|Besides the definition of pay-to-play, the biggest argument for musicians and promoters concerns promotion, and who is responsible. Blaming the “other guy” seems to be their solution. The P2P advocates claim it’s solely the responsibility of the musician, which is one of their primary justifications to do presale shows. Some musicians claim that only the promoter should promote. In my experience, it’s up to everybody to work together as a team, promoter and musician, in order to get the word out. But the reason that there is such controversy about this is because it is damn near impossible to promote pay-to-play shows. And the pay-to-play companies are up front about admitting it. They spam email ten new, unknown bands for a show that’s more expensive than normal shows on a dead-night like Sunday. They realize it’s impossible to get the average person off the street to attend something like that. The only way they can possibly get any attendance is to have the bands personally sell tickets to their families and friends. I want to go through some of the misconceptions about promotion and how it works without resorting to presale. In fact, it is much more effective than presale.
BEFORE WE START
If you haven’t already also see WHAT IS A PROMOTER AND WHAT SHOULD THEY DO?
P2P PROMOTERS WON'T PROMOTE
In other local promotion situations, sometimes people like to play “bigshot promoter". They bask in the prestige of being in charge of a show, but don’t have the experience to successfully pull it off. Therefore, it’s easier to have the bands just sell tickets. They get credit/notoriety for putting on the show while taking no risk. There's also the "instant entrepreneur", who seems to think that booking shows would be an easy way to make a living in the "music industry".
Still others actually believe presales is the only way a show can work. The national pay-to-play promoters have worked years to convince everyone on the idea that the only way to properly promote is to have bands sell tickets. They’ve been somewhat successful and some people have accepted that misconception. These new local promoters truly believe that promotion is the job of the bands they hired. They argue that promotion is only the responsibility of the musicians.
National companies like Gorilla Music and Afton Shows have devoted entire websites to “helping” bands with advice on promotion. Even though some of it mirrors what I’m saying, their end result is mostly that “better promotion brings better ticket sales.” Their definition of networking equals presale. No matter how they try to frame it, the main objective is to get you to sell more tickets (turn in more money). Of course, the reality is that if they really gave you instructions on how to promote without presales, they would be out of business! They certainly wouldn’t want that to happen!
|SOMETHING TO SELL
Promotion is the art of selling. The first rule of promotion is that you need something of value to sell. This is true for most everything, including selling people on the idea of seeing your band. There needs to be something for you to sell, and what you have to sell is a great show. Of course music is important, but I believe that entertainment (and connection to the audience) is vital to becoming a popular live act. Look at any successful band playing today, or even years ago. They all have one thing in common. They put on a hell of a show. No matter what the style of music, they connect with people. As a concert goer, when the show is over you should be thrilled that you spent money and made the effort to be there. And that’s what each and every band must work toward. Watch other popular local bands. Watch national acts. Watch anybody who performs on a stage. See why they are successful. It’s important to be the band you would like to see. Always remember: The show’s the thing. This is showbiz, and besides musicianship if the emphasis isn’t also on making the show exciting (the connection to your audience), you won’t have as much to promote. Many pay-to-play advocates discount this but I say it is the most vital aspect of promotion. You gotta have something to promote, so developing a good product (that exciting show) should be your first order of business.
VIVA LA DIFFERENCE
START AT THE BOTTOM AND WORK UP
Be realistic. Nobody starts at the top. The P2P promoters will try to give you a shot at a big club before you are ready, as long as you pay for it. But you didn’t earn that. You just had enough ticket money to pay them for it. And in the long run that won’t do you any good, especially with real promoters. This needs to be an organic process. You need to learn your craft and it has to start with little shows. Being on stage is as vital as being a good musician. Stage craft is something you have to learn by doing. Play parties, little clubs and bars, rented halls, and anything to get you in front of people (and yes, you’ll play for free once in awhile). This is the training you need to play the bigger venues. When you play the smaller shows you will start to gather a fanbase. It normally starts out with family and friends, but as long as you are working hard to play good, entertaining shows, it doesn’t take long for more people to join in. These people are gold so treat them like it. From the minute you pull up to the venue until you load out after the show, you are an ambassador for your band. Don’t be pushy, just be friendly. (For more suggestions see Playing Without Paying) Remember this is a marathon and not a sprint. This process takes time but it really is the only true way of gaining people who show up to see you. Take the time!
