How to Book a Show and Negotiate Your Rate
You’ve got your live show together. It’s tight. You’ve got your stage rig set. Your merch and your promo assets are all in-line and ready to go (and if they’re not, check out our links to help you). So, what’s the next step so you can start booking yourself with sure-fire success?
Turns out, there’s a lot you can do before you ever pick up the phone or send out one email to a venue booking agent.
Get In The Know
Start by doing your research and getting out into your local scene. Network with other bands in town. Form friendships and alliances. If other musicians in town see that you’re a devoted supporter of the local scene, they’re much more likely to call you and ask you to open for them. Moreover, bands, venue managers, radio personnel, and music reviewers often know each other and hang out socially. Get in with the in-crowd so that you’re just one degree of separation from the decision-makers at the clubs you want to play. By far the best way for you to book your gigs is through a personal connection.
Customize Your Strategy
Pay attention to which clubs are booking which artists. Study each club’s calendar, look for patterns in their lineups, and also scan for openings in their schedules. For example, do they tend to highlight female-led groups on Wednesday nights? Can this work to your advantage if you propose a double bill in which your band (supposing you’re all ladies) teams up with another team of women in town? The more you know about your local scene and the primary players in it, the more you can put your connections to work for you.
Cold Calls vs. The Personal Touch
It’s a commonly accepted truth that cold calls are not the best way to get your foot in the door. So, as much as you can, get the introduction before you send your EPK. Is your buddy playing a new brewery in town? Go down and support him, and ask him to introduce you to the booking agent after the show. In an instant, what would have been an anonymous pitch turns into a personal connection that’s sure to open the door for you.
If you do start with a cold call, be patient if you don’t hear back. Realize that at many clubs the booking agent receives up to 1000 emails from different bands per week. These are extremely busy people with an agenda of their own and many threads of communication going at once. If you don’t get a response, do not take it personally and never call attention to the delay or use a critical, complaining tone. Be politely persistent. Remind the booker why your band is a good fit for their venue – especially how your music can complement a particular spot in their calendar or niche that they’re trying to fill. With that in mind, however, don’t propose a specific date. Give a range of your availability – for example, mid-May to end-of-June. If you’re booking a tour, you’ll naturally want to narrow down your available dates to fit with your ideal routing. But, if you offer a range of potential dates, you’ll open up more possibilities which can get the conversation rolling. Whereas, if you suggest one date in particular, it limits your chances that the club will have availability – and it could make the difference between getting a great response or no response at all.
Slow and Steady: Build from the Ground Up
Another rule of thumb, when it comes to booking gigs: start small. Leave your ego out of the equation and shoot for 100% capacity attendance, even if it means booking a room half the size of where you want to be. With this kind of approach, you’re in a much better position to be able to tell your next target booker that you sold out your last five shows – instead of sheepishly making excuses for why you only sold half the seats of a room that was too big. While you’re at it, make it a goal to connect with every single one of the people who do attend those smaller gigs. Get their email addresses and treat them like real fans. Then, when you do land the larger gig in the more prestigious (and bigger) hall, reach out to them and lean on them hard to attend – and bring friends. Starting with a solid and slowly-built fanbase will serve you as you expand your audience and the venues where you play.
Navigating the Deal
Once you get the venue’s attention, you’re going to want to negotiate your best rate. Find out what kind of deal the club typically offers (and better yet, find this out from some of your local musician friends who have played all the clubs before you get to this point. You can save yourself time and frustration by pursuing the clubs that offer the best deals).
In “How to Make it in the New Music Business,” author and independent music blogger Ari Herstand gives a complete run-down of the various types of deals that are common in clubs and performance halls today. In brief, stay away from deals that require you to purchase your tickets up-front, or deals in which the venue charges a “rental fee.” Better deals that are worth pursuing are: flat rate, door split or door split after expenses; and guarantee vs. percentage of the door.
Flat rate (aka, Flat fee)
As the name implies, this kind of deal is pretty straightforward. You arrive at a pre-determined rate and the venue pays it no matter what the turnout is. This kind of deal might be good for a mid-week show when you have no other option, or if you know that your merch sales are going to carry the evening for you. (In this case, be sure to ask the venue if they take a cut of merch sales – more on this later).
