For Starters: The Do's of Booking Gigs

Lately I've been receiving many messages from people asking how they can book gigs.  Now I should make it clear from the get go that I am not a booking agent.  In other words, I don't book other artists or bands for paid shows, nor do I have a desire to do so.  But I do play many shows each year in a solo, duo and band formats, and over the years have done business with a range of venues from large and small, top notch and unprofessional, supportive and not supportive, rowdy and chill, and the list goes on.  I'm flattered people come to me asking for help and this blog post is intended to do that.

Often when someone asks, "how can I get gigs" (or more gigs or something along those lines), I like to know how they've tried to get in places, what style(s) of music they play, how long they can play for, do they have anything for others to see like a website--because these are the exact same questions a venue hiring any musician would ask.  And while I don't like saying this, there's a sense that they just want me to tell them who to talk to without knowing there are many ins and outs of getting a gig.

While this may not be a comprehensive list of how to go about booking gigs, below is a lot of information on what I've come to see as key "to do" elements of booking.  Whether you play covers or originals, the advice I'm giving works in both cases.  Let me add that this is in the context of working mainly in the Washington, DC metropolitan area and having done a couple tours in the northeast and southeast states.

1. Getting a gig is A LOT like applying for a job.

This is a good place to start.  You are trying to get hired out of a sea of musicians, so treat getting a gig just as you would apply for a job.  The difference being you're doing it with much greater frequency since each gig is it's own job in a sense.

So be ready to answer questions.  Be ready to present yourself well enough in order to prove you are worth them taking a chance on you.  Be ready for rejection (there is A LOT of this).  Be ready to keep your expectations in check and your ego at the door.  Realize nothing is guaranteed.  There may be one little thing they pick up on, misinterpret, or whatever it may be that causes them to not hire you.

Here's a list of things you'll need when "applying" for gigs:

- sample of your music (duh)
- a website
- a bio
- business cards
- EPK (this is usually used for original gigs)
- videos
- if asking in person, a concise way to describe yourself, your music, the type of show/performance you give, and a thankful attitude

2. Get started at open mics. 

Open mics are a great place to start developing your talents BEFORE you try booking gigs.  They help gauge your talents and improve upon them.  As to what exactly is talent is a matter of opinion of course.  Some musicians have natural talent from the start.  Others have to evolve, work on songs, improve how they perform, and gain confidence.  

There are other benefits of starting at open mics.  For one, most allow you to play whatever you'd like (usually anywhere from 1-5 songs depending on turnout).  So if original music is your thing, just play it.  Open mics are a great source of experience as well.  Especially because you're being put up in a live setting in front of an audience and showing a side of you that is vulnerable to being judged. 

My overall point here is open mics are often the first step in learning how to perform, behave, get feedback, and be in a live music setting without the hassle of trying to get a gig.  Go to as many as you can because they are also a networking resource too! 

Sometimes open mics offer what is called a "featured spot/artist/act".  A featured act is a musician who during the open mic (usually in the middle) gets a longer set and has a chance to be in the spotlight a bit more.  I do this with one of my open mics as an incentive for musicians to take the next step into playing a longer show (or set) compared to 1-5 songs they'd normally get at the open mic.  To jump from doing a few songs to a 2-3 (or more) hour show is not realistic, so I've found it helps musicians build up stamina on stage. 

3. Make Time and Patience Your Friend.

I find too many people have an expectation that they can get lots of gigs right away.  Or that it's gotta be easy to gig.  That is far from the truth for most musicians.  Building up your music career takes time and patience.  So get used to that.  Keep plugging away if you really want to be good enough to play anywhere. 

I can say from experience that when I started playing solo almost 10 years ago, I thought I was good enough for a couple venues.  But to them I wasn't.  In fact (and I'm not naming venue names) it took me 3-4 years to get into them.  Instead of brushing them off, you have to earn it--and by it I mean their trust, their money, and their respect.  Keep the door open as long as you can.

4. Are you "Gig Ready"?

This is a term I made up and being "Gig Ready" involves many things that can be summed up in a list.  If you can't check all of these off, you are not "Gig Ready".

- A pitch or "elevator speech" that you use when reaching out or in person to tell someone about your music.
- All the equipment you need to play live (instruments, mics, stands, a sound system, monitor to name a few things).  Most venues do not provide these things.
- Extra strings, cords and back up stuff in case anything goes wrong.
- Transportation to and from the gig.
- Enough songs to fill the time you're asked to play.
- Certainty on running sound (whether yours or not).
- A good attitude.

There are probably more items, but this is a good checklist to note for anyone from pros to novices.

5. The "Fit".

If you were a country artist and went into a heavy metal venue asking for a gig, that would not make sense, right?  Be aware of where you may and may not fit.  Not all venues hire just anyone to play.  You have to be the right "fit" to play there. 

A few things to take note of when it comes to "fit".  Some venues want strictly cover songs and others original songs.  Others allow both.  And then it comes down to stylistically what you do.  Upbeat or slow, the type(s) of genre(s) you play, the demographic of your fan base as well as the demographic of customers in the crowd, how loud the music is allowed to be set, and your personality on and off stage.