CLIMB THE LADDER - GETTING INTO THE SYSTEM
The idea is to always become a band who is in demand, who people are talking about. In this process you will get to know bookers, promoters, other bands and music fans. These people won’t just be biz contacts, they’ll turn into your friends. The more you become part of the music community, the more opportunity there will be to get shows.
But the best advice of all for getting shows is...
Believe me, bands will appreciate and remember it when you made the effort to support them. In turn many of them will do the same for you. But frankly, in the long run, the shows won’t matter as much as the cherished friendships you’ll develop. Hours on a computer will never be a substitute for face-to-face personal contact. So get out there and start meeting people! And try to keep your head out of that smartphone while you are at it!
WATCH OUT FOR PLAYING TOO MUCH: One thing that beginning bands don’t understand is that if they play the same city every week, it will dilute their draw. You need to pace yourselves so that each show seems like a special event rather than just another weekly gig,. Fewer shows will be easier to promote. Go for quality rather than quantity. And never sign up for a show and then suddenly “slip one in” (play another show in the same city) the week before. Promoters hate that and they should. They want to make sure that people are going to be excited to see the bands they booked. If people have seen them all the week before, they are less likely to be interested in attending the same show the next week Pacing your shows is important.
Here’s a shock...I’m agreeing with Gorilla Music on this point. Gorilla also states that bands shouldn’t play too many shows. It’s probably so they will be sure bands can sell tickets to Gorilla events but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. However, Gorilla claims that shows must be spaced 6-8 weeks apart which means you’d only play 6-8 times a year! That’s not realistic, especially for a new band. The way my band always handled it was to play in clusters (maybe one show in Tacoma, one in Olympia and one in Seattle, or a few opening for very different bands, a grunge show one week and a rockabilly show the next) and then we’d lay back for about three weeks until we felt people were eager to see us again. In that time we’d write new songs to bring out for the next round of shows. We also try never to play the same song-order twice so it’s a different show each time.
CHOOSE WISELY: It doesn’t hurt to be a little picky about shows. Like I said, at first bands will need to take most shows offered to them just to get out there and get some stage time. As long as it doesn’t involve presale, it’s a good idea to say yes to parties, house shows and weeknights at small clubs. But as you progress show offers will come at a more rapid rate and not all of them will be worth it. Remember, you don’t have to accept every show just because you are asked to play. It’s important to make sure that it’s a show that your audience is going to want to see, a show that you’ll be able to promote. There will be a time where you won’t have to play the lower level shows, like an opening slot on a Monday night. Weeding those out will be important if you want to keep getting the better shows. Whether accepting shows or declining them, remember to always be friendly and professional.
MERCH CAN’T HURT: Many bands are great at having lots of items displaying their band name. This is a good way for people to see your name around town on shirts, buttons, patches and stickers. In fact, a few bands I know will make some of these items themselves. Don’t go hog wild with it in the beginning and spend too much money overestimating those baby-Ts you thought would sell. It’s best to be a little conservative at first, but by the time you are touring, it will be essential to have merch to sell. We started out with a few things and worked from there. And we still see some of that old stuff around, even on eBay.
