How To Break Into the (Lucrative) College Market

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crowdSchool’s in session, and here are some insights into playing the college market as you begin the fall touring season. Many acts successfully use colleges as a point from which to launch their careers, while others have found it leading to a dead end. As we explore both ends of the spectrum, keep an open mind about how this market might fit into your booking plans.

Five hot tips for playing the college market

1. Use a college date as an anchor date for a tour.
There are benefits to playing the college market, and money is just one of them. I’ve known artists who played the college circuit for years and made very good money. They were often getting three or four times what they were making working the club circuit. Use these dates as anchor dates and surround them with a tour of other lesser paying (though often more prestigious) club gigs. Often college dates may be booked during weekday nights and sometimes even during the daytime. This leaves the weekends for the clubs. A good paying college gig can often help fund other portions of a tour.

2. Do your own promotion.
When planning a college date, it is necessary to do your own promotion along with any done by the college. Get in touch with college radio and newspapers. Send notice to anyone on your mailing list in that area. Contact local media sources. Use the college’s PR person (if any) to coordinate your media surrounding the gig.

3. Use college radio.
Unless the campus station is a commercial station (and there are only a few campuses that have commercial stations), it is very likely that you can get airplay and a live interview on one of their shows. There are some incredibly influential college stations around, so don’t miss your opportunity to tap into the benefits they may provide. If you are going to tour colleges, you might consider subscribing to the College Music Journal (CMJ) to keep abreast of what’s current on the college stations.

4. Contact media in the college town.
While promoting your date on campus, don’t forget about the in-town media. Another benefit of playing college gigs is that most of them are open to the public. If you do some in-town promotions and get some non-college audience, that’s great for future gigs in the area.

5. Make sure your dates are reported.
Playing the college circuit gains you a reputation within the college circuit. There are reporting mechanisms from organizations like the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA – more about NACA follows) that help campus programmers review artist’s previous tours. So, if one campus reports that you did a great gig, it is likely that other campuses will be influenced by the report and also book you.

College gigging 101

Colleges and Universities offer a variety of performing opportunities. Many campuses have multiple facilities available for use as performance spaces. Facilities may range from a performing arts center fully equipped with a soft seat theater that includes dressing rooms, curtains, proscenium stage, lighting, and sound to a transformable gym, cafeteria, or lounge.

The various facilities are often booked or programmed by different departments. A director who schedules theater productions, including symphonies, jazz acts, dance, and popular international artists usually books the performing arts center. The director of the center generally coordinates outside performances with classes and college productions making the facility rarely available to other college departments.

The other major booking entity on a campus is the Student Activities Center. Supervised by a faculty or staff member, student committees do the majority of programming, depending on the individual college. The most popular student committees are often the concert and coffeehouse committees. Here, students decide how they will spend the huge budgets available from student fees collected each year dedicated to campus activity planning. Programming may also be scheduled through other individual departments on campus that generally have very small budgets. Fraternities and Sororities offer further performing opportunities.

Associations, organizations, and conferences

Those programming for the Student Activities Center have a number of conference opportunities from which their various committees may select acts. The oldest and largest organization is the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA). NACA hosts a national conference in February each year along with eleven regional conferences.

The other organization now running a booking conference for college activities is the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities (APCA). APCA, the much smaller of the two, offers new acts an opportunity to break into the college market without the requirement of spending big bucks for the chance to do so. Although NACA is often in the forefront of showcasing new talent to colleges, it is more challenging for individual artists to break into the organization and reap the benefits in their first year after showcasing or exhibiting.

If you feel that your act belongs in the performing arts center environment, then begin your booking efforts by contacting the director of the facility. The other method of capturing the attention of many performing arts centers directors is to attend a booking conference. The Association of Performing Arts Presenters holds a major annual booking conference in New York City each January.

During the fall, there are a series of smaller regional conferences that help an artist to concentrate their touring in a targeted area. These conferences include The Performing Arts Exchange sponsored by the Southern Arts Federation; the Mid-America Arts Conference sponsored by Arts Midwest and the Mid-America Arts Alliance; and the WAA sponsored by the Western Arts Alliance.

