Booking….. How to make sure you don’t get the gig

By David Lowry

One of the major issues that we deal with booking whether it be as a talent buyer, booking agent or manager is a band that just doesn’t get it. As a band you have to understand your worth (not what you think you are worth, but actual worth) or whether or not you are relative to the area based on where you are playing. So many bands think they are worth more than they really are which can make it much harder for them to book themselves. This can be a big problem with an act that has success in the past, but hasn’t done much in the last 10 – 20 years. In a perfect world, we would all get paid to play but this isn’t a perfect world and everyone in this business is only as good as the last show or deal. If you aren’t producing the kind of numbers that determine what you think you should be getting paid you won’t. Never out price yourself because you make money in certain markets. What you make at a rally or festival is not what you are going to make at a club.

I think most of us have seen the picture of world-class violin virtuoso Joshua Bell playing at a subway for hours and only making $40. As sad as that is, that was his worth to the people walking by in that area. Why, because people don’t know who he is, they don’t understand his level of talent and he wasn’t entertaining as a spectacle. Was he brilliant in his performance of the music? Absolutely. Did the public care? Absolutely no, they did not. I have told this to many of my bands or friends in bands. Go stand on the street corner and perform to the best of your ability and what you walk away with is what you are worth. Because that is the level of value you brought to the public. If you did great, captured and audience that really stayed and watched you performing and threw money your way then you are on to something. If you only made $40 bucks after hours of street performing well then guess what, you haven’t found the formula that draws people in to actually pay you money because they loved your music and they were entertained. If can’t capture the crowd on your own merits without all the lights, venue and hoopla then the venue is right to not really pay you. All that stuff is just there to enhance your performance. There is no truer test than being without all the lights, speakers and comfort zone standing in front of a crowd and seeing the response to your music.

Please understand this is rarely if ever about how good a musician you are. It’s about how well you perform, entertain, write music, promote and how smart and shrewd a businessperson you are. If it was about talent almost all of would never make a dime compared to the classical, jazz and opera singers out there. They are the most brilliant musicians in reality. The rest of us are just well, musicians.

This is what venues are looking for. They are looking for you to entertain the public and crowd you bring in. This is really effective with a frontman or woman that really knows how to work the crowd. When you do, people have a great time, spend more money and talk about what an awesome time they had listening to your band at that particular venue. That means the venue can now expect this to happen more often and then the price they pay you will go up.  It looks good for you, the venue and the crowd now have another place to hang out and spend their money for entertainment. If you don’t wow the crowd that reflects on you, the venue and the public is left wanting more. This would preclude the venue to not book you again or if they do, not pay you well or at all until you can bring what they are looking for.

When it comes to booking yourself, make sure you can do the above better than anyone else. When you start talking to new markets about your band, don’t assume because you get $1,500 in one market, you will in another. Some venues will pay this, most won’t because they don’t know you, they don’t have any experience with you and if you have never played in the area before, well then you won’t be bringing a crowd either so why should they pay you what you make elsewhere where the opposite is true.

Most often when breaking into a new market you have to take your lumps and work up to your normal fee for performance. You might get your rate, or a bit below or maybe just a door deal because the venue doesn’t want to take a chance on you. This may not be fair to you but it is to them. Please leave all the venue is ripping me off talk out of the equation. All you can worry about is what you can do, bring to the table and make sure you promote very, very well. Don’t assume the venue or promoter will. You worry about you. When you are big enough, in your contracts you can put promotion guidelines other then that, the venue is paying for advertising in their local rags across the country. Most bands don’t pay to promote at all, so don’t say they aren’t promoting. Could it be done better? Yes, but usually by everyone involved not just the venue.

Out pricing yourself because you think you are worth more then you are is the quickest way to lose the gig. This is also very hard on whoever might be booking you and eventually they will just let you go if you don’t get it as it reflects on them and they are putting in so much work to help build you a business just to constantly here you say no. You have to warm up a new market like everyone else when you don’t have radio play or some other major thing happening in your career on a national level to draw attention to you. Learn to be flexible with your pricing and prove to the owner/talent buyer your worth and you will get paid as soon as you knock it out of the park.

Sidenote: If a couple people tell you how great you are, that isn’t enough. Sales must be up, attendance must grow and everyone must be all over you. Don’t let the hype of a couple fans let you think you are doing better than you are or make bad decisions. Be honest with your performance that night and do you best to track your market by getting the numbers on the night if the venue will give you the information.

Good Luck!

  1. Sorry but the venues who usually dont do anything to get people through the door as they should because it is the point of their business but they take advantage of the musicians, Pure crap! Sorry but everyone gets paid and the music potion of the night should also get paid. If venues would get off their asses and do a decent job at getting people through the door seeing that their survival depends on it they would be doing a lot better for themselves but they sit on their thumbs and expect the bands to do all the work while everyone else gets a cut of the bands hard work, that is b.s. Stop taking advantage of musicians and get off your ass and do something besides write articles. I am not saying bands dont have to do their part but not all the work for hardly any of the money. If everyone gets paid the band should get paid and if the band spends money on advertising and hours on the street promoting they should get paid for that and a flat rate on top of that for doing the work and being the venues entertainment for the night. Enough of this laziness from everyone else and putting it all on musicians, that is garbage. If you dont like what I have to say to bad I will stand up for myself as a musician and stop letting everyone live off of my efforts Their are venues that get it and work together with artist then there are the rest that are pretty much crooks scumbags that leave it all to the musician and expect to take the majority of the money. How bout I come to your job and you can do all your work load and I’ll take 90% of what you do? How about that.

