Adventures in Booking: A Guide to Getting a Show

Jessica Smith is Web QA Engineer at Harmonix. When not… web QA engineering… Jessica books metal shows in the greater Boston area, so she actually kind of knows what she is talking about. Also, Jessica can WAY out-drink you, so don’t even try.

The hard part is over. You’ve gotten a band together and written some songs. Now you’re ready to play some shows but you don’t have the faintest idea of where to start. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be on your way to stardom in no time.

Shameless self-promotion
The first thing you want to do is make up a small promo package to hand out at no cost. This should include a demo with a couple songs, a short bio and a link to a MySpace page if you’ve got one. Go to as many local shows as you can and hand these things out to everyone! In this cutthroat scene it’s all about networking and schmoozing.

Read up on the local message boards and pay attention to flyers in the record stores. Many times a show will be booked without an opening band right away. Take this opportunity to email the promoter and sell yourself; just don’t assume they already know who you are. As a promoter myself, there have been far too many times where I’ve received emails stating nothing more than, “Book my band, we f**king rock!” I have no idea who these people are, what they sound like or if they really even exist. Be sure to include a link to your music and a good reason for them to book you. And don’t even think about asking for money.

You’re not famous yet, so…
I once booked a show where the first thing a band said to me upon introduction was, “When do we get paid?” Obviously, money is good and we all dream about making a living as a rock star, but if you aspire to only play shows that guarantee a big payout, you’re on the fast track to failing. Of course, some promoters will throw you some gas money or even more, but don’t ever expect or demand it, especially not right away.

Don’t expect to get on a good bill from the beginning. Surely you know someone with a basement. Set up an informal gathering of friends and have them come check you out. Chances are, they’ll tell some friends how awesome you are and then at least your name will be floating around out there.

You’re not a rock star just yet, so don’t act like one! When offered a gig, just take it, even if you’re sharing the stage with some bands that you don’t particularly care for. If you gain a reputation of being a snob, no one will ever want to book you again. Also, don’t complain if you’re not happy with the time slot assigned to you. I’ve booted several bands off my bill because I just didn’t want to deal with the drama. Unless you’re the headlining band, chances are the people aren’t there to see you anyway. Just be happy that your name is on the flyer. If you’re really that good, you’ll wow the audience no matter what time you go on stage.

Finding a Venue
The reality is that it’s all about who you know, and unfortunately, going into clubs and forcing your CD upon the club owner may not be sufficient these days. Ask around in the scene for names of people who might book you, and email them directly. Namedropping is generally a good thing in this situation. Let the promoter know that you’re serious about playing shows and won’t disappoint (even if you plan on disappointing).

Get to know what each club charges for the night. Admittedly, I did not check this at the last show I booked, and got a pretty big shock at the end of the night as I was counting my money. I had to pay most of the bands out of my own pocket.

Try to find venues that cater to all-ages shows. VFW halls are usually pretty cheap, if not free. Be creative! Some friends of mine used to book metal shows at the Girl Scout House in town, and all they had to do was make one phone call. The town never let us play there again after that, but at least we got one gig out of it!

Promote, Promote, Promote!
No matter who booked the show, you or someone else, promoting is your number one priority. Get a copy of the flyer or make your own, and start vandalizing! Throw a stack in the local (and non-local, if you have access) record and skate shops. Staple flyers to telephone poles and tape them on the inside of bathroom stalls. Go to other shows and hand out flyers to everyone there. Call radio stations and ask them to plug your show. Sky is the limit.

Know the rules and stick to them!
Make sure you know what time to show up and where and when to load all of your equipment in. Often times you’ll be instructed to show up several hours before the doors open. Abide by the rules!

And while we’re on the subject… make sure you show up and play! Bands drop off a bill more times than you’d think and it can ruin it for the rest of the bands and the promoter, who stand to lose a lot of money. Sh*t does happen, though, and you’ll probably be forgiven if your van explodes on the highway. But if you’re just home with a tummy ache, take some Pepto and suck it up. I was at a basement show once where the vocalist of one of the bands was sick and ended up vomiting at our feet. Another time I had a band play whose bassist had broken his hand the day before and still managed to show up and rock. That’s dedication.

The bottom line is that you can’t just sit around and wait for promoters to come to you. If you want to be a rock star, you have to do the leg work. Your hard work will be much appreciated by others and you will certainly reap the benefits in the long run.