Although attendees to these conferences also include performing arts center programmers not associated with a college campus, many performing arts center programmers attend at least one of the regional conferences and often attend the national conference in New York as well. Your chances of gaining the attention of some of these programmers are increased should you decide to attend and possibly showcase. These are expensive conferences to attend and organizations to join, so please be certain that your act is appropriate for this type of college venue.

Many college bookers rely on these conferences and organizations for the bulk of their talent buying. It is not impossible to break into the college market on a campus by campus basis, but there is a greater chance for recognition if you use these conferences as your entrée.

The down side to playing the college market
One of the most challenging issues that agents and self-booking artists must deal with when booking colleges is the student turnover rate. On those campuses where the student committees are in charge of booking the talent, an agent or artist often finds the task frustrating and sometime totally disheartening to the point of giving up.

You are dealing with rotating committee chairs, graduating students, students who join a committee for one or two semesters, students with varying office hours or no office hours forcing you to track them down in their dorm rooms. One attempt at a solution is to always get the name and number of the faculty or staff supervisor advising the student committee. They are usually the one with the authority to sign the contracts and they usually have office hours. When you begin to run into trouble finalizing a date, contact the faculty supervisor and ask their help in facilitating the booking.

Since these committees are part of the student’s education, you are often required to play the role of teacher and walk them through the booking process, one painstaking step at a time. This holds true for each step after a contract is signed. If you want your date promoted on campus, make sure you follow up with every aspect right up until the gear is packed and loaded in the vehicle after you’ve played the date.

Most campus activity gigs are paid for with the collected funds from student fees. There are a few facilities that are run like a professional club, meaning they need to make money in order to survive. Most campus activities, however, do not need to make money. The committees are allocated a budget and if they want to get the same amount or more money the next year, they must spend the money allocated in the current year. This leaves the committees in the enviable position of spending money without having to be fiscally responsible. They are not always concerned whether the money was well spent or whether any of the students whose money is funding the event ever show up and take advantage of these activities. This of course impacts you, the act being booked.

I have heard from so many acts playing the college circuit that the money is great but the audiences are small and often non-existent. As a professional performer, you are attempting to treat your career professionally. Playing the college market may stress you in that department since those with whom you are dealing are not professionals. To be fair, though, every once in a while you will happily find a student who takes his/her committee-work very seriously.

There have been many major recording artists who began building their careers in the college market. I can recall seeing a brand new act, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, at one college concert on my campus. The programming committee took a chance on booking him and as I recall it was a great show with a really large crowd for the small student union all-purpose room. Gee, I wonder whatever happened to that act?

Jeri GoldsteinJeri Goldstein is the author of How To Be Your Own Booking Agent The Musician’s & Performing Artist’s Guide To Successful Touring 2nd Edition UPDATED. An agent and artist’s manager for 20 years, Jeri currently consults with artists, agents, and managers through her Manager-In-A-Box consultation program and presents The Performing Biz, online tele-seminars, and live workshops at conferences, and universities, for individuals, arts councils, and organizations. Email Jeri at jg@performingbiz.com.

12 thoughts on “How To Break Into the (Lucrative) College Market

  1. Hello Jeri, I’m currently representing an artist (Michelle Delamor) and we are excited to pursue a college tour within the next year. Thank you so much for the very informative and helpful information.

    Best,
    Charlotte D.

  2. Interesting!

    What would be an appropriate fee for a concert/lecture of how an eighteen year old high school student wrote a song, arranged and performed it with a couple of classmates (as an a cappella vocal trio) before 1,500 students at a high school talent assembly, and it was a hit from the get-go, with requests for records to buy.

    Made a home tape recording. a cappella, took it to the big city (Seattle), got a contract to be the first artists on a label created to release the song, began recording professionally the day after high school graduation, continued into the first semester of college; left to tour nationally and, before the three week tour culminated with a national television performance on the Dick Clark Show, the song hit #1 in the nation!

