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
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