sound company for another $400 and you're splitting up $1200.00 for the frat party gig. Not bad, really. The agent will want you to have a group black and white 8 x 10 and usually will ask you to pay the $100 for a box of the promo photos for them to use booking you. Demo tape or CD, not really needed so much for this, especially in the Internet age when you should definitely have put together a website with photos, tour dates and sound files of your covers.

But here's the most important bit of information to know: The agency is not going to book you in the clubs in that college town in almost every instance. They will expect you to book a club date in the college town, then they will call up the social chairman from each frat, who is the buyer for the talent for those high-dollar parties. Why? Because the clubs are going to give you a small guarantee against a percentage of the door. Most clubs in a college town are going to guarantee you $400-500 against 75% of the cover charge, and will knock off the first $200 or so to pay the sound guy that night. Yeah, it sucks, but that's how it is. If you get lucky, you could have a pretty fat evening, or you could find out a club down the street is having a really killer band and your audience went there instead. Hence the reason the college booking agent doesn't want to bother with your club dates in the college town. They can't make any money at it.

So, refer back to my earlier blog posts about booking a solo act and apply the same principals to getting yourself into the college town clubs that are happening, which will give the frat booking agency the chance to send buyers to hear you. If they like your act, you'll get a couple of shows out of it a year, plus once you play at one fraternity it gets really easy for the agent to call the same frat in another college town and tell them your band just played for their brothers in another city.

One more thing here. I know it doesn't seem to make any sense, but Friday and Saturday nights in a college town are usually the worst nights to book at a club. Believe it or not, Wednesday and Thursday at the best nights to play in a college town. The kids are in town, they'll stay out late partying even if they have a class in the morning, and on the weekends, they'll get in the car and split for the beach or some other scene. Book the college town club dates on a Wednesday or Thursday.

Book the club dates yourself, and once you've got something booked, if you don't have a frat booking agency, start calling those in your region and chat them up until you get somebody willing to take a chance on sending a social chairman your way. But play it smart folks. Visit the agency's website first. If they have nine different 80's cover bands already, you better be able to offer something else because they will be faithful to their own acts before they send a buyer to hear your band. 

Following so far? Good. Now go get'em. Tomorrow, I'll expound on the other agencies. 

Posted: 12/29/2008 10:00:00 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Manager Myth

 One of the biggest myths that hang about in the minds of musicians is the need of a manager, while completely misunderstanding what a manager does, how they get paid and when to employ their services. If only I had a manager, I'd get a record deal, I'd bypass American Idol and rise straight to the next big Grammy-winning slot. Yeah, that's the ticket. Not having a manager is holding me back, keeping me from hitting the big time and opening all of these doors for my surely-deserving talents!

Well, this is reality, and it just doesn't work like that. People seem to think it does, as hardly a week goes by where I don't see some silly ad posted by a completely clueless person on Craigslist in the Musicians section where they are begging for a hook-up with a manager. 

Managers are for working musicians who passed a certain level of income whereby they can actually afford to pay a manager. I'll paraphrase an explanation from one of the first things I ever published back in the early 90's, the Entertainment Source Library, which was a collection of legal documents on disk for self-use by musicians. In the accompanying booklet explaining the manager contracts on the disk, the author, Greg Forest, explains why you don't need a manager, not yet anyway.

First of all for you to pay a manager ever the kind of annual salary a burger-joint manager makes, you need to be pulling in some serious income from all possible sources as a musician, be they gigs, merchandise sales, recording income, songwriter royalties, etc. You have to be able to pay somebody to manage all of these things for you and help you grow and protect them.

If you're playing six nights a week in a local pub and barely eeking out a living yourself, you're not exactly in a position to hire somebody who will take 20% or more of all of your earnings, and that person won't exactly have an impetus to work hard for you for what that 20% means from your pub-playing income. Maybe a wife, or a girlfriend, or husband or boy friend has some other motive to help guide your career on a local street-level, but as for a professional manager, you're not there yet. And most of the time if you're a local or regional pub or lounge act, having somebody speak as your "manager" is only going to evoke a series of snidely chuckles from whomever is on the other end of the conversation. A club owner booking your act for a percentage of the door against a small guarantee knows he's not the kind of venue that deals with managers or booking agents for that matter. 