    We Fleetwoods went on to have the first million-seller Gold Records produced on a Northwest label, first group in the world to have two #1 Hits top the Billboard Hot 100 in a single year (1959), 11 hit singles, 15 albums, songs on the soundtracks of a dozen motion pictures, and inductions into four Halls of Fame.

    The end of 2007, I released my first solo CD, the self-produced, autobiographical concept album, GRETCHEN’S SWEET SIXTEEN (SUITE 16). Three and a half years in the making (including an autobiographical 16-page booklet of liner notes and photos, and 16-self-penned songs touching six decades, starting with 1959 Billboard #1 Record “Come Softly To Me” and Top 40 Hit “Graduation’s Here”), SUITE 16 tells the story of first loves reunited (after forty years apart) and became a 2007 BILLBOARD CRITICS’ PICKS for 10 BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR!

    It’s never too late.

    What is the max colleges might pay for such an inspirational/motivational musical presentation?

    What might this show bring as a solo presentation backed by tracks?

    What might this show bring with live backing of keyboard, guitar, bass, drums, and two additional vocalists?

    Sound Clips may be heard at http://www.GoldCupMusic.com

    Thank you for your response to
    Gretchen@GretchenChristopher.com

  3. I am releaseing my first cd. Was thinking some time in april 2010. Should I try to book events with collages months before the release. If anyone has any ideas about good release date and when to start the collage show process please email me. Thanks Joe.

  4. I’m considering getting into the college circuit but am not sure if my style of music has a big audience or interest. I am a professional contemporary Jazz/R&B saxophonist. My style is a fusion of so much. I do covers from Gnarls Barkley to Eric Clapton to Miles Davis. My show has a lot of energy and I know that the college audience loves it when my band plays but it might be hard to sell it to a college that might not have experienced this type of music or performance. Any suggestions or words of encouragement that the college circuit may be or not be the way to go? ;o) Also, how effective would showcasing be (I’ve Showcased before and have had a good and bad experiences with that)?

    1. David,
      Your style of music is just one of the many styles that a campus concert committee might program. I would also not forget about the music department as another avanue for getting a gig, lecture or concert. Also, most campuses have performing arts centers that program jazz and other styles in a more formal performance setting, completely separate from the student activities programming. So on each campus you may find at least three separate sources for gigs. If you don’t have a positive response from one area, say student activities, try the others, music department and performing arts center. Check the college website for all contacts in all areas and do a bit of research before calling, so you know in advance who the appropriate contacts are. And if you check the campus radio station, you will certainly find some jaz specific shows where you can get your music played.

  5. India–Absolutely! In fact, I’d say the college market is ripe for the type of music you describe. I think you have to be selective about the colleges you approach, but there are a lot of schools that book that type of music. I’d suggest you focus primarily on small, liberal arts colleges. We play original acoustic music, some of which has obvious religious themes, and have had pretty good luck playing small, private colleges. I know of several singer-songwriters (some spiritual, some not so much) who have made a good living playing the Midwest college circuit. Even though the schools are small, they still have substantial budgets for campus programming.

    1. Thank you for the info. How does your band decide how much to charge the colleges for your performance? In my case, it’s just me as a solo performer (guitar, vocal, and backing tracks).

  6. Does anyone know if colleges would ever book a singer/songwriter who falls into the spiritual-but-not-religious category? Some of my songs mention God but no particular religion; some songs are simply empowering/encouraging but don’t mention God. My music is a blend of self-help & spiritual.

    1. Hi India,
      You may find a good source for bookings through some of the departments on campus that focus on religion, English, sociology, along with checking various on-campus groups that might have events requiring entertainment. don’t just depend on the student activities office of formal presenting organizations. Dig in and research campuses in communities and markets where you are interested in touring.

      1. I have one more question. I sing and play guitar live along with backing tracks, so I’m a solo performer who presents a full band sound. Do you think this is acceptable in the college market?

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