Far too many first-rate bands can’t seem to make the leap from playing great shows in smaller clubs to playing big rooms on bills that people are actually excited about. A few years of playing smaller rooms and your band should be ready to start making a name for itself. But toiling away in obscurity, waiting for someone to discover you isn’t a viable way to make it as a musician. And if you live in a hyper-competitive music market such as New York City (like I do), you really can’t just wait around.
Let me walk you through the process of how to go from shows that bring in 20-40 people to shows that bring in 200-400.
1. Reach Out and Make Contact
The best way to play for more people is to add to your bill by booking bands that people are excited to see and have some buzz around them.
To find bands that might be a good fit, look up venues in your area that have capacities of around 200+, see who the headliners have been in the past, and pinpoint which ones usually open those shows. You can also scour local music blogs and publications. Once you’ve found a few bands you think you could work with, start making detailed lists. You want to make sure that your early efforts aren’t forgotten for future bookings.
Next, reach out to any bands or artists you want to play with and get their availabilities. You should also reach out to local venues to get a sense of what’s open. Ask about either a range of dates or specific days. Making contact to start a conversation is a major step to getting yourself behind the wheel, instead of waiting around for someone to pick you up.
Your booking emails should be simple. I’ve found that a 1000-word email extolling the values of the bands, your booking skills, and how amazing and exciting the show will be often go unread. Talent buyers get hundreds of emails a day so something simple and concise is the way to go. Feel free to use these templates and change them accordingly:
Venue Booking Email Template:
Hi [booker/venue name],
I’d like to see if you have [dates] available for a show I’m putting together. I’ve reached out to [band 1], [band 2], and [band 3] to headline, and I can lock at least one of them down once we have the venue and date confirmed. I’ve included links to all of the artists’ music and their bios below.
Band Booking Email Template:
Hi [band/manager name],
I would like to ask if you are available to play a show with [your band’s name] on [date] at [proposed venue options]. We can talk about a door split or guarantee once you check if you’re free,
I’m excited to potentially work with you,
These emails may seem curt or overly brief, but I’ve had way more success being efficient than including every pertinent detail I can think of.
Many of the acts that you’ll reach out to will have a booking agent or manager responding on their behalf, and while this may seem daunting at first, it actually makes everything much easier. Booking agents are typically more responsive (and more professional!) than musicians so don’t be scared off by their very official websites and emails.
I typically send a follow up email about a week after the initial proposition and then I’ll call their office to follow up a week after that. This is why it’s good to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. Organizing events even months in advance is easier than cramming a ton of planning into just a few weeks.
2. Send an Offer or Guarantee
Once the band and venue begin to show interest, the next thing to do is lock down a confirmed date. This can take some back and forth. Talented people and popular venues are always busy, but that shouldn’t be a huge issue. Just be patient. When asking about dates, always be prepared to suggest a couple alternatives so you can enjoy some flexibility. When the date is locked down, it’s time to talk about money.
Talking about money can feel awkward, but it’s an important part of turning your passion into a business. You’ll want to offer either a split from the door take (usually to support acts or all acts when it’s a non-hierarchical bill) or a guarantee (usually to headliners). Here’s a short video explaining how touring bands typically expect to make money on the road, from Soundfly’s free online course, Touring on a Shoestring.
Door splits are pretty simple, I typically give the headliner 75% if there is only one opener, and 60% if there are two. Guarantees can be a bit more tricky. You’ll need to be pretty confident about a band’s past numbers in order to make sure you’re not left paying more than you earn at the door. Their booking agent should be able to give you an estimate of what they bring in locally, and so should the venue representative if they’ve worked with them before. But remember that marketing and promotion can also play a huge role in getting your numbers up (so we’ll cover that one below!).
One way to protect yourself from paying too much is to have a stratified payment system that looks like this:
At a $15 ticket price we offer:
- $1500 Flat Guarantee to [Band], or
- @ 200 paid, $2200 Guarantee to [Band]
- @ 250 paid, $2900 Guarantee to [Band]
- @ 300 paid, $3600 Guarantee to [Band]
This was an offer I sent to someone who said they could bring 300 people. So if they weren’t exaggerating, they would get the full guarantee, but this way I also protected myself if they were misrepresenting themselves.