A manager does exactly what it sounds like they do, they manage your business. You're going to want a certain amount of a managers time and efforts devoted to running your career and protecting, even growing your income. For that to happen, you have to pay for their time.

Let's do the math. If a decent mid-level business manager commands an annual salary of $80,000.00, plus another 15% or so for his taxes, benefits, etc., we're talking $92,000.00 a year. If you are one of five acts that they manage, we're talking $18,400.00 a year you'll need to be able to pay them for their time one day a week. That doesn't even include any expenses related to working for you for which you might have to pony-up a 20% share of, such as them flying out and schmoozing at SXSW or some other event where they are supposed to be networking on your behalf.

So let's just round this up for the sake of discussion, you're going to have to be grossing $100,000.00 a year as a performer before you can even pretend to afford to pay 20% of that income to a manager. Now, unless you're living in a small apartment somewhere in Alabama, driving an old car and have very conservative spending habits, $100,000.00 gross doesn't go nearly as far as you might think, especially when that $100k gross is before you cover your travel, equipment, insurance, taxes and more. And you know what? There are actually plenty of working musicians grossing close to that all on their own who simply will never need a manager. At that level of work, they might have the services of a booking agent, but a book agent is not typically a manager.

You as the product of the business, and simultaneously also the CEO, are the one who has to grow the business so that a manager has something to manage. So many times its a spouse who plays the role of manager in the earliest and often later stages of an acts career, and for good reason. That reason is a matter of practical finances. A spouse benefits directly from the income on a different level than a third party manager who needs you to be already generating a significant amount of income before they can help you manage who you've created and take it to another level.

Rarely, and I mean very rarely, does a real management company take on a relatively complete unknown and invest their own time and money into trying to get that act signed to a label or otherwise help them get something going. Its just almost never, ever happens. My best advice, get it out of your head and instead concentrate on keeping your calendar filled, keeping your gig commitments and honing your craft.

So, my advice, do yourself a favor and stop with the "I need a manager" myth. You don't need a manager. Not until you have reached such a significant amount of self-created income that you can afford to pay somebody for doing work you can't do yourself. You might need a booking agent, if you're ready. You might need a lawyer more than anything, but you don't need a manager. Not yet. 

Posted: 12/29/2008 10:00:05 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Gig booked, now what?

 I've given what I think is so sound advice for filling your calendar as a musician, tried and true methods that worked for me long before we have the advantage of emailing MP3 files and sending club owners to websites or MySpace pages to hear what you sound like before they book you. Now that you have those tools at your disposal though, its important that you make the most of them.

MySpace can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you master using it. If you start a new page for yourself as a musician, you can load it with the usual photos, blog postings, music clips, etc, and use it to recruit "friends" to announce your shows and releases to, but if you don't take the time to make the page look like something more than an entry-level attempt, you're going to come off looking pretty low-rent.

In my opinion, the only advantage MySpace has over a stand-alone website is the social networking aspect of it, whereby millions of people could conceivable become connected to you by way of clicking through their friends lists and happening upon your site on the service. Being able to add them as friends can mean a lot to you, or it can be perceived as BS if its got thousands of friends in too short of a time period. While I am sure the Internet is full of people who check their MySpace page daily or more than once per day, I'm leaning toward more people signing up and then checking it rather infrequently.

MySpace is not a replacement for a good website for your act. It just isn't. I've seen many musicians make the mistake of using only MySpace to promote themselves and I think they are selling themselves short when they do so. If there are no organic skills either in your band or your own head to build a great website for your act, there are plenty of great tools at your disposal to get one made either by hiring somebody to do it for you or by teaching yourself to do it on your own. It ain't rocket science.

There are basic elements that you have to have on your act's website. These are 101 items  that anyone should be able to put together. First and foremost, you need to register a URL for your act. If you're a solo, your first and last name plus dot com should be the first thing to go for when searching for a name. I was fortunate enough to have grabbed the dot com, dot org and dot net versions of my name back in the early 90's before people were rushing to grab them. At one point I owned the URL for my longtime BMI publishing entity, Psychotronic Music Publishing, but made the mistake of letting it lapse and it went bye-bye really fast. Oh well. Don't forget to pay your domain name bills!

Before you should even think about what your website is going to look like, you need to assemble the elements that you're either going to give to somebody to build it for you with or use yourself. These are namely a great bio page, a tour dates page with past bookings listed as far back as you can remember (to help new club bookers visiting your site see you are a working pro), contact page with an email address and phone numbers, a page that describes exactly what your booking terms and requirements are, a press section where you can put up news releases you're writing about projects you're doing, and most  importantly, a media section where people can hear your music and if video is available, see your videos. 

I'll spend some time this week diving into each of the things you need to put on a website and how to make sure they are done right so you don't do yourself more harm than good when putting this critical marketing element together. Stay tuned and use this Christmas vacation time to fine tune your new year of  booking gigs and working as a musician. 

Posted: 12/22/2008 9:07:04 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Yes, you can tour!

 I've spilled the beans on the "magic" behind keeping your calendar full as a working solo act, though all of the thoughts apply to a band as well. Frankly, performing as a solo was a purely economic decision for me all of those years. I could play solo and pocket $100-150 or more a night back in the day, or I could book a four piece band and make $50-75 per person, and that's before considering the expenses to do the gigs. Surely you can split the expenses with more performers, but I didn't find the difference in expense-splitting to make up for the higher income of going it alone. 

So as you can see, the magic behind keeping your calendar full isn't really magic at all. Its one part planning, one part organization, and one part pro-active salesmanship. That's pretty much it. If you have a clear cut pitch for what you are selling and can describe it really easily to a bar manager or club owner, and if they have a history of hiring your kind of music, you've crossed the first bridge to success. The time-tested "keep it simple stupid" has never been more truer than when you've got the club booker on the phone and they are being receptive enough not to hang up on you.

Here's a little example script on how I'd handle it when booking shows with people who'd never heard a note from my lips or fingertips, when cold-calling to book a gig: "Thanks for taking the call. I know your club books solo acts on Wednesday nights, and I'm a solo acoustic musician from Pensacola, FL who has been playing regularly at Seville Quarter, McQuire's Irish Pub and other area clubs the past year or so. I've got some tour dates booked in June in Atlanta, Birmingham and Montgomery that would let me route right through Auburn on a Wednesday night either on my way through or on my way back. I'd love to come play your place."

If the booker is in a good mood, if the time was good for the call, that will hopefully lead to "What do you play, I haven't heard you."

"What kind of music, well, mostly old classic rock and blues stuff, popular artists ranging from Dylan and Beatles to Grateful Dead, even some great old jug band blues things. I think your crowd would love what I do, because I notice you have John Doe playing and other similar acts, and I fit in really well with what they do. I know you haven't heard me, but you're probably familiar with my other longtime venues, so I'm a safe bet for trying me on one night."

No joke, 95% of the time a friendly banter, non-aggressive approach and a little pre-booking homework could get my date filled on that pitch alone. If that got me far enough along that the call sounded like they were interested, we'd usually get to price, etc. If their next question was "What do you charge?" then my usual script was: "For a Wednesday night routing through a town I can give you a great deal. I normal get $200.00 plus a meal and soft drinks, but if you can fill this date for me, I can do it for $150.00, if you can point me to a nearby affordable motel where I won't get killed."

Bingo. 95% of the time if I got that far with the booker, that price would close it. I've had them say "well, we normally pay $100.00 for a Wednesday night show, its just not that busy" then I confirm that they will feed me and give me the soft drinks. You really have to ask about that stuff, because mark my words, the first time you don't, you'll do a gig, go to get paid and end up with your own real life "Bob's Country Bunker" scene right out of the Blues Brothers where you'll be warming up the car while pretending to fill out a traveler's check on the dash. If they hit back with the "well, usually its $100" then get them to commit to a bar tab for the other $50.00 (or whatever the difference is) and 9 out of 10 times they will go for it. Try it. I'd usually say "well, you know, $100 will cover my room and gas and some guitar strings, but I tell you what, if you can make up the other $50 with a bar tab for food and a few beers, we can go $100.00, but if you like me, maybe we can go a little higher next time."

Yes, it usually works. 

The beauty of this is that the more dates you fill in at nearby city pubs, the easier it is to fill dates on the way to or from the gigs. When club owner's see they are booking somebody that performs in clubs they know to be on par with their own establishment, even if they've never heard you, they are more likely to book you. This is one of the areas where having access to the regional music rags I talked about earlier is simply invaluable. That's where you will likely see ads for similar clubs in the next city over, listing their events calendar on one page, while the club you are targeting is listing their dates on the next page. Strategy, folks. That's all this is, really. 

Here's another bit of advice to keep you from creating some trouble for you on a local scene before you arrive. Just like you, local working musicians really rely on their local pubs to keep them employed. If you see a calendar with the same name booked every week for weeks on end, you really have to be careful how to approach the club about taking one of those nights. Whenever I saw a club with a regular performer working at a place I needed to book, my approach to the club owner was a little different. I'd usually call them and say "Hey, I notice you have John Doe every Wednesday, he must be awesome. I do a show kind of like his, and I'd love a chance to play for your place if you find he's not available, even if its last minute, please check in with me. If you don't mind, I'll drop you a line every couple of weeks to let you know when I'm open and maybe you can squeeze me in there."

Now, this might not get me that routing date I was originally after, but it planted a seed with that booker that I could continually water and most of the time turn into a solid booking, sometimes even turn into a regular gig myself. I've tried to meet the in-town regular performers at clubs I want to play in hopes that we could strike up a friendship that would let us both know to get in touch with the other if either were coming through, needed a sub for a date, etc. Sometimes you'll find them to be very guarded with their gigs, other times you'll find them thrilled to meet another musician of a similar vein who won't see you as a threat, but as a potential asset for trading off venues. 

Final bit of advice for today: Listen to the booker. If there is the slightest hint that its a bad time to talk to you, tell them "Wow, it sounds like you're really busy right now. I would love to talk about this when your hands are not so full. When is the best time to try you back?" Pay attention to the sound in the background, if it sounds busy in the background, you might have picked a bad time to call. If the booker says anything that would lead to you not closing that date on that call, stop whatever you're doing, and get them to tell you when a good time is to call back. Be polite, overly polite, and show some concern for their work life.  Then call them back when you say you will, and be reasonably persistent with the "don't take no for an answer" approach only once you have them in a non-stressed environment that they can talk to you. Being pushy means no gig. Ever. 

I worked for years doing these things, before there was an Internet or a website or a MySpace to send the booker to, before we had any of the technological miracles of today like cell phones or email. And sometimes the good old fashioned telephone is the best way to get those dates booked. Now, that said, anyone booking a club is likely to have a website for that club, so its crucial that you visit it, learn everything about them before you call, and if they have a process for getting booked spelled out on that site, follow it. Then get on the phone and try to get them to commit. Even if it says "No phone calls" on the website, one or two after following their procedures isn't going to hurt, and if you're lucky you might even catch them at a good time, or enjoy a happy coincidence where the act they had booked that date just canceled. Good luck and fill that calendar. You can tour. Its not rocket science, it just takes some planning. 

Posted: 12/18/2008 4:12:13 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A Full Calendar is a Full Plate

 I left off the last post talking about the long-time-gone regional music magazine NO Cover, that was the Gulf Coast's god-send magazine for musicians 20 years ago. Even in this Internet age, there are still plenty of these publications floating around, not to mention the much-harder-to-get-coverage-in local weeklies like Atlanta's Creative Loafing or Nashville Scene, SF Weekly, etc. Those weeklies, they are great for getting entertainment venue information from, seeing who is playing where, but getting "ink" in them to promote yourself is much harder than the regional magazines which are usually clamoring for content. 

If you're going to aggressively keep your calendar full and yourself busy as a musician, you'll need to arm yourself with the weekly newspapers of the bigger cities you wish to play in, as well as the regional publications, and from there also hone in on the regional music websites that promote shows in your area. In an age when just about anyone and any company has a website, you're golden for garnering the information you need to come up with a cold-calling list of clubs to try to book yourself in and fill that Daytimer.

First things first, get your script down for when you call. You need to know exactly what you plan to say to whomever answers the phone. A disinterested bartender or other employee may leave you on hold forever. Heck, the club manager will do that too. Be ready for it. Be patient. Be the friendliest person you've ever been no matter how much of a pain in the arse the person doing the booking can be. It pays off, believe me.

In 1990 when booking a five-state, 14-day tour of 12 venues with myself and famed avant guard guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, I called one of the bigger clubs on the hit-list to secure the date. The disinterested "I'm in a band, too" secretary working for the club owner either gave the owner the wrong information about who was on the phone, or he heard it wrong, but he apparently thought it was Eugene on the phone, and not me, the guy who was opening the tour and putting the whole thing together.

I waited for ten minutes, finally I hear, "Hey Eugene, how you been? Whose this Lawson guy, just somebody riding on your coat tails or what?"

Trying not to get angry, or bust out laughing, I said, "Uh, hey Mr Clubowner (named changed to protect the ignorant), its not Eugene, its that Lawson guy calling." Well, after he stammered and sputtered, we closed the date and terms. I wasn't in a position to not close that date after that foot-in-mouth scene he started the call with, and since I handled it cooly and showed good humor, I turned a potentially ugly situation in the last stop on our tour. 

So think about these things before you make your hit list and start calling clubs:

1. Make sure you can describe yourself and your music to whomever is listening in concise words that make sense and won't scare the average pub booker. Please, know what you're selling before you try to sell.

2. Think about what you're going to say if the phone gets answered by the wrong person. Ask for the manager, in a nice way, and get their name before the call if possible. You might even want to call a day before and get the manager's name so you can then call and ask for them by name the next day. That helps, a lot, in getting calls through. 

3. Make sure you're ready for anything. Book a date six months out if you have to, but be persistent if you know that they book your kind of act. If they want to her a CD or MP3 or whatever first, get their email address and follow up with them when you say you will. Sometimes getting asked for these things means they are interested, sometimes it means they are blowing you off. And its hard to tell which is which most of the time. Odds are they are Googling you while you're on the phone anyway. At least we live in an age when you no longer have to spend $5.00 to mail out a disk and printed promo stuff. 

4. Once you have all of your ducks in a row and only then, start putting together a list of clubs. Do this in a spreadsheet program. List the venue name, the contact name, their phone number, website, email address, city, state and any other important information in a notes section like, "only books solos on Wed night, bands on Fri-Sat" or that kind of stuff.

5. When you're negotiating the date and the price, bring up a tab as part of the compensation. If you can get the club to give you free drinks, great. But at least make sure that soda drinks are free, and try to get them to throw in a meal as part of the pay. Sometimes that can be a pretty great bump in compensation and its money you don't have to spend when you're out traveling from that gig cash.

More tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Posted: 12/16/2008 3:27:06 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Filling the Daytimer

While the first eight posts here were about gigging in Second Life, I'm talking now about the first life. Working in the real world. We live in an amazing time where people can make money playing from their homes, and in an information age where anything you want to know about just about anything is available at our fingertips.

It wasn't always so easy......

Twenty-plus years ago I was fiercely running up my phone bill, before there was such a thing as one-price long distance plans, sitting on my couch dialing for dollars until my calendar found me ready to bring in the bacon to pay my bills. I could only find out about clubs outside of my home town one of three ways back then. One of word of mouth. The other was picking up regional free music magazines (which I lived for), and the last was the yellow pages. I recall getting a pocket full of dimes and going to the local public library in Panama City, Florida where I had discovered they stocked the phone books for all kinds of cities within a reasonable drive from there. I photo copied listings for clubs, cocktail lounges and entertainment categories. We're talking old-school investigating here. 

A lot of musicians have a misconception of how booking agencies and especially managers work. They think the only thing keeping them from touring is their lack of a booking agency or a manager. I'm here to tell you, it ain't so. The booking agency/manager idea is a myth that lazy musicians use to have something to blame when they find themselves at home on New Year's Ever instead of booking their best paying gig of the year. 

There I was, late teens, playing well enough that people would pay me $50, 80, $100 or more dollars a night to come sing in their little pubs, plus give me free drinks and usually some food. I didn't have a record deal. I didn't have many original songs, but I had a knack for knowing a lot of songs, even if I was faking them to a large degree, the drunks, er, uh, patrons at these fine establishments didn't know the difference or seem to care very much. I leveraged one gig into another gig until I had enough local gigs to be able to call up a club in another town and start talking smack to get myself on their calendar. Rarely did I take no for an answer. Booked up for six months? No worries, what's open in month seven?! Tenacity got me gigs, when these club owners had never heard me play a lick. 

Cold calling. My life as a single man was playing gigs until 3AM, packing my gear, driving to the 24-hour Whataburger or Waffle House, getting some chow, going to sleep (usually alone) when the sun came up, waking up at 2PM and then spending the next three hours solid cold calling clubs until I found out what kind of place they had, if they hired solo acts, got the name of the person who booked the room and found out when that person would usually be around. Booking agent? What booking agent? 

I had a friendly relationship with an agent in Mobile, AL, Tip Top Attractions. The owner, Kirke Weinacker, seemed to admire my tenacity and got me two or three shows, but pretty much as a favor. He's still in business, because his bread and butter is show-bands, large groups that play high-dollar corporate gigs. For him to spend any time booking me for my paltry $125-150 a night (sometimes less), just wasn't worth it to him. Still it looked a little better on my feeble press kit to say that Tip Top Attractions was booking me and he put me on his roster, though graciously Kirke just passed the info on to me nearly every time. There is a reason he is still in business. He knew his core business and focused on it. And, so did I. 

I got a little ahead of myself there. Before meeting Kirke, my first real agent working with me, I had moved to Pensacola, Fl to play for five months, four nights a week with a bluegrass band (that's a whole other story!). I started aggressively going after solo work as that bluegrass gig was wearing out its welcome with me. Pensacola is a Navy town, so there were several choices for playing gigs. Nothing but fond memories for that town.

We had one regional music rag, called NO Cover (which mean New Orleans), but they distributed across the college chittlin' circuit. That magazine was golden to me. Cheap little newsprint publication published out of the townhouse of the owners in Metarie, LA, it was a treasure trove of info for me about clubs in the southeast, who was playing there and more. From that one zine I was able to find out all kinds of information about who, what, where and when clubs were booking solo acoustic acts.

My Day-Timer runneth over. It was the Google of its day for me. Now I was armed with a publication with all kinds of information in it that would tip my off to where I could work. I ordered an 800 number to help entice clubs to call me back. It worked. My calendar stayed slammed full. In 1989, barely 21 years old, I grossed about $35k playing bars in an all-cash world of live concerts. That ain't bad, huh?

There was no secret to my booking gigs. I wasn't afraid of doing the work. I wasn't afraid to call myself a musician and declare my calendar available to be filled. I picked up the phone, made the calls, gave them the pitch and booked the shows. Then I'd show up on time after always "fronting" the show the week before to make sure nothing changed about my gig. Most of the time things went great, and I'd end up with another date before I left. 

