Breaking into any new field can be a daunting and confusing task, and the local music scene is no exception. Performing live shows is the most obvious way for a band to make a name for itself, but it is not always clear how to get booked for gigs, especially for young bands that have not yet had the opportunity to play live shows or establish their presence.
To shed some light on this vital aspect of any band’s career, Weld spoke to several booking directors at local venues and local booking agents for their advice.
“My advice for young bands or new bands trying to book shows, especially [at] DIY venues: Mainly just be a good person. That’s rule number one. Participate actively in the scene and in the community,” said Michael Harp, the booking director for Desert Island Supply Co., who also performs under the name Avi Noam. The best way to begin the process of getting booked around town, he explained, is to get to know venue owners and other musicians on a personal level, even before they know your music. Having a personal connection with venue owners can help you stand out among the many offers to play that they receive.
“It usually doesn’t help to say, ‘I’m in so-and-so local unheard-of band, can I book the space for the night?’ You’re going to get a no, because that doesn’t benefit anyone all except for you,” Harp advised. “There has to be a relationship built between the artists and the venues, built over a period of time. You just got to create lasting, healthy relationships with the spaces you inhabit and the people you interact with. It’s not about gaming the system, it’s not about tricking people into working for you; it’s not The Art of the Deal.”
Amber Ritchie, one of the founders of the recently launched Black Tongue Booking, also highlighted making personal connections as a vital first step. She advised that a great way to get a foot in the door is to get to know another local band personally and then ask if you can open for them.
“It’s usually a lot easier [than asking a band you do not know], especially because most of the older bands have been around a long time and remember how hard it is,” Ritchie explained. Even if the established band is not interested in having you as an opener, they will often be very willing to help you connect with other groups or venues that might be a better fit, she noted.
“Birmingham is a little unique [compared to] other music scenes in bigger cities,” Ritchie said. “Everybody is pretty much family. Everyone kind of knows each other, and it’s really easy to make connections through other people and meet someone you might not know. I think that everybody seems to do a really good job of helping each other out.”
In addition to making face-to-face connections, maintaining a healthy online presence is also important, Ritchie added.
“It’s really good to have a good online presence, whether it’s just a friend shooting a video of you at a show or [having] a little demo you can put online,” she noted. She stressed the importance of including contact information, explaining that several times in the past, she has been interested in working with a band she saw online but been unable to reach them because they did not include an email address or have a social media presence.
“Try to get music up online even if it’s a home recording. People can hear if it’s a good song or if it’s a well-written piece of music. Having something that people can go off of is huge when you’re trying to book something,” Lindsey Shante, another co-founder of Black Tongue Booking, added. She noted that images and pictures can be very useful in promoting yourself, and advised pairing with a local artist who might also be looking for exposure “to get some kind of visual in people’s head.”
Make an Efficient Pitch
Though informal, face-to-face meetings are a great way to network and build connections, when you reach out to venue owners or booking agents to propose performing, it is important to be professional. Brian Teasley, the owner of Saturn, singled out a short and respectful email as the best way to contact venue owners.
“Email is the best. People don’t usually do a whole lot with phone calls or press kits anymore. I’m living in the digital age, obviously,” he said. “A short, … really humble, ‘I just want to get my foot in the door, we’re just starting out’ — those kind of things go a long way.
“What’s proven to never work out [is] another band that’s like, ‘We’ve sold out another venue, you’ll pack up the place, you’ll make a ton of money on liquor,’ all these kind of things,” he added. “Every time I’ve had a local band promise to sell out the club, it has never happened.”
Teasley advised keeping the emails efficient and sincere. “Usually, I would stick with to the point and [be] genuine. … A lot of people from the Syndicate I see, WorkPlay and Zydeco, all the other venues, I’m sure they’re all getting 40 emails a day themselves. A genuine three paragraphs just does not get read sometimes. And that’s not because people don’t want to read it, but just because there’s so much time in the day you can do emails,” he said.
However, including files or links to your music in the email is absolutely vital, according to Lauren Elizabeth, who handles booking at the Syndicate Lounge.
“The most important thing [a local band] can do when they reach out is to definitely send an EP tape, which is a press kit basically. You can think of it as a résumé for your music,” she said. “If you don’t get a response back, it’s never a bad idea to come up to the venue and give us your demo or invite us to a show that you might have coming up. Really reaching out and networking is important. [Reaching out to] as many contacts as you have within the venue and other bands is a good start.”
Make Every Show Count
“I think some bands get discouraged because they’re not asked to be on shows. And if your band isn’t getting asked on shows or booked, a really good idea is to book your own show and set up the lineup for yourself. There’s plenty of do-it-yourself spots around here that are good. You have [Desert Island Supply Co.], you have Firehouse. Plenty of people have their very first show there,” Elizabeth explained. “Definitely [a local band] building their own show is a great start for them getting booked, because then other people can hear what they sound like if they don’t have a demo or a website yet.”
Ritchie added that Birmingham’s DIY music venues also offer local musicians the opportunity to play in fundraising shows for social justice issues, such as the Spring Street Firehouse’s recent benefit show that raised funds for protestors at Standing Rock. While those shows might not pay, Ritchie advised, they are worth it both for the exposure and for the opportunity to contribute to a cause.
“A lot of people are doing fundraising, charitable type shows with social justice activists. Those are shows you can play and you won’t get paid, and that kind of sucks, but it makes you feel good, and those are the easiest ones to get on, because you’re playing for free! And if you’re down with the cause, the people organizing it will be so happy,” she said.
And no matter where you are playing, play the best show you can, Teasley advised, because every show can lead to further opportunities to perform.
“Make every show, within limitations, as special as you can, because rock music and life in general can be ephemeral sometimes, and you want to make it as cogent and salient as possible as far as the experience people get. Anything you can do to make it matter — and along with that, I would play every show like it was your last,” he said. “My advice would be, never phone it in, because you never know who is there or you never know when you’re going to play your last note, so make every moment matter, because that’s what makes music matter.”