12 Things I Wish I Knew Before About Booking Gigs…

Sometime in 2009, fresh out of music college, I turned up at a West London office for my first day as a booking agent. I was given a phone, an email address and a bunch of artists to book gigs for…

There were a couple of potential problems…

I wasn’t ‘known’ inside the industry
– I had no personal network
– I wan’t representing ‘famous’ bands
– I had no formal ‘music business’ knowledge or training
– I had never booked gigs or tours before

When you’re thrown in the deep end like that, you have to learn fast!

Through a bunch of trial and error, as well as advice from more experienced colleagues, I managed to get together a first few tours and hit the milestone of 60 gigs booked.

If you’re a musician looking to book gigs for your project, here are a few things I wish I’d known sooner…

No reply does not = not interested

Booking yourself as an artist is not just time-consuming, it also involves putting yourself out there artistically and getting nothing back.

Not easy.

So it’s super important to keep in mind that a lot of bookings come from emailing the right promoters at the right time.

And/or from following up multiple times.

Often, if you reach out when they’re not actively working on the programme, you won’t get a reply.

Don’t take it as a no: keep checking in!

I have one extreme example of a promoter ignoring my mails for several *years* before replying with a firm date and fee offer.

Learn your job titles

If you’re pitching to a larger club, venue or festival, there is likely a *team* of people working there.

Only one of them is likely to be the right contact to pitch to, so it’s worth knowing which one that is.

Linkedin is useful for that.

Going direct to the ‘executive director’ or ‘CEO’ when there is a ‘programme manager’ or ‘artistic director’ is unlikely to get a response.

An extra tip if you’re struggling to get a response: if you can find a booking ‘assistant’ or similar, these peoples’ inboxes are often less full than the main decision-maker and can easily pass on your message if you make a good connection with them.

It’s not *just* about the music

This was an eye-opener…

Great music is essential but often not enough on its own.

Jazz promoters also need to feel they can sell it to their audience, so your responsibility is to show them how.

One band (which shall remain nameless) in particular springs to mind:

Incredible musicians, great music…

But no album, no video, low-res press photos, out-of-date socials, no website, slow response times on emails…

There were some bookings from promoters who took the time to listen and who had a built-in audience they knew they could ‘sell’ it to.

But for sure there were a lot of missed opportunities completely unrelated to the music.

Different promoters, different pitches

It’s tempting – especially when you have a long list of possible gig promoters – to fire out message after message, copy-and-paste style.

But whilst this might feel productive, it misses an important thing: pitching to a promoter the way *they* want to be pitching to.

  • Some want live video, some prefer promotional clips.
  • Some like the occasional phone call, some hate it if you call them.
  • Some book on Tuesdays, others book in March.

Unless you’re reaching out personally, researching and keeping notes on the promoter, you won’t be able to factor in those details which can make the difference between ‘gig’ and ‘no gig’.

Deposits as standard

Whilst 99% of promoters out there are taking care of their business, you’ll inevitably cross the occasional one (as in any line of work) who is running a bit too close to the wire, financially.

To avoid issues of non-payment in the event of poor ticket sales, it’s important (unless you have a long working relationship with someone) to get money up front.

There is no problem – especially if travelling outside your region or country – in asking for deposits; in fact, it’s the norm for most gigs.

If anything, it will show the promoter you’re operating a serious business, which is what they want.

Tied in with that, no gig is too small to ask for a simple contract which outlines the deal and both parties’ responsibilities.

Trust me: having to chase down a payment once you’ve done the work (and with no signed contract) is a lot harder!

Email Subject Lines Count a LOT

Imagine every day you get 100 emails into your inbox.

For a lot of promoters, that’s the reality.

If you do the maths, you’ll quickly see that it’s not feasible for them to open, read and digest each one.

When trying to tidy up an inbox, the easiest things to scan (or delete completely) are ones that come from people you don’t know, or that are obviously promotional.

A good, intriguing, personalised subject line is your first tool in getting that email open and the music heard.

NB: If your email subject lines include “booking request” then it’s likely a lot of promoters will delete without reading.

Ask for a piano up front

This point could relate to lots of things, but most common is the issue of a piano.

Booking a gig for a piano trio and then assuming there’s a piano seems logical, but doesn’t always work out, even if you’ve seen a photo of one on their website…

Confirming a gig and then sending a rider which includes a piano, similarly doesn’t always work out.

Anything which is *essential* to the gig should be flagged up as part of the initial pre-offer discussion.

If they don’t have a piano, you can make a decision about whether to use a substitute or turn down the show.

Two weeks away from the gig when you find out there’s no acoustic available, your options are a lot more limited.

Video is KEY

In an ideal world, a promoter will listen to your album, check out your website and digest your social media posts.

In reality they will (at best) make a quick scan of what you’re doing. If you can allow them to do that via video, they will get a lot more information.

Decide what your single most persuasive piece of video content is and make the sole ‘call to action’ of your initial pitching emails: “watch this”

Saying ‘No’ to gigs is a thing

Seems strange to say, but sometimes saying ‘no’ to a gig (even if you *really* want to play) is the right move.

Or at least “not now”…

For example, a nice venue 3 hours from your city offers you a gig. It’s 2 months before your next album release and you have nothing else booked.

Asking to push it into a later period when you can connect as part of a tour and promote a new record would probably be the right thing to do, even if that means waiting another year.

When booking gigs, we constantly need to zoom out and look at the big picture.

“Is this gig helping us towards the next level?”

A one-off gig that sells badly because there’s little promotion is massively less valuable than that same gig, slotted into a tour which is the shared widely with your contacts and on social media.

Similarly, an offer from a club in a country you’ve been trying to get into for ages, with no other shows around it, can easily lose you money.

Unless you have a really good reason to justify that (for example, there’s an agent who wants to see the show, or a press opportunity tied into it) it makes sense to say “not now”…

As painful as it is, say no sometimes!

Ask for an offer

When negotiating a gig fee, try to let the promoter make an offer first.

If it’s too low, you can tell them. If it’s a little more than you would normally ask, maybe you’ve been underselling yourself!

Whilst you’ll usually both be hovering around the same area financially if you’ve done your homework, I can say from past experience that occasionally you’ll get a nice surprise!

Promoters talk

Every ‘industry’ person you already know could unlock the door to 10 other clubs, festivals, promoters.

They talk and share ideas and if you make sure to keep in touch with them and show them how things are progressing, there’s a good chance they’ll help you spread the word.

That’s why in-person networking, and even digital “check ins” are so important; they keep your project fresh in peoples’ minds, ready for the next opportunity that arrives.

Spreadsheets are your friend

Who knew, after all those long boring IT classes, that spreadsheets would end up being your best friend.

If you’re looking to book gigs consistently, you need to get organised. And from tour research and contact lists to budgets and schedules, spreadsheets are an effective way of managing things.

It’s one of the many admin-style skills which are important to learn as a modern-day musician; watch some tutorials, sharpen up your skills and then see the benefits in time-saved and more efficient booking.

Thanks for reading.

I’m sure there are more (agents: feel free to share in the comments section…) but hopefully these will give you some help with your booking work.

If you’re looking for more articles and resources on this topic, head to our Jazz Gigs homepage.

If you’d like a more specific strategy for improving your gig booking, join me for the How To Get More Jazz Gigs course.

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