Door Split and Door Split after expenses
These are usually decent deal structures, in which the artist and the venue split the receipts often 80-20 or 70-30 (the higher amount goes to the artist), either from the first dollar or after expenses. In the latter case, the venue might deduct their expenses from the gross receipts before calculating the door split. If you’re negotiating this kind of deal, be sure to address what expenses are anticipated. Usually, “expenses” include the soundman and some promotion, but get specific. Don’t get caught on the night-of-show with a surprise $1500 tab off the top for “marketing” – or, for the hotel room and meals that you thought were comps! Ari also points out that when negotiating this kind of deal, remember that the venue is usually making money from bar sales, which are not included in your cut. So, if it’s a 21+ show, you might feel confident to negotiate a better percentage for yourself; the venue will make up for their cut with alcohol sales. At the same time, remember that shows that include all-age audiences usually require more security personnel (a cost to the venue), and an earlier curfew time (less alcohol revenue to the venue).
Guarantee vs. %
This structure of deal is commonly used with established acts, and when the venue can make a calculated estimate of what the minimum draw will be. The venue will offer a guaranteed amount, which they will feel confident they will be able to clear; and, if the ticket sales exceed the guarantee, a pre-negotiated split of ticket sales kicks in. If you’re negotiating this kind of deal, be sure to ask what the maximum capacity is, and what kind of promo the venue will be doing for you. It also helps to do your own promo to maximize your final take. Let’s look at Ari’s example, to better understand how this kind of deal breaks down:
Example deal: $1000 Guarantee vs. 80% of the door. Tickets are $10 each. Max capacity: 500 people.
If 500 people attend, artist receives $10/ticket X 500 people X 80% = $4,000.
But if only 50 people attend, the Artist receives the Guarantee ($1,000), even though the venue only collects 50 X $10 = $500.
Ari makes a great point here, to say that with this kind of low turnout, the Artist would score big bonus points by kicking back a gratuity to the club as a sign of good faith – and, they’d be sure to be invited back because a gesture like that does not go unnoticed.
Additional negotiating points
One important negotiating point is to ask if the venue takes a percentage of your merch sales. If so, is the percentage negotiable? And, if the venue does take a cut, what does the venue provide (such as: a prominent, well-lit sales space? Are they also selling their own merch, which will compete with yours?) Ask if the venue will have Merch Sales personnel for the duration of the evening (you don’t want to miss out on potential sales just because the venue’s merch person took a cigarette break). And, ask if you or your own Merch Manager can assist, stand-by, be on-hand to answer questions about the product. Finally, if this is a factor, be absolutely sure that you allow time and are organized about counting in and counting out your product. Be sure the venue provides a thorough accounting at the end of the night, and always double-check your numbers.
In some circumstances, the venue will bundle accommodations and/or meals into the deal. Be sure to negotiate this in advance. If your hotel is not included, ask the venue if they have a corporate rate at a hotel that’s nearby. And, if the venue has an in-house restaurant, get the details about what’s included (or not included) for your band before you finalize the deal.
The Confirmation Email
After you’ve negotiated the deal and confirmed the gig, you absolutely need to finalize it in writing. Although not every venue is going to issue a formal contract, it is helpful to have all the details in one summary email that the venue can confirm for you – and which therefore serves as a written agreement. Ari’s version is fantastic, so we’re going to quote from his list of details, and add a few of our own. We like this, because it serves as a comprehensive at-a-glance page in your Tour Book for when you’ve got a different venue (and different deal) to track each night on tour. When you secure your gig, make this part easy for the venue: Fill out all of the details that you can, and ask the venue to complete the parts you don’t know. Send your Stage Plot/Tech Rider along with this email, and be sure to include your EPK link, including Bio and promo photos so the venue can start promotion immediately!
Terms/Deal, including method of payment, cancellation terms, etc.:
Advance Tickets Link:
Tickets available at Box Office?:
Box office Phone #:
Box office Hours:
Box Office Location:
Guest List # (how many allowed?):
Supply guest list to: (door manager name; deadline; email in advance, etc?)”
Artist Performance time, if different from Show time (applicable for multiple bills):
Number Travelling in band/crew:
Sound person (name):
Advance with (name, phone, email):
Venue day-of contact phone #:
Production contact #/email:
Artists day-of contact phone #:
Promo Bio / EPK link:
As a working musician, your live show can prove to be the most lucrative part of your multiple income stream strategy. Approaching the booking process with confidence and patience, coupled with the right skills, will land you the gigs you deserve and the income you need. When you land the gigs you’re after, check out our article on how to Maximize Your Earning Potential at your live shows, and you’ll soon be on your way to making a living from your music, full-time.