Getting booked for a gig can be a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum. You oughta have a history of gigging to be appealing to a booker. But if you’ve never played a show, how are you going to get booked in the first place?
Develop a set as well as the relationships you’ll need to put a live performance together, Nicholas Harris of Soul’d Out Productions explains. “Usually that starts with getting together with friends, house parties, DIY type stuff—plugging yourself into the local music scene.”
The music biz is a relationship business. From the working dynamic in your band to the connections you create with industry professionals, “Don’t be afraid to go out and work—push yourselves, get your name out and meet people,” the Crystal Ballroom’s talent buyer Jennifer Carrizo says. “I highly suggest playing all the [local] venues—getting your foot into all the doors out there,” she urges. “Kind of be that squeaky wheel” because no one’s going to come knocking on your door unless you’re out there knocking first.
Build Your Artist Community
“The first fans of artists are other artists,” says Portia Sabin, president of the record label Kill Rock Stars and host of the music industry podcast The Future of What. “You need to have a community network—people who say, ‘Come play this show, come open for me.’” Well-regarded artists in your circle also serve as great references—local gatekeepers are going to heed the advice of a trusted, respected musician over your cold call.
“The easiest way to get a fan base is to be a fan and be supportive” of others in your local community, Harris recommends. “Scenes give birth to big groups that go on to do bigger things. Those scenes can only happen if people are engaged and supportive.” Do not overlook reciprocity—invite a band that helped once to open for you, share others’ concerts on social media, and show up at the gig and be the biggest fan!
Get Out of Town
You’ve played some desirable venues, you’re developing a solid draw and responsive fan base—you’re Portland famous, right?! Do not oversaturate your own market. Start touring regionally: “Play little towns in Oregon, drive up to Seattle,” Dominik Schmidt of Rola Music tells. Looking for new places to play means seeking new audiences. Have you ever played a farmers market, college campus or winery? You’ll find a different crowd at each, and often one that’s not your typical concertgoers.
It can be challenging to simply get out on the road so you just have start somewhere! Define some basic parameters: How many days or weeks do you want to tour? How far do you want to drive? “We started with a spreadsheet and made a list of all the places that we knew we had a free place to stay,” Sarah Vitort of folk duo Fox and Bones says. That became their tour outline “because that saves you a lot of money when you can stay with family or friends.”
Consult Your Network
Use that wonderful music community you’ve built! Musician friends surely have tales of success (and woe) you can learn from and are more than willing to offer advice. Ask friends and family in other cities if they’ll host a house show or if they have a favorite place they’d recommend—whether it’s a bar, brewery or nontraditional venue.
“My fun trick that I do is I see the route and see where there’s open space. Then I will type in ‘best live music bar Savannah, Georgia’ and I’ll just reach out—cold email every single person,” Vitort tells. “Sometimes I send out 20 to 50 emails a day, and maybe get one or two back, but if you do that daily all over the country you can put together a pretty hefty tour for yourself.”
From the booker’s perspective, Carrizo says, “I’m always grateful for the bands that are constantly emailing me: ‘Hey, do you have anything?’ Because eventually, I will.” That comes with a caveat: You need to have put in the work to be deserving of the opportunity. So don’t expect that you’ll be taking the Crystal stage just by emailing—unless those emails demonstrate your progression. In your local market, the dive bar is a stepping stone to the intimate but hip club to the opening slot for the headliner, and so on.
In the age of the internet, it’s also so easy to see the tour routing of artists that are similar to you—or the bands you aspire to be! Simply save their schedules. “I screenshot everybody’s tour posters,” Vitort says.
And when you’re out there, be a chameleon. “There are seven nights a week that you can play shows,” says Scott Gilmore, the other half of Fox and Bones. “Between house shows, bars, bookstores, coffee shops, breweries or wineries, if you’re flexible and you can move your music a little bit based on where you’re playing”—amp it up in the louder, active environment and tone it down in a quieter spot—“you can fit into all those different gigs” and “work every night of the week if you want to.”
Also, “be willing to negotiate on your bottom line,” Vitort adds. Is a venue offering food or lodging? If so, that’ll save you some money so maybe you can rationalize playing for less.
Remember: “We’re all people on the same level,” Vitort says. “Part of your job as an entertainer is the offstage stuff and making those connections.” You’ll definitely sell more merch if you hang around the merch table—and make more friends! “If you’re nice, they might want to stick around and listen to you,” says Eli Howard of country rockers Brass Tacks.
Get Paid For Playing Your Music
Life hack alert! If you’re registered with a performing rights organization (which you absolutely should be—like ASCAP, BMI or SESAC), “You can register your set,” Gilmore says. “Every time your song is played live, you get a cut and that includes yourself playing it.” Yep, that’s right: “You get paid to play your own songs,” Vitort says—and it adds up!
Set Rational Expectations
You’re not going to be raking in the dough on your first tour. “It’s absolutely important to get paid but you do have to earn it,” Vitort says. “You have to earn your stripes and you have to be able to prove that you can tour.”
“With music, I don’t let money drive me. I started playing guitar because it’s fun. I started this band because it’s fun,” Howard says. “If making money is what you think is going to make you happy playing music, you’re never going to be happy playing music.” Set goals for yourself that are attainable and “be honest with yourself.”
Ask For Help
“Don’t be afraid to ask. If you feel stuck, there are so many people who could help you,” Schmidt says. “There will be someone who gives you a little hint and that hint will open another door and then the next door.”