Music Business Underground is a monthly column attempting to put the business of being a musician in real, attainable, and actionable terms for the non-established musician. Upcoming topics include recording, tour booking, licensing, distribution, design, publicity, manufacturing, and more.
Music Business Underground has now covered how to start a musical project, how to get songs written, how to book a local performance, and how to present your music to a live audience. This month we are discussing how to promote an event.
With the help of friends, I currently promote under the moniker of “Diplomatic Relations” in Peoria, Illinois. Diplomatic Relations has been involved in promoting an average of one show per week over the last year, but I have been promoting independently since the late 1990s. Artists that I have worked with include Hey Mercedes, Against Me!, Owen, Minus the Bear, Planes Mistaken for Stars, and William Elliott Whitmore.
What are you promoting?
For me, promoting an event starts with finding something that I want to promote. Nearly all of Diplomatic Relations’ events are built around bringing a low-level touring act to Peoria to perform. This tends to be bands that do not demand a guarantee and are usually happy with what amounts to money for gas, food, and lodging.
From years spent touring the country solo and in Scouts Honor, The Forecast, and Angry Gods, I have built up a lot of friendships with incredible musicians. I use Diplomatic Relations as a way to help out my touring friends and as a way to bring interesting culture to my mid-sized hometown.
Once I have a touring act that I would like to bring to town, I then think about what local acts would bring in fans that would enjoy this touring act. It helps to have a little variety to get a larger and more diverse crowd, but too much diversity will leave each act’s crowd standing outside for the other performers. You want to avoid this so that you may build up each act’s fan base and aid in future shows drawing out more people.
This same method works for building support for your own act. Think about what projects your friends are in. Think about what local acts might differ slightly in fan base but draw upon similar touchstones. Think about what acts your friends are currently excited about seeing.
When is the event?
Because I am usually taking care of a touring act, a date for the event tends to be provided by the artist(s). If I cannot help on the given date, then I cannot help with the artist(s). However, if you are promoting for an all local show, then you have a lot more room to move the date of the event around.
When setting a date, here are some things to take into account:
- Are the bands you want to play available?
- Is the venue you want available?
- How will the day of the week affect the event’s turnout?
- Is the date competing with other events or holidays that might detract from your turnout?
Even while booking a touring act, I will consider all of these things. If I do not have positive feelings on any of these questions, I will probably choose for Diplomatic Relations to pass on the event/artist(s).
Where is the event?
When choosing a venue for an event, think about where your audience will feel comfortable. If they do not feel comfortable in a given venue, chances are they will not attend.
Personally, I came from a punk/indie background, and I tend to promote in places like Peoria Pizza Works (who have been hosting punk shows for at least 20 years), Rail II (who are most adept at promoting metal and hardcore), and Broken Tree Cafe (who have personal history in the DIY scene).
With Diplomatic Relations, I have branched out to promote more singer/songwriters, country, and hip-hop. This has led me to work with more diverse venues such as Red Barn, Midnight Espresso, Studios on Sheridan at the Sunbeam Building, The Fieldhouse, Tartan Inn, and Peoria Brewing Company.
In the earlier article covering how to book a local gig (link), I listed a variety of venues that currently host music around Central Illinois. These would be great places to start if you are looking to promote an event. Most often, you would want to ask for either the owner or the head of booking/events.
Some venues will demand that you rent the room for the night. If you are just starting out, there is a much higher chance that you will need to rent a room, as the venue has no assurance that you will bring them customers, hence covering the cost of the room.
How is sound being handled?
One thing to make sure you are considering when you rent a room is the PA (“public announcement”) system. This is the system of speakers, amplifiers, monitors, microphones, and mixer that make the artists audible over the crowd noise.
For small acoustic gigs, I will often bring my own PA system and set levels before each artist.
However, for the majority of performances that Diplomatic Relations promotes, either a sound engineer needs to be paid to run the PA system or a sound engineer must be paid to bring in an outside PA system for a venue with no house PA system.
Red Barn and Rail II are venues where Diplomatic Relations promotes that already have PA systems. I will often run the PA system at Red Barn as it is small and simpler, but the larger system and lights at Rail II demand that pay for a sound engineer come out of the money made from the door charge.
Peoria Pizza Works and Broken Tree Cafe are examples of venues that do not have in-house PA systems. As such, we usually bring in the long-trusted Brandon Ousley of Dust Audio to handle sound and lights. He has been working with the style of music that Diplomatic Relations promotes for well over a decade. Brandon consistently makes the artists sound and look their best while charging affordable prices.
Get the word out.
Once you have a show put together, you need to get the word out. Make a Facebook event. Make posters to hang in the windows of local businesses. Make flyers to hand out. Send press releases to the local papers, radio, and entertainment magazines. Share the event to online groups and message boards. Do whatever you can to get people excited for the event.
Run the show.
The day of the show, you need to be at the venue early along with the performers so that you can organize load in and set up. You will need an organized schedule of how long each band is to play, when, and with how much time to set up and tear down.