    • Jimmy,

      Thank you for reading and replying to my blog! You are certainly entitled to your opinion for sure. I don’t agree with it as per my experience but I can’t deny yours! Best of luck to you in your musical endeavors!


  2. I would normally say the truth is somewhere in the middle. What I’m finding is that even when you do “knock it out of the park”, the venues are still refusing to play ball and doing everything ethical and unethical to hold fees down. There is some heavy duty collusion going down in the Midwest that brought down the pay for top bands, killed the mid-line rooms, and overstocked the entry stages, ensuring 75% of the musicians are performing for “exposure” rather than food on the table/roof overhead/clothes on your back/gas in your tank – cash.

    Whether it is unscrupulous dealings with certain agent monopolies, reverse pay-to-play scams, or charging a high cover at the front door (while the venue walks their regulars through the back door); it just isn’t what it was and it’s only getting worse. $100 a man might have been respectable money for a bar band in the late ’70’s; but these days, clubs aren’t paying some of their bands $100. Clubs cry about expenses, but bands have expenses too. Who’s going to get the promo photos, fliers, strings, cables, transportation, and equipment? You feel like hauling and installing a full p.a. for $30? At $4 a gallon, it is also a blast to make two visits to the “outposts”; first to hang your fliers and promo a few weeks ahead of the gig; and then a week before the gig to make sure your promo is still up, looks fresh, and is still legible to all but the most drunk patrons… while shaking hands, chatting up patrons, and selling the upcoming show.

    There is some heavy collusion going down in the Midwest, and a sense of entitlement on both sides of the negotiating table.

    Bands can use mailing lists and Facebook friends for an idea of their fanbase; but a talent buyer has to be an idiot to think this info is reliable… Musicians often forget that performance is a service industry; making poor setlist choices, getting too drinky/druggy before the show, having an attitude towards venue staff/patrons, or being under-rehearsed/inappropriate for a venue hurts the worthy bands that play that club in terms of reputation and money. Perhaps a better message to send a bad band is to cut them at the first break or the midpoint; rather than letting them finish the evening; otherwise how will they know they’re bad?! (Because they are using the previous gigs to sell future gigs, and do not have the information or the constructive criticism that makes the act better)…

    Conversely, if a band doesn’t necessarily draw big numbers, but keeps the existing crowd in place for an extra 2 hours than originally intended; there is value in that. But clubs don’t want to admit this. Like the open letter that has been going around, the chef’s family isn’t eating every meal in that restaurant. (Given most restaurant policies, this scenario would end up costing the restaurant money rather than helping them profit.) It is unrealistic to think a band can count on the same 100 people coming to every show. [And let’s face it, some people aren’t able to go because of other obligations, while others will skip shows in particular venues where they don’t like the environs or don’t feel treated well.]

    What’s lost in the Joshua Bell experiment, is that the night before (and many nights afterward) he returned to his ‘day’ job, playing concerts (with his name on the marquee) where many of the seats were priced at $100 and above. If he had to rely on the subway, a street corner, or a Potbelly’s to be paid for his skill, he wouldn’t be able to maintain his monstrous abilities; and likely would’ve been forced to work the kind of day job that eventually eats the souls and soils the dreams of most young creatives.

    Sorry. My 2-cents grew into a quarter here, but there is nothing simple about this subject and personal experiences may vary from market to market. There is enough blame to go around. I can appreciate a little tough love for musicians from time to time, but this article needed to reflect more than just “claim before blame” for creative folks.

  3. 3FP,

    Thanks for your comments! First let me start by saying this wasn’t a tough love blog at all. My other ones are much more tough love than this. Second of all, what was left out about Joshua Bell is irrelevant as it doesn’t apply to this blog. It simply shows that no matter who you think you are, that doesn’t mean the public thinks you are all that. When he gets in front of “his” audience he makes decent money but even at $100 a ticket that is way to cheap for someone of his caliber.

    Secondly, I stand by what I say, do you know why? Because I do it everyday. I deal with venues, promoters, agents everyday and no matter where you live this is pretty much the case. Bands that have a following and can produce don’t have this issue. Bands that don’t produce do have an issue. After reviewing your website and your videos I can see why you are struggling here. I would recommend that you update your stuff to be as up to date as possible. I know that’s not easy especially when it comes to having money to get it all done, but to get more money from your gigs you have to at least look at the top of the class. You have no facebook or twitter account that I can see so there are no social media numbers for a venue or talent buyer to go by as far was your fan base and your videos have almost not views at all and the video is a one camera shoot of you not performing to an audience. I would highly recommend you do a quality shoot of one of your packed nights so the talent buyers see this. I would stop playing clubs that require you to bring your own PA unless you have a history there that makes it worth it. Very few venues only pay $40 dollars after you have been there a couple times so I am not going to say this is really a venue issue. If you are doing door deals all the time the only way to break that is pack it out consistently or find a booking agent that can help you. This will also all depend on whether you are doing originals and covers. Hopefully you have a really nice EPK that you are sending to talent buyers to grab their attention!

    I am sorry your experience has been so negative but most bands that are making it have a decent guarantee and only need a show or two in the next market before the venues that do pay what they their worth.

    These blogs are here to help the struggling musician but like I say in many of my other blogs, your image is everything and if your band doesn’t look label ready (whether you want a label or not), you won’t command a guarantee at all unless you pack a place out consistently. That means 300 people in a 300 capacity venue, not 30, 50 or 100. Consistently. Many bands have done this over the years no matter what collusion you believe to be going on. Learn what venues are able to pay, do promote well and then send them the best you got to try and get in there.

    Keep up the hard work though! My blog is just my opinion and I wish you the best!