Your bobber just exploded and somebody took the bait. Now it’s time to let out on the line. One of those thirty-four venues replied to your excellently crafted pitch email and now you’re in negotiations to set the stage for your impending show. But the thread of your line is steadily unspooling, and sure, your cast was masterful, but there are other things to which we must attend. We’ll do that here—in the follow-up.
On my first tour, every day inevitably began with a band member’s query about where we were going, what club we were playing, how much we’d make, etc. After I filled them in, one of the other guys would come out of the bathroom and ask the same questions. Daily. It was frustrating to have to filter back through emails on my phone to pick out those details and relay them, especially when my searching proved unfruitful and I didn’t even know if there would be PA or not.
I got better, and you can too. Know what to expect. Once you have the date concretized, there are five fundamental bases to cover, and you can hit them all in one quick and dirty email.
Take a lesson from Ryan Gosling in “Crazy Stupid Love” and, “Be better than the Gap.” We ain’t doing this for free, and if you are, have a little more pride. The talent buyer does you a favor by giving you a venue, but you’re doing them a favor by providing your art and the business it will help drive. You need to know what the fiscal forecast is. There are six basic deals a venue will offer:
Guarantee – “You play two hours, we promise to give you $250.” These are great anchor gigs, but sometimes, your function can be more as background music than an engaging artistic exchange. This usually comes from high-capacity venues with strong sales. Or if you’re a well-known act with draw, you can request a guarantee. But in the middle-class independent touring economy, they don’t grow on trees. Certainty can sure be nice though.
Percentage of Sales – “You get 15% of what me make at the bar.” This is a pretty fair deal. If a bunch of people come, they’ll make more and you’ll make more in turn. The onus is largely on you. If you bring people, you’ll get paid. (Assuming they drink.)
Door Deal – “Everyone pays $5 to get in. That’s yours.” Fair. Sometimes you get the whole door till. Others you’ll split it with the house and/or the other bands.
Ticketed Shows – “These tickets are for sale and you can keep x%.” This is rare outside of the big-time circuits. It’s not preferable because this is usually indicative of a destination venue, and at our stage of the game, built-in crowds are a big plus. But it’s technically as fair as a door deal.
Free/Tips/Pass the Hat – “We’ll give you a spot to play. Feel free to pass this smelly hat.” There are two reasons to ever take this show. Sometimes the exposure can pay for itself. If Father John Misty says, “Hey come open for me The Vogue,” shut up and go. The other reason is if you’re on tour in a troublesome spot where no doors are opening. When you’re on the road, it’s better to play a show than not play a show and you’ll probably move some merch.
Pay-to-Play – “This is a rental facility. Pay us $150 for the night and you can keep the door or whatever.” Never do this. It’s a filthy scam.
I usually phrase this question to a correspondent as, “How does compensation work at your venue?” They’ll let you know and you can haggle if your heart tells you.
Nothing will kill your vibe faster than showing up to a venue and being asked, “Wait, you guys didn’t bring PA?” On our first tour, I stood on a chair in a coffeeshop and shouted over the ambient din that we had traveled a long way for this show and if that everyone would be kind enough to pay attention, we’d appreciate it. Guess how well that worked.
You must determine, 1.) if a venue has a sound system, 2.) if that sound system will suit your needs (all you orchestral chamber-folk bands need more than four channels), 3.) if there is a sound engineer who works with the venue, and 4.) if her pay comes out of your pay. Often, engineers are paid as employees, not as contractors. But when you thought you earned $200 and the sound tech informs you that $150 is theirs, your glee will be hulk-crushed.
This will usually work: “Will there be other bands on the bill? Your booking or ours?”
How they answer that query will largely inform you what kind of show it’s going to be. Other bands on the bill is almost always a plus, the exception being those three-hour guarantee soul-sucking gigs that you hate will all your heart but that pay for your van’s new tires.
Some talent buyers will curate bills based on what they believe will maximize draw and harmoniously transition. Sometimes they’re just trying to meet a quota. Either way, local bands on a bill will boost a touring band’s audience nine times out of ten. If they don’t offer to build the bill (or even if they do and you want to appear to have initiative), include an offer that puts the onus on you. “We’d be happy to help build a bill.” Befriending bands is one of the keys to the whole networking game. Ever hear of show trades?
This is cut and dried.
Know when to load-in (and be there early.)
Know when you’ll play (and start on time.)
Know how long you’re supposed to play (and stick to it.)
The conversation on promotion is more open-ended. It usually has two parts: figuring out where to send fliers and asking what other promotional outlets they recommend. Some clubs will provide you with a press list, in which you case you should doggedly exhaust those resources. Someone did all the homework for you here and it’s free, so don’t be an idiot. In other cases, they’ll direct you toward a newspaper or college radio station.
If they don’t, you’re not off the hook. Research the city and its tastemakers. Write press releases to hammer the local calendars, “free-in-the-city” blogs, and the like. Use press resources like indieonthemove.com. When people showed up to us to our show the first time we were in Des Moines, IA, we were befuddled. They told us they saw our write-up in the city paper. It was our first month of sending press releases. We never stopped.
But you have to send fliers at the very least. They might offer to do it for you, but its rare. And having a picture of your band plastered up all over your tour cities doesn’t hurt the exposure or name recognition one bit.
Getting the answers to these five questions will give you a gloriously elucidated picture of how your show is bound to go. It will also help you to act professionally when you arrive and keep from wandering around asking the poor staff who’s supposed to know these things. You’re supposed to know them.
And one more thing. Send a confirmation email. It doesn’t have to be fancy or long or anything except, “Hey, just wanted to make sure everything is good to go for this date.” Send it about a week out and refresh your inbox like you have a crush on that talent buyer.
Even if something went awry and they have to cancel, it’s a heck of a lot better to know up front than to show up to your gig in San Antonio only to learn that two months ago, they converted their pub into a carpet store. Not that I have experience or anything.