Live Shows: Tips to Maximize your Earning Potential
As a savvy musician today, you’re probably well aware that you need to develop multiple income streams in order to realize your goal of making money from your music full-time.
But even if you’re determined to write a chart-topping hit that will pay you big royalties – or, if you’d rather make your millions (ok, at least thousands) with a successful YouTube or Social Media brand – being a pro-touring artist is still one of the best strategies to secure your career.
Live shows give you a chance to increase your fanbase with solid, personal interactions – and, live shows and tours give you an immediate financial return. There’s nothing like walking away from the merch table and your show settlement at the end of the night, with enough cash to cover your expenses, pay this month’s rent, and finally afford that new amp you’ve had your eye on since last year.
To succeed, you’ve got to work like a pro to master the art of touring and performing live so that each opportunity delivers the dollars.
Here are a few pointers.
Get Your Live Show Ready
Develop a few different versions of your live show to suit a variety of different gigs and listening audiences. Invest the time so that not only is your music tight, but your on-stage banter comes naturally, and is appropriate for a range of audiences. