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
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