Updated: Feb 25, 2019
Booking is always in the back of a musicians mind. Playing out is where all the fun is! (I am one of those that hates being in a studio, nothing beats playing for awesome folks in new places).
Picking up shows in a new area can be tricky though. I have a few tips/tricks that always seem to work for me. None of these are going to make you famous or rake in all the big bucks, but going in to a new area is an investment. You have to start somewhere.
Speaking of an investment, you wouldn't only invest in something once (not if you want it to grow). So when you start booking an area, make some plans to head back through in 3 months or so. You are going to start picking up fans, and they are going to want you to come back. As soon as you start putting 6 months to a year between visits, things are going to get harder. Once you're a big shot, that may change, but we are looking at this from an independent stance just breaking into the area.
1. Go to Open Mics
This may seem like a no brainer, but lets break it down a bit more. If you are a regular at your local open mic you can notice a few things that will translate to any open mic anywhere!
- There is a community there. It takes time to be noticed and part of that community. Some are more welcoming than others (Akron, OH for example is the best!). Finding out who the folks are, what local bands they play in, what local bands they love, etc. This is awesome stuff. You may find a new favorite band and make some incredible friends in music. Ask questions and really listen. This is what it's all about.
- Get to know the host. Typically the hosts are tied into the music scene on a higher level. They are either a well known player, booker, or someone who really knows the local scene. They will be a treasure trove of information. (Who to reach out to?, what bands to support?, what venues to hit up or avoid?, where to stay?, the list goes on).
- Test your songs out. It's not always doable to drive to a new city just for an open mic, especially on a tight budget. However if you do find one that you go to, play some songs! See how they are received. Towns often have a handful of genres that always seem to kill, so feel it out.
In general Open Mics are a huge resource for connecting with the community. It's not always feasible to just drive to an open mic, so keep that in mind. Sometimes the best thing is to just google open mics in the city you're interested in, finding the host, and shooting them a message. Sometimes you are already out on the road and have a night off, consider searching out an open mic instead of just hanging around.
2. Connect with Local Bands
Who is going to know the area better than a band that plays there? This is such a huge thing in growing a community. Search who is playing in the city that you want to hit up and reach out.
- I have yet to meet a local band that isn't in love with music and the art that they are creating. After all that is why we are doing this right? Help each other! Just how you want to go to their city, maybe they want to check out yours? Show sharing!!
- Show sharing is huge, but the thing is it needs to be fair. You can't always offer to open for a local band with a huge draw in their town if you can't offer something similar in your town. If you get to the point where you are talking logistics make it fair. If they can get you a show that has a solid crowd and pays, they deserve the same value when you help line up a show for them in your city.
- Ask them their opinion. Even if you can't connect on a show they are going to know local venues on a whole other level. Ask them about venues booking policies, crowd behavior (built in, ticketed draw, etc.), pay-outs, gear needed, and so on. Think of all the stuff you had to learn by frequenting your local establishments, and note what you would of loved to know ahead of time. A local act can hook you up with that info.
- Share the love. Local musicians are notorious for hooking each other up. With shows, food, places to crash. Do the same in your neighborhood. If you see or hear of a new band rolling through, go check out their show and see if you can help them with anything. Make friends and keep growing that network. It's all about who you know (an overused phrase, but so so true).
3. Flash the Venues Your Professionalism
You aren't the only one trying to get into that cool city or that awesome venue for new players. Almost every town has those venues that really care about the musicians and kick ass for helping traveling acts. That said, they still need to run a business and make money too.
- Check out their schedule and see if that have some open dates that fit with your schedule. Just sending a message to a venue saying you want to play is pointless. They are too busy to go look you up, see what they have, see which bills you would fit on etc. So do a little leg work on that. The best thing is to pitch an entire night to them. Connect with a local band, get some dates, shoot the venue the details you think would work for everyone, and share an EPK of some sort. Videos work wonders, so the venue can not only hear, but see what your music/show looks like.
- Ask the venue where they normally publicize their shows. This shows them you are serious about helping get some bodies in the door, even if you have a weak draw. Also you may get a list of marketing spots that you can push future shows to. This let's you gauge the quality of the venue too. It's a team effort for pushing a show, the musician needs to make sure they are working the standard channels, but so does the venue. I never have had a good experience with a venue that relies completely on the acts to draw, they need to be vested in their regulars and retaining customers (that's how businesses work).
- Say thank you like crazy. It's always a gamble booking an out of town group, especially the first time. Let them know how much it means to you. Connect with the owners and staff, any regulars, and help them push their message if it aligns with yours. Everyone is trying to just do what they love and what puts food on the table (or pays for that next instrument). You may have a shit night with low attendance, but if everyone at the venue likes you and recognizes you appreciate them that will help establish a working relationship. Ultimately that working relationship is going to have to generate a profit for both parties, or it's not sustainable. That can take time, so strive to enjoy working together and being open in expectations and communication.
- Keep track of everything. Excel or google sheets is your friend. Note the venue name, contact, address, website, pay, gear needed, and any other notes. This is going to help so much when you are ready to go back for another visit.
This just scratches the surface of all the methods that people employ out there. It's not always going to be easy, and some of these things may not work at all. It's practice, the same as everything else. The more you do it, try, fail, learn, all of it get's easier, promise. I know I am happy to help a fellow musician in anyway I can, shoot me a message and let's chat! I'm not famous or rich, but that doesn't mean I can't share what I have learned.
Anything you think of that I missed? Have a tip that you want to share? Add it in the comments.
Ben Gage is a songwriter from Akron, OH.
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