Here is an example of what an average schedule for a Diplomatic Relations event might look like:
6pm – Load In
7pm – Doors Open
7:30pm-8pm – ACT 1
8pm-8:15pm – Changeover
8:15pm-8:45pm – ACT 2
8:45pm-9pm – Changeover
9pm-9:30pm – ACT 3
9:30pm-9:45pm – Changeover
9:45pm-10:30pm – ACT 4
10:30pm-11pm – Clean Up
You will need a person to sit at the entrance to the venue to collect an admission charge and mark those who have paid to enter the venue (wrist bands, stamps, and even permanent marker marks work for this). I highly recommend that the person you have run door not only collects money, but also records the number of people paid. This way, you can find any monetary discrepancies at the end of the night. You can also more clearly communicate with the artists and venue on the success of the night.
At the end of the night, you need to make sure that every involved party (artists, sound, venue, door person, etc.) is compensated to the best of your ability. Also, make sure the venue is happy with the condition that you are leaving the space in.
You will find that the more you work hard to take care of the people around you (audience, artists, staff), the more people will work to take care of you. Be kind. Be respectful. Work hard.
Featured Promoter: Brian Galecki (Black Sheep Cafe)
Brian Galecki is a co-owner of Black Sheep Cafe and Dumb Records in Springfield, IL. He promotes events at Black Sheep Cafe, an all-ages DIY music venue that has been open for close to 11 years now. He has been playing in bands for a little over 10 years.
PEN: What caused you to start promoting live music?
Brian Galecki: I first started promoting shows long before I was involved with running the music venue here. It was when I started taking my own band a little more seriously and wanted to get as many people as I could out to our shows. Anybody who plays in a band should be somewhat involved in promoting, at the very least their own music. If I had to pinpoint exactly when, I would say when I was 16 or 17 years old. I remember the first flyer for a show I made was when I was 16 and it was the CD release show for my band Bastoens Best in 2006. The show was at The Black Sheep, long before I was helping run it. Now that I am running the venue, I think a common misconception is that it is solely the venue’s responsibility or a single show promoter’s responsibility to promote the shows and live music. I believe that is not true at all. It really should be a team effort between the bands, venues, and promoters. Even the show-goers themselves and fans of the music can take part in promotion.
PEN: What venues do you currently promote at?
BG: Mainly The Black Sheep Café in Springfield. I’ve also set up shows at Dumb Records, Rock N’ Roll Hardee’s, and a few guerilla locations such as barns and tunnels with generators. I also book a summer festival at multiple venues in Springfield called Dumb Fest. We just had our fourth Dumb Fest this June.
PEN: How often do you promote events?
BG: I try to limit myself to booking and promoting just one show a month but that gets tough to limit, especially in the summer. Usually it ends up that I am taking on most of the promotion for three shows a month.
PEN: What avenues do you use to promote your events?
BG: The internet is really half of it. Some promoters rely solely on Facebook and the internet, but really I would say word-of-mouth is the most important aspect of promotion still. There is nothing more effective than just having a conversation with someone about an upcoming show and relaying that excitement over to them in person. Telling someone “Hey, I really think you would like this!” and being able to talk about it with them really is the most effective way of getting them out to whatever event you are promoting. Passing out handbills and printed fliers at other shows goes along with this.
And, of course on the internet, Facebook seems to have taken over how shows are promoted for the past few years. It’s really interesting how there were no such things as Facebook “events” for shows, but now it’s a completely essential part of the booking process. Hosting a type of show or concert without a Facebook event is pretty much unheard of.
I also enjoy being creative with the promotion process, such as making mix CDs of bands playing upcoming shows and handing them out for free, or putting up yard signs. You can get giant 3-foot-wide fliers printed out at Kinkos for pretty cheap.
PEN: What do you look for in an act that you choose to promote?
BG: If I’m not excited about an act, it almost is never worth it to promote. I try to only book bands that I enjoy listening to or watching, or my own bands, because then I am genuinely interested in getting other people exposed to them and out to those shows. Other than that, I think it’s important to look out for bands from overseas, because the opportunity to book those bands doesn’t come up often. And, usually they are bringing completely new ideas and cultural elements that we normally wouldn’t be exposed to.
PEN: What advice would you give to new promoters?
BG: As I kind of hinted at in question #1, promoting shows and events takes a team effort if done effectively. If you play in a band at all or are involved with music in any way, you really should be considered a promoter as well, to an extent. For those just interested in promoting shows who don’t play in bands, it’s not always an easy task! It’s easy to get very discouraged at low turnouts for shows and give up on the music scene completely. A lot of times, the promoters have the hardest job and can get burned out or discouraged. It’s important to keep a positive outlook on things even when the turnout is low and ask yourself what you can do better each time that happens instead of blaming it on the music scene or a town as a whole. That’s advice I need to look to myself a lot of times!