Playing live gigs is one of the most traditional ways for musical artists to spread the word about themselves, entertaining fans and attracting new ones. And nothing beats gigging as a way to build a band’s musical chops.
Playing gigs also gives you a recurring reason to contact your fan base and promote your act, it’s a great vehicle to collect names for your email list, and it’s the best forum to sell products like CDs and t-shirts.
What’s important to realize is there’s a focused and unfocused way to go about booking and playing gigs, and the difference can spell success or failure for your act.
An unfocused approach might include booking gigs in towns you’ve never played without doing any research into the club you’ve booked. Or it might simply be booking yourself too frequently in the same area. Or it could be booking too big a room, or playing dumpy rooms for too long and establishing yourself as a second-tier live act.
A focused approach should help you avoid such issues. At the very least, it can help you establish goals and work toward fulfilling them. In time, you can gauge your success by how you measure up to your goals. Are you playing to bigger and better crowds? Are you playing better rooms than you were six months ago? Have you increased your regular playing radius? Broken into a new city? Are you making money playing live?
Touring, like any other element of managing your act, better serves you if you create a focused plan of attack.
Tip number one, then, is “Plan a strategy.” If you’re completely new to the gigging game, maybe that means you play as many gigs as you can. Open for anyone. Play every stage in your city. Just get as much experience as you can.
After four or five months, it may be time to step back and recreate your plan. Now that you’ve played all the rooms you could get in, which one was your favorite? What songs seemed to go over best? What were the recurring problems you experienced while playing? Regroup, rehearse, and refocus.
Booking Gigs Out of Town
While there is by no means one way to approach gigging, there are some generally accepted rules, and one is “Start local and build outward.” It’s totally logical, and in most cases it’s the most prudent approach.
The question then becomes, when do you book an out-of-town show and where do you go?
One good way is to establish a relationship with artists from other cities. Maybe you played a local gig with a great band from out of town and you hit it off. Where do they play locally? Try to get a gig opening for them.
MySpace.com is a great place to mix and mingle with out-of-town artists, and the forum gives you both a chance to hear each other’s music and determine if you’re compatible, musically and otherwise. At that point, a gig swap is a likely step, giving you both the opportunity to explore a new city and club with some degree of confidence there will be interested ears in the room.
With MySpace and your own email list, you can also gauge if there’s a town outside your home base that might be teeming with fans. It’s a great opportunity in that you can tap your contacts to learn about clubs they like, rally them to the show, and even offer discounts on the cover price.
Once you’ve ventured out to another city, your job becomes to sell your live act, sell some CDs, and get people on the mailing list. Don’t just make it a gig, make it a marketing exploration.
Wherever you live, it’s likely there are many cities or towns within reasonable driving distance that can offer you the chance to establish a completely new “local” fan base. It sounds easier than it is, but the concept is basic: Find a winning strategy close to home and reproduce it over and over again in surrounding towns. Before long, success might mean you’re selling more and more CDs and t-shirts, getting a larger fan base together, and your name means something father away from your home base.
Another adage for the road is, “Have something to promote.” Obviously, if you have a gig, that’s something – but it shouldn’t end there. If you’re new to an area, and you have a CD, make it a record release for that town.
For a major-label artist, typically a tour is in support of a record. The show promotes the record, and the record propels show attendance. The model works in many of the same ways for indies.
Do what you can to build a buzz and try to establish an infrastructure (i.e. street team, product in stores) to use in conjunction with your gig. Who knows? A little radio promotion might spark attendance at the show, which may result in some CDs selling, which means your circle is growing. It’s all about building momentum, and it’s also about having the necessary things in place to buoy that momentum.
A tour doesn’t have to mean you’re in a huge bus cruising the U.S. A tour can be a 10-day stint through three adjoining states in a passenger van. Maybe you’ve landed a conference gig 200 miles away. Book shows along the route and turn it into a mini tour. Especially if you’ve never done it before. Try a small tour and figure out how it actually works. Then, expand and improve on your model.
One of the biggest challenges for an indie act to overcome is money. It’s not easy to make money on the road, especially the first few times out. The goal might have to be, “How do we break even?” Between missed work, gas, tolls, food, laundry, overnight accommodations… being on the road costs money.
Finding ways to make more money on the road, such as having an organized system in place to sell merchandise and CDs, is one smart step. Cutting costs is another. Find crash pads to sleep at along the way. There are plenty of places to start: other bands you’ve befriended, someone’s relative, folks from the street team, or fans on your email list. It behooves you to be gracious and accommodating guests (for the next time around). A lot depends on the length of the tour and your willingness to deal with substandard accommodations.
Setting Up A Tour
One thing that sets independent acts apart from major-label artists is tour support. There is none. Everything about the tour is up to you or your manager to organize.
What’s the length of the tour? The number of shows booked? The number of people traveling? The distance being traveled? How much do you expect to earn? These are some of the basic questions you need to address before determining how you’ll travel, where you’ll stay, how much to budget for gas and meals, etc.
Common sense dictates you book the shows in a coherent order so you’re not back-tracking or traveling too far in one day. And while you want to remain productive, schedule down time, days off, and factor in time to do promotion (interviews, in-stores, handing our flyers) into your itinerary.
Have a check list of items you need to pack and make sure you’ve got them all. And plan on space enough for at least one person to get sleep during travel time.
Stay in touch with the clubs. Send a stage plot and input list to every club as soon as you book the show, and make sure your contact info is included. Call the club two weeks before the show. Make a list of everything you need from the club, including directions, load-in time, set time, and what backline provisions the club is providing (if any).
Also, make sure you know exactly what you are being paid and who to see about collecting your money. Try to work in a free meal and drinks for the band as part of your compensation. It doesn’t cost the club that much to provide you a little something to eat, and it can save you a bunch of money if you can minimize food costs.
One last thing to keep in mind when you play any club at any level: be professional. Your success in the music business depends largely on your ability to network and make fans out of club owners and people in the industry. A good rapport with a good club can lead to better gigs, well-placed opening slots for bigger bands, and better deals in terms of money and perks (meals, drinks, etc.). So be on time, don’t have an attitude, play a great show, and do everything you can to get people in the room.