BATSHIT CRAZY IDEA ALERT - TOO MANY GIVE AWAYS
STEER CLEAR OF THESE STUPID PUSHY SALES IDEAS FROM AFTON SHOWS: 1) No, don't use your precious time on stage for constant sales pitches. Mentioning your website, merch table, special deals and mailing lists 2 or 3 times each clogs up your set and makes the emphasis on the selling and not the music. Save that tactic for selling "miracle knives" at the local fair. Mention merch once and only once. 2) Nobody is going to follow the singer like the pied piper to your merch table. Plus if they've done his job correctly on stage, they'll need a little time to recuperate from his/her dynamite performance. At the end of a show we've found that people mostly want to go out and smoke or rush to the bar or get some socializing in before the next band starts. And Afton's bright idea is for the singer NOT to help with the equipment? Not in my band! There are no prima donnas allowed. The equipment is OUR job collectively. 3) Stay away from this embarrassing Mailing List Card idea. No, after putting on a killer set the band is not going to go out and have people fill out cards! We also don't use our friends to wrestle with our equipment while we lounge around at the merch table chit-chatting with "fans". But the most important "no-no", whatever you do, don't start asking people how they liked your band. This makes you look absolutely pathetic. If they like you, they'll let you know. And if they don't, why ask for a negative review? In my band we say "Don't ever ask how they liked you. Because they just might tell you!"
|Right about now you are probably saying, “Finally! So where does the actual promotion come into all of this?”
Here’s the deal. Successful bands do promote themselves. Who wants to go to all the trouble of writing songs, rehearsing, getting to the show and then have nobody see you? That would be crazy. It would be a waste of all the effort you’ve already put into this band. But again, you’ll need something good to promote so make sure your band is really ready.
POSTERS DO WORK! Promotion is an important part of building up your fanbase but it’s got to be done right. P2P promoters will tell you that posters don’t work well (as Afton does here).
P2P PROMO ART VS. REAL PROMO ART
TOP ROW: GORILLA MUSIC POSTERS. BOTTOM ROW: MY BAND'S POSTERS.
IF THE BANDS ARE KNOWN LOCALLY AND THE ARTWORK IS AWESOME...GOOD POSTERS DO WORK!
Above: Posters 1 and 3 (artists unknown). Poster 2 is by Rick Reinert. Poster 4 is by Jim Nadorozny. Poster 5 is by Joe Newton.
PERSONALLY SELLING TICKETS VS HAVING A FAN BASE - WHAT IS GOOD PROMO
What you really want is for your band name to bring them in. You want people to see that you are playing and come running. You want them to bring their friends along too. This can be achieved through planning, patience and perseverance and without personally selling one ticket. By all means, direct them to the website or outlet where advance tickets are sold but never ever sell them yourself. Think of your fanbase as a whirlpool that is intense and strong in the middle and gradually starts pulling everything in its path from the outside in. Your goal is to eventually have fans you don’t even know personally. You want strangers to come to your show. You want people you’ve never met in your life to come up to you at the grocery store and say “I love your band!” That’s the best feeling in the world. And that will happen if you put the work into it. It can be a reality. Pulling in more people as you play better shows will last longer than meeting somebody after work to sell one ticket. And of course, if you want to gain more fans in other cities (which should be the goal of every band), driving a couple hundred miles to sell tickets isn't going to be realistic. So don’t listen to that crap about how presales works better. It doesn’t.
|For this section I will use my own experience to illustrate what we expect from a promoter and what we typically do to help with promotion. Remember that the longer you’ve been together and putting on those shows people talk about, the easier it will be for you to promote. So put in the ground work to make your band one that is in demand.
Before agreeing to promote a show we get these details nailed down:
IMPORTANT RED FLAGS:
POWER OF THE PRESS: This is different than the standard concert calendar. Getting some local press is something that either the promoter or band can work on. Many local music papers and websites have reporters who are looking for something to write about. Some columnists will have a “Show of the Week”, “One to Watch” or “May We Suggest” section where they feature a show that sounds interesting. Often times they’ll give a little write-up on a band they like. Contacting these local writers about your upcoming show never hurts, as long as you make it sound interesting. Our band has made some great friends in the writing community over the years and often times they’ll give our event a little shout-out if we let them know about it. We’ve always been grateful when these people have been nice enough to write about us. Some books suggest writing Press Releases for every event. We find those work great for bigger special events (record releases, anniversaries, tour kickoffs, etc) but not necessary for the smaller shows. A personal email to a writer can work just as well, maybe better.