Also how you treat staff, bartenders, and management, the customers, and how you sound to everyone matters too.  The opinion others have of you can make or break it.  You'll have to learn, and it is hard, to take criticism as a musician.  If you lose a gig because of you were not the right fit it may be your music or it may be something about your personality that rubs someone the wrong way.  It will happen and it's not fun to deal with but comes with the territory.  Many venues will write down notes about how you did which get passed up the chain to decision makers. 

To get a sense of your "fit" find other musicians in the area, go see them at a variety of venues and see what they play, how they act, and perform in different situations.  It's okay to chat with whomever is booking music to ask questions about what they look for too.  Get the knowledge ahead of time before you waste lots of time hitting up places that don't want to work with you in the end.

6. Booking Agents.

A booking agent is someone who connects a venue with a variety of musicians to play that venue.  There are different ways in which they work.  Sometimes a venue is exclusive with a booking agent (meaning they book every show there).  Other times, they are one of several ways of bringing music into a venue.  As a musician, you will have to pay them a commission fee for any gig they get you.  On average these are 15% of what you make, but can go up to 20% or as low as 10%.

I will say from my experience, and I'm being careful saying this, using booking agents can be tough at times.  For one, they are booking 40, 50, 60+ people every month and it is difficult to get their attention sometimes.  You may have to manage them more than they manage you.  And you quickly learn there are many rules around how they book and sometimes there are territory wars between booking agents and musicians on who's allowed to work with whom at a venue (I won't get into this).

For me, booking agents help fill in gaps in my schedule after I book much on my own.  Last year (2015) around 30% of all my shows were through a few agencies, however other artists use them much more than that.

7. Google It.

How do you know where to play and who is playing where?  Google it!  These days it's fairly simple to see what venues are doing live music and to find out who is playing them.  Just by doing this you can target when to possibly go see a show in action, see how often other artists are playing certain venues, and get a sense of what a venue is like.

8. Network.

Relationship, relationships, relationships.  Much of starting a career gigging is about the relationships you make.  Being professional entails many things and you'll have to develop your own version, standards, and meaning in what that means.  Being grateful and humble can also help. 

You should focus networking efforts not only on making nice with venues, but also with other musicians as well.  Always make sure to have a business card, a solid way to describe yourself and music, and grab contact information as much as you can.  Remember impressions matter a lot and your reputation does follow you.  Trust me, people talk!

Networking is a topic that I can talk about at length, but at the end of the day the foundation for relationships you build will make or break your music career.  So strive for the best of intentions not just for yourself, but those around you in the music community.  As a musician in the Washington, DC area, I'm a very grateful that musicians look out for one another, recommend each other for gigs, and are close knit most times.  I have seen that musicians not having those characteristics not to be respected leading to bad business.

9. Draw.

If you're looking to play at a venue wanting original music, they will ask you what is your draw?  This question will definitely come up if you are trying to sell tickets.  What is draw?

Draw is how many people you can bring in (or the number of tickets you can sell).  It all depends on your fan base to give the venue a number.  Of course, when you answer that number is approximate, so I find it best to respond with a range of people you realistically can bring in.  Never lie to a venue about your draw, because if you do and fall short, they won't have you back in most cases.

There are a couple other ways to view draw.  One, don't go at it completely alone for a room you know you cannot fill.  Be an opening act or if you are the headlining act, have opening musicians who can bring people out.  That will help as long as everyone is on the same page about the draw.  And second, for venues needing a draw, space out your shows before and after.  Make it seem like an exclusive event for your fans, because you will need them there at that one moment in time.

10. Talk to the right person.

My last piece of advice is to make sure you talk with the right person--the one who makes the decisions on booking gigs.  They should have the answers for you and information about gigging at the venue.  I also find it helpful to try and get to know this person.  Not just on a professional level, but also a personal one.  They're a fellow human being too, so just be real with them. 

Sometimes the right person will leave, and it can be like starting over again with the venue.  It can be frustrating, but it's a new relationship that has to be fostered to continue playing the venue.  In any event though, when talking to the right person here are the questions I always ask about playing a gig there:

- What day of the week is the gig?
- What are the hours of the gig?
- Do I need to bring my own sound system or do you have your own?
- What is the gig paying (this falls under a whole separate topic of negotiating pay)?
- How early can I arrive?
- Is there a tab or discount you give musicians on food/drink?
- Are you okay with short breaks between sets?
- Can I have a tip jar?
- Can I sell my own music/merchandise or is there a merch table I can set up (mainly for original shows)?
- Where will I be setting up?

As I mentioned, this is not a comprehensive list, but covers a lot of ground that occurs all the time in getting gigs.  Along with playing music, there is an art to getting gigs, and much of it involves interacting with other people, convincing them, and in the long-run having a good reputation that they can rely on.  If you have questions or comments, feel free to leave them below to start a discussion.  Best of luck in your gig ventures!