Now, you’ll also need to work out a door split with the venue. I always ask for the door split to be increased as we well more tickets. If I do a great job planning a show that brings in a ton of people, I think it’s fair to say that I should be rewarded by getting a better door split. The more people I bring in, the more money the venue makes on alcohol sales.
If they offer 60% of the door, I’ll send an offer that looks like this:
- @ 100 tickets sold, 65%
- @ 150 tickets sold, 70%
- @ 200 tickets sold, 75%
- @ Sold out, 80%
The first time you offer thousands of dollars to an act can feel incredibly stressful, but if you’re diligent about your research and transparent about your abilities and reach, you should be able to pay everyone — and make a little for yourself. At the very least, you’ll be showing your local music community that you care about equal pay and increasing opportunities.
3. Market and Promote the Show
Once you’ve got everything booked and confirmed, it’s time to start promoting the show. Personally inviting people and making sure everyone posts and reposts on their social media is the bare minimum. This will let everyone’s fanbase know about the show. But if you’ve put together a truly special event, you’re going to need to branch out from your immediate networks.
Always make a poster or flyer to have a visual for the event. It can, but doesn’t always have to be professional. Images give people something associated with your event that they can stare at or share. Ideally you want all the details about the show on the poster itself (ticket price, doors, bands, venue, address, age restriction, etc.). But if you can find other areas to post that information in favor of clean design, that’s up to you. A simple poster is a good poster.
Print out some hard copies, go to the venue, and hang them up there (or ask the venue to do that for you). Your poster in a venue’s window maximizes your chances of reaching foot traffic and audiences from other shows. But if you’re already printing posters, why not put them up in local businesses and stores as well? And make sure to hang some up at local colleges, band rehearsal spaces, or anywhere else you think you’d find people interested in music.
Boosted posts on Facebook are great for targeting the right audience, in the right location, with ads that show up organically in their feed. Learn about how to work with the ever-changing Facebook visibility algorithms in this article.
Another tried-and-true method for promoting your show is to make sure your show’s information appears on local listservs, blogs, and event calendars as soon as the information is confirmed. Don’t sleep on these websites and print publications. They often post about a show weeks before the event, and local editors and writers check them out for potential editorial coverage. You can usually search for event listings and add your info yourself to their websites.
As for that editorial coverage, the best case scenario is to have your event previewed by local tastemakers and curators — essentially anyone who makes lists that look like: “Best Shows to See This Week!” or “What’s Coming up This Weekend!” Send out a press release to local or regional music and news outlets, and make sure to include information about each band with links to their music and social media accounts. Big blogs and publications are great, but finding smaller highly-curated outlets will give you a better chance of actually driving traffic to your event page.
Finally, don’t be afraid to offer free tickets and put media contacts on the guest list. Even if they don’t cover this specific show, they might write a review about the show and you could end up on their radar for future events. And speaking of ticket giveaways.
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4. Ticket Giveaways
Ticket giveaways are a powerful way to get people out to your show. You can hand out physical tickets near the venue or contact local radio stations, podcasts, blogs, local stores, etc. to see if they’d be into giving away tickets to your event, for example, as part of a contest. If nothing else, you’ll create buzz around the event.
Try to be creative with your promotions. The perfect solution or combination of marketing strategies to get fans out to a show doesn’t exist, so don’t be afraid to try out innovative ideas, even if they might fail. You’ll learn from what goes wrong and increase your understanding of what it takes to put on a successful show in your music market.
5. Build Your Newsletter with Every Show
This may seem like a simple piece of advice, but it can be incredibly effective if done right.
When you give people a chance to sign up for your mailing list, you’re automatically creating a filter for the people who will become your biggest fans and supporters. You can still target passive, part-time fans on social media and elsewhere, but the mailing list will remain a hub for active audiences. Sending out an email once every couple of months will set you apart from other bands and give your audience a sense that they’re connecting with you on a deeper level. So don’t forget to put out a nice looking sign-up sheet at your shows!
Booking bigger shows requires more work than simply showing up and playing your songs. You need to think entrepreneurially about your career and how you can grow your band like it’s a small business.
Challenge yourself to book a bigger venue for your next record release show or other milestone for your band. But don’t get discouraged if things don’t immediately work out. It may take time, but in the end you’ll be happy you put in the extra effort.
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