BALLYHOO: Ever heard this word? It was used in the old days when promoters would come up with crazy ideas/stunts to get attention for their events. Filmmaker William Castle was the King of Ballyhoo back in the 50s/60s (see this awesome documentary). Promotion doesn’t need to be drudgery. It doesn't need to be dull. You can put some fun into successfully promoting your band with a little imagination and creativity. There isn’t anybody better to tell you about it than Jim Rose of The Jim Rose Sideshow fame. Now I might not be bold enough to go as far as he can, but this video will still give you ideas and inspiration. Another pro at promotion is our good friend Nardwuar the Human Serviette. We've known Nardwuar for years and take it from us, that guy can get things done! He puts on great shows (we've played a few) and has interviewed everybody. Check out his inspirational Ted Talk. My band went the publication route and made a fanzine called "Wig Out!" all about us! It was controversial to make a promotional magazine about ourselves but it got popular and was a great tool for introducing people to our band. We published 24 of them before the internet took over.
AND...THE COST IS NOTHING!....
BATSHIT CRAZY IDEA ALERT - THE 1000 PERSON GUEST LIST
|HEADLINER / SUPPORT / OPENER
The first thing I’m going to say may be controversial for some, but to the veteran bands, it makes total sense. Unless it’s a real festival (be sure to do some research to make sure it is legit, with adequate promo and well-known local/regional acts) avoid playing a show with more than four bands. Actually three is best for a bar/club show. If a booker wants to stack their show with more than five unknown/new bands, it’s a sign that they don’t know what they are doing or that they are there to exploit the bands. They are emphasizing quantity over quality. No real promoter would dream of trying to pull off a show with that many bands. It just sounds like a cluster...well you know. And it is. Don’t fall for that old “showcase” routine either. Shows like this are not set up for the good of the band, or even the good of the audience. They are set up to make the promoter money. And of course, never turn in money for any show you are asked to play. The promoter figures that if he/she can get as many bands as possible to sell tickets, no matter what happens (or how bad the turnout is) they will come out ahead. They want to be in charge of the show but take no risk. Shows like this can’t keep an audience there for the entire event because nobody can hang through that many bands. They end up only staying for their band and then they leave. So you won’t be playing to the other bands’ fans, you’ll only be playing to your own. And of course, if you keep trying to get your supporters to turn up at overpriced subpar shows, they will finally get sick of it. And who can blame them?
The formula for a good local show revolves around the bands and their experience and popularity. If they've done their homework (and have personal contact with the musicians) a successful promoter will already have an idea what band fits into what position. It is normally laid out with a headliner, a support band (sometimes two), and someone to open the show. (The one exception to this rule is the co-op DIY show where the bands are all at the same level of development and may have to pick numbers to see what position they play.)
It is important to note that this situation is never dependent on counting the specific number of people that each band brings in. There is no “head count” or fans required to “declare” who they are there to see. To see which band is bringing in people, one only needs to watch the show. It will be fairly obvious by the audience involvement and reaction who they are there to see. If the show is set up correctly, it is safe to say that the headliner will have the most interest and the support bands will also bring people in.
This is where it is helpful if the opening act can rally their supporters to show up and make a good impression. Clubs and promoters notice when a band brings in an audience, especially one that is really digging your band. While it won’t work for the all-ages bands, when you get to the point where you are playing bars, it doesn’t hurt to have drinkers in your audience. It’s a fact of playing that the real reason you are there is to keep people at the venue longer to buy their booze. My band discovered that our crowd happened to hit the bar at a more frequent rate than some of the other local groups. Our friends came to party. Clubs noticed that our shows reflected more revenue in their cash registers at the end of the night. I hate to admit it, but that counts.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO PAYOUT?
This is the big one. The can of worms. It’s the one topic that doesn’t really have a set answer. And it’s the one topic that P2P promoters will never write about (unless it relates to how many tickets were sold by each band). Everyone has a bit of a different idea on how they handle the money and it’s mostly a matter of personal choice and experience. There are so many variables and scenarios to payout it almost needs a website of its own. And of course, just as you think you have it all buttoned up, another variable will present itself that blows that theory apart. This section is just to give the newcomer some general ideas on how payouts work.
EXPENSES - There shouldn't be a problem with paying legitimate expenses, as long as they are actual "show expenses". Before anybody can split the money, normally the expenses need to be paid off the top. If there’s a cover/ticket price at the door, most clubs will take out expenses of the show. This can include paying the sound tech; live music taxes (cities and states can have taxes on live-music venues); royalty fees for cover songs (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC); and poster design and printing. If a promoter put their money up to rent the club, this would need to be paid back first. This would not be considered pay-to-play (bands are not turning in money) but the overhead it takes to host live entertainment. Typically it falls around 20-30% (not more than 40%) of the collected money for the night. Legitimate venues won’t try to add extra non-music expenses into this equation. Pay-to-play promoters have been known to list non-music items (security/bar staff, power bills, insurance) as their expense in order to justify a bigger split for themselves and less for the bands. It's also important to note that real promoters are not renting the venue. If a promoter has established themselves with successful shows, clubs normally won't ask for a rental fee. However, most out-of-town pay-to-play promoters are hosting unreliable shows where the attendance is unknown. Therefore they are required to pay rent (like you would for a private event). This increases the expenses.
A FEW EXTRA THINGS TO CONSIDER
ADDING TOO MANY BANDS - One of the reasons I’m not a fan of “the more the merrier” approach to booking (see my write-up from 2004 here) is that there is less money to split at the end of the night. If you’ve got three solid bands to play, why add more? Every band/act added to the night cuts down on the cash split, the set time and the amount of space to store your gear. Three bands are normally enough for most audiences. They won’t leave as fast if they know they only have to sit through two bands to see the headliner. Every band added normally doesn’t reflect that much more in attendance. It helps no one to keep adding more bands and a good promoter knows it.
I know the idea of playing without contracts is controversial to some (and they will claim you are crazy for playing without one) but in my experience knowing who you are dealing with is much more effective than ink on paper. Many of local promoters and clubs work on “good faith” and don’t want to hassle with written contracts for local bar and all-ages shows. If you insist on contracts for clubs that normally work without them, there’s a chance they’ll pass you by for a musician who is easier to work with. And of course a contract is only as good as the person who signed it anyway. If a promoter wants to break a contract, it will mean countless hours of time and more money to fight it. The amount you’d be arguing about is normally much less than the amount it takes to collect it. (Take it from me, being involved in a court case is a time-consuming, money-draining proposition that should only be used on something huge and serious. As I write this, standard attorney's fees are $250 an hour so if you are trying to collect that extra $300 from the contract, it's probably not going to be worth it.) This is why I can’t stress this enough: Know your club bookers and promoters and establish a working relationship with them! (see promoters page) If a club/booker does want contracts involved, be sure to go over it thoroughly so there are no surprises. FYI: This doesn’t count with the big stuff like US tours, opening for national acts, bigger festivals and major record deals...those absolutely require contracts. By the way, it will really help you to get an attorney for record contracts. It will be worth every penny to steer clear of a bad record deal.
THE BAND STAGES OF PROGRESSION: This diagram is offered as a general example of how a band develops over time. Rather than constantly tracking the draw of every show you play, as the pay-to-play advocates suggest (and getting panic attacks when each show doesn't have a bigger attendance than the last), it is much more realistic to think of your
|LET’S DO SOME CALCULATIONS
To illustrate a point, let’s look at the details for two shows. One is a normal percentage payout style show and the other is what I call a “band tally” show where the promoter keeps track of who people are paying to see and pays each band by their head count. As an example we’ll take a recent national "Band Tally" tour, Project Independent/NAIRMA Road to the Red Carpet. This tour travels to 60 cities and hosts local battles with regional headliners. At the end of the tour, one band wins a trip to LA. This isn’t pay-to-play (bands are not turning in money as they have in previous years) but the percentage still works against the bands and favors the promoter. All audience members must credit “their band” in order for the band to receive payment.
STATS FOR BOTH SHOWS:
The admission price is $10.
