All gigs are not created equal. Depending on what kind of show you’re playing, some gigs may have a big cheque at the end and some gigs will have no cheque at all. But maybe they’ll have a big crowd. Other times you’ll be playing to a small, but strategically important crowd.
This is one of the hard things about being an artist: it’s really hard to separate the opportunities from the good opportunities. Especially when you don’t have a team to help you make that call. And the thing is, there are a lot of opportunities for artists.
Many original bands spend a lot of time playing shows in bars for $400 dollars, because hey, who couldn’t use $400? The thing is, a lot of those shows in random bars for $400 are in small towns, to a disinterested crowd, and really would have been better suited to a cover band.
It’s hard to leave those shows behind, because you can literally make a living playing those kind of gigs every night. But if you’re looking to grow your career in a real, tangible way, you need to start booking career building shows.
What is a career building show?
You may have noticed that bands that start out with (or quickly acquire) management play different types of shows than the average working band.
These artists have a gigging strategy based around career building shows. They’re playing almost exclusively opening slots, often not traveling except for major conferences and showcases, and not really touring very much.
Here’s the reason: it takes a really long time to build up a completely grassroots following. By playing ‘headlining’ bar shows every weekend, you might acquire 5-10 fans per night, if you’re lucky.
You might be making money, but it will take a long time for those 5-10 people to build into a real fanbase. And beyond that, you’ll quickly exhaust your local scene, and then you’ll have to start touring and playing the same types of shows in other places in order to maintain that volume of shows.
Instead of sheer quantity of shows, go for quality shows. Try to get on as many opening slots as possible at the hippest venue in your local scene. Then try doing the same thing in all the satellite cities/towns.
This way, you are almost guaranteed a larger crowd than you would have otherwise had, and your fans are treated to a better experience, because there are more people in the room. Soon, you’ll have built up a reputation as a band with a draw.
Beyond opening slots, aim to play as many shows that put you in front of industry professionals as possible. These shows are likely at reputable showcases, festivals, and music conferences.
When you do play these conferences and showcases, you need to work as hard as possible to get industry out to the show. Not just so that they can see your set, but also so that they see that other industry are interested in your act.
How can you book more career building shows?
The thing that deters bands from booking these kinds of shows is the connections you have to have in order to lock them in.
In order to get quality opening slots you need to befriend three types of people:
First and foremost, local bands. The hippest local bands need openers, so make friends with them, and at some point they’ll ask you to open for them.
Second, you need to connect yourself with the local venue managers, promoters, and talent buyers. The easiest way to do this is by simply going to shows. Start hanging around the cool venues and going to shows. It’s worth the investment, simply for the connections you’ll make. This is also a great way to befriend the local bands. The only way to become a part of the scene is by placing yourself in it.
Finally, you need to start making friends with agents. Booking agents, big and small, usually have a say in what the bill will look like for a show they’ve booked.
These are usually the toughest people to befriend, as they are constantly being accosted by artists who just want to push their career. Which, to be fair, is what you are doing. That’s why you need to approach all these relationships in a genuine, non-pushy way.
Once you’ve inserted yourself into the local scene, just start asking. Send an email or two to all the local promoters and venue managers simply saying “I would like to be considered for any opening slots you have at Your Cool Venue”.
Do the same for local artists that you’ve developed a relationship with. Don’t expect anything to happen right away, but just put the bug in their ear.
When it’s okay to take non-career building gig
You may be thinking what many artists think when they hear this advice, “what about the money?”. You’re right, career building shows are notoriously poorly paid. The best you can hope for in an opening slot is $100-200, and you may even have to pay to be a part of some of the good showcase festivals. This is why it’s okay to strike a balance. Everyone has to make money sometimes, otherwise how are you supposed to invest in your career?
So it’s okay to book a few shows that pay well, as long as this doesn’t become your focus. Your focus should always be on pushing your career ahead first, not making money.
The money comes after you’ve put in the hard work and built your fanbase until you have a hard ticket value. If you really want to make money and keep your artist image separate, start a cover band. It’s a great way to fund your original project, and you don’t need to play very many cover gigs to make what you need to get by. If you are start applying these principles to your entire gigging strategy you will see results. Simply putting yourself in front of bigger crowds is huge. Grow your career, starting now.
By Liam Duncan, featured writer for Purple Cow Productions. Purple Cow is a London-based collaboration between professional musicians, audiovisual artists & award-winning entrepreneurs, creating best in breed work.