When it comes to booking that first gig, there’s no age limit. And when it comes to securing a performance in a live music venue, the same strategy applies whether you’re a new solo artist, a teenager starting your first rock band or a group of middle-aged joy pickers longing to take your Sunday classic rock jams out of the garage and onto the stage.
Here are 10 things to consider:
• Develop a repertoire: If you’re a solo artist or an emerging band creating original material, it’s likely your first performances will consist of a single set, so develop a performance of 45 to 60 minutes and polish it to the point where you feel absolutely comfortable playing the material. It’s likely that your comfort is going to erode the first time you take the stage in front of strangers. Knowing your repertoire will vastly increase your comfort level. If you’re a solo act or frontman, consider practicing speaking to an audience as you rehearse your music. That may seem silly or awkward in front of bandmates, but they’re not the ones who are going to have to charm the crowd between songs or as the drummer puts duct tape on his broken kick pedal. Be aware that most bands playing covers of classic rock, metal, country or other genres need to play multiple sets to get booked into a room, since venues that features such bands typically hire just one group per night. That’s a lot of work, but there’s a payoff. Cover bands make more money than original artists — at least right out of the box.
• Record a demo: New artists who play originals or covers should have at least a three-song demo. You need to hear what your music sounds like from somewhere other than the eye of the storm to gain perspective on your strong and weak points. If you’re an original artist you should have something to give to interested music biz types should you have the good fortune to have somebody other than your mom or girlfriend/boyfriend express interest in your career. And, of course, you need to have some way for club booking agents to hear what you sound like. This demo needn’t be fancy, but it should be clear. If you’re a solo act or perform at low volumes, a live recording made on a Zoom or similar portable recorder should do the trick. If your sonics come closer to the firestorm level, you can rent or buy a decent microphone or two as well as an interface and record track-by-track on GarageBand of similar laptop software.
• Post a video: These days most booking agents want to see a band live, and that’s why posting a performance video on YouTube or some other site is essential. They will want to see that link. This can be a Catch 22. If you’ve never played a gig before, a video of your band practicing in a garage isn’t very sexy. And if you are playing out, a video featuring a pan from the stage to an empty club isn’t going to help much either. Filming a video is easy. An iPhone performance will do. But don’t post anything that minimizes you or your music.
• Have a web site: It’s best to have a stand-alone web site, which can be established fairly easily and inexpensively using software like WordPress and paying a small annual fee to a hosting company. The site should at minimum include photos, a bio, MP3s, video links and a listing of upcoming shows. The advantage of a stand-alone site is that you control it; there’s no corporation dictating its format or censoring and changing content. But if you’d rather go the free route, Facebook is still the standard. There are other social media sites available, although MySpace generally seems to be about bands spamming other bands these days. Music resource pay sites like ReverbNation and SonicBids may also be worth investigating, depending on your goals.
• Research venues: Before you approach a room, make sure it’s correct for your music. You can do this by going to a lot of music venues in your area and scoping out the ones you feel would best fit your needs at present, or, if you want to play away from home, visiting clubs on line. See if the artists they book are congruent with your style. If you can draw 20 people, don’t try to get a gig at a 200-capacity club. If you don’t have a PA, be sure the rooms you’re investigating are equipped with sound. If your audience is older and enjoys sitting, find a place with tables. Think about what is required to create the best experience for yourself, your friends/fans and the venue.
• Target specific booking agents: Any clubs where you are likely to get a gig will feature contact information for their booking agents on their web sites, and the most artist-friendly tend to provide a specific person’s name. If a name is given, use it in every approach. This is not just polite; it proves you are paying attention. Chances are if a venue does not list how to contact its agent, that agent is not open to new talent unless it is offered through a booking agency — or there’s a good-old-boy system in place, where a rotating line-up of artists friendly to that venue are exclusively featured. Don’t waste your time, at least initially, trying to get into rooms that are secretive about how to contact their agent. Look for phone numbers and email addresses on club web sites and use them. If a club specifies a preference for email, go that route first and call if you get no response after a few weeks. If you know the agent’s name, visit the club and try to introduce yourself if that’s practical.
• Be polite and persistent: If your email isn’t answered within a few days, keep waiting. Send no more than one email per week. More than that, and your messages become spam. And after a month if you get no response, take the hint. The agent is either too busy to read your email or doesn’t care to. Either way, that’s a “no.” If you call and the agent picks up, be polite, explain who you are, the name and style of your band and why you think you should be playing that venue. A real reason can be a selling point. Perhaps you’re a perfect match for the club’s preferred style, or everybody in your 300 member AA group will come. Whatever it is, sell yourself politely and don’t barrage the person your want to speak with, but don’t just send one email or make one call and surrender. Turn over as many stones as possible.
• Ask about payment: Sure, you’re excited about playing, but ask about compensation. That’s part of developing professionalism. Artists deserve to be paid for their work, and as you continue to evolve and develop your craft, your terms of payment should ideally improve. Don’t be unrealistic in your initial expectations, since you might be playing an audition night or a similar arrangement where nobody gets paid at first. Here’s a suggestion: if somebody tells you that you need to pay them to play their club, either with a direct fee or by buying a specific number of tickets, walk away. These people are victimizing vulnerable, formative artists and are one of they music business’ many variations of the schoolyard bully. They suck.
• Promote your show: The work is not over once you book the gig. Reaching out to your friends and fans via email and social media is a must, and make a few flyers or posters for the club and other strategic locations. Make some phone calls, too, and call in favors if it’s an important show. And be sure to submit the gig info to your local newspapers’ listings sections along with a picture. Not all clubs are good about doing that, but most newspapers try to be comprehensive in theirs listings and if you get lucky they might run a photo, too.
• Deliver the goods: Try to have perspective on your music and be ready to perform before you schedule your first show. Turning in a good show goes a long way toward having more good shows.