Five bands are on the bill (Even though this National Tour/Band Tally show tries for about 10 bands and for local shows there shouldn’t be more than four, for this example we’ll say five).
200 people show up.
= $2,000 total.
NORMAL SHOW: 40/60 split, with 40% to the promoter and 60% to the bands.
BAND TALLY SHOW: 70/30 split, with 70% to the promoter and 30% to the bands
QUESTION: Which show is more favorable to the bands who brought the audience?
Even though you might have a slim chance to win a trip to LA (and most of these national companies have some “big payoff” at the end to dangle in front of bands) with this "national tour" the shows are still locally based. In other words, local bands are bringing in the audience and subsidize this tour.
EXTRA CREDIT - For fun let’s compare the difference for bands in both percentages.
IF THIS IS A BUSINESS...Many promoters (P2P and otherwise) have written comments and blogs about how this is a business and bands need to start treating it as such. Maybe staying away from promoters who take 70% of the profit (or as in the case of Gorilla Music’s Battle of the Bands, 100%) would be a good start.
|GOT IT! NOW LET THAT MONEY START ROLLING IN
Pay-to-play promoters and companies do everyone a disservice by emphasizing how much money your band will make. They’ve written blogs about how bands should be constantly monitoring progress for each show. It sounds like being in a band is a anxiety filled experience that is no fun for anybody. For them, it’s all about the collected ticket money and the head-count for shows. They claim that if you just follow their simple advice about presales and pushing those tickets to fans, before you know it you’ll be making a profit.
The harsh reality is that at the level most of us are, music isn’t the “career” for making a fast buck...or the big bucks. Of course it happens to some people. I know some of them. And believe me they worked their asses off to get to that point. But those bands are the very small minority. Most of us are plugging away, barely breaking even and “don’t quit your day job” is a reality we understand. Every band I know has so much money sunk into their equipment, and transportation and practice space and every other band expense it will be a long time (and maybe never) before they see any profit from this venture. That’s one of the many reasons pay-to-play is such a rip-off for musicians. There is so little of this pie to divide in the first place. And in the P2P scenario, only the expense of the promoter (them) seems to be a concern, never all the expenses the band has invested.
That’s not to say that being in a band isn’t fantastic. It is. Making good music, sticking together with your band mates and taking the time to develop can get you some really amazing experiences that you’ll treasure the rest of your lives. But getting rich normally isn’t one of them.
PROMOTION IS POSSIBLE
I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible. I know the minute I post this there will probably be others to challenge it and pick it apart. That’s fine. They can write their own ideas on their own websites. But this is written from experience. Thirty-one years of it. I lived this stuff. I watched thousands of bands. A few of them got famous, most of them broke up. And some of them are content, like my band, to just keep playing shows and having fun and once in awhile getting a really special opportunity. But one thing I know is how bands build up a following and promote themselves and it isn’t through pay-to-play.
I’m not going to lie. There will be some bumps, twists and turns, and setbacks along the way. We’ve all had them. But as long as you can stick together, the better shows will come along. In fact, just sticking together is probably more of a challenge than getting and promoting shows (and you won’t see the P2P promoters address that!). I know how this worked for all the bands I’ve known over the years. Some are better at it than others, some get better breaks (because luck, or at least being in the right place at the right time, plays a big part in this), and some fall apart. But we didn’t fall for pay-to-play. That didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. And in my opinion it never will.
I wish all of you success and most of all, fun. Now get out there and make music, put on great shows, enjoy your bandmates and work your asses off. As long as you stick with it, the better shows will come!
One of the big excuses that P2P promoters use as a way to justify their ticket selling shows is that the bands are lazy. Ticket selling must be implemented because these lazy bands won’t lift a finger to promote their shows. Therefore getting them to sell tickets is the only way to ensure (aka “encourage them”) that they will make an effort to get people to see them.
WHO ARE THESE “LAZY BANDS”?
WHY DO P2P PROMOTERS SEEK OUT AND WORK WITH “LAZY BANDS”?
THE REAL SHOW SYSTEM WORKS
BLAMING THE BANDS
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