I'll continue the story tomorrow, and before I'm done I think you'll begin to see a pattern you can easily follow to get yourself as much work as you can stand, provided you've got some talent. I can give you advice and the benefit of my experience, but I can't give you talent. :)

Posted: 12/11/2008 4:15:56 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting the Gigs

I am a musician. First and foremost, its what I am. I didn't go the traditional route of finishing high school, leaving for four or more years of college, and looking at music as a hobby until I got a career. Music was my career. I left high school early with a GED so I could join up with a traveling top 40 band in a very short-lived tour. I've played in bars since I was 15 or 16 years old, sneaking in the back door carrying guitar cases so nobody would card me. In fact, when I finally turned 21, that milestone age most people would celebrate going out to a pub with a big blowout, I had to celebrate in secret as the club owners thought it to be my 25th birthday. Had they known then I was underage working in their clubs for so long they'd have put a contract out on me, or at least had me taken in an alley for a good high education session. For me it was the day that seemed to never arrive where I would no longer go to work in fear that I was going to be busted for going to work and earning a living. That was a long five years.

I was known in those days for working, a lot, as a musician along the gulf coast of Florida and all throughout the southeast. I played with all kinds of bands, more than one at a time, playing drums (poorly) in one country band while on another night playing guitar for another thrown together band for the gig I happened to have book. I played bass in one band, guitar in another, whatever it took. It was work or go hungry. Music was all I knew how to do.

It was more of a quest to keep eating than some narcissistic drive at fame and fortune. I never had a booking agent for most of my work, only later when I was playing frat house shows did an agent really step up the plate. They were Crescent Moon Talent in Nashville, and they were the most practical agency I ever dealt with. "You book the bars and stuff yourself, Mike. We'll send the frat house social chairmen to the shows. If they like you, we'll book your band at their house for their party season." And that's exactly how it worked.

For some reason what came as natural as could be to me remained mostly a black art, a mystical magical ability to the other band members. I kept myself booked as a solo performer, booking band shows where I'd not seen the other band members for weeks, telling them "show up in Auburn, AL on this night and we'll play and each make $250.00." And show up they would. Years after I had played with them, I would get calls or emails asking me for help getting their new band gigs, wanting to know my "secrets" for working so much, figuring it can't be that hard if I did it. It wasn't. It isn't. And tomorrow, I'll tell you how you can do exactly what I used to do to keep yourself gainfully employed full time as a musician if you're willing to do the same things.

Posted: 12/11/2008 10:12:50 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My So-Called Second Life - Part VIII

 I've covered all the basics now for getting started playing in Second from a technical standpoint. I could keep writing until I had a book's worth of stuff, but for the sake of a blog-length series, this pretty much covers it. To recap, here's how it works in one post:

First, you need a late model Mac or Windows computer capable of running Second Life and then some. I say then some because you'll likely use the same computer to provide your live audio stream during your show, though there are plenty of performers who use a separate computer for streaming audio and another for logging in Second Life. 

You'll need a Second Life account. Its free. Go to Second Life, sign up an avatar with a name you can live with and then dress him or her up how you want to look. Once you've got your look down and know how to get around in the virtual world, you'll need some guitars. Gibson has its own island in Second Life, called Gibson Island. Visit that "sim" and choose from more than two dozen high detail models, from acoustics to electrics, even an amazing F5 style mandolin. 

You'll want to search around Second Life to buy a tip jar, which is a script in a prim that lets people click on it and give you money when they like what you're doing. You can take the money you make from performance fees and tips and sell it back to Second Life, then put that cash into your PayPal account. 

You'll need either WinAmp with the SHOUTcast plugin or Nicecast software to capture the sound from your computer's audio device. You'll configure it to stream your sound by inputing the server address and port number, along with password, of the SHOUTcast server stream you'll be using for your show. You'll get that info either from the virtual venue hosting your show, or by providing your own SHOUTcast server if you're that geeky, or by renting a SHOUcast server from a provider. 

Visit venues on Second Life to hear other people play. Let the venue owner know you're a musician and looking for a gig. Most of them are actively looking for new people to play. Or, get in touch with me "in world" by instant messaging my avatar, Von Johin, and I'll get you a slot playing on Gibson Island. 

Posted: 12/9/2008 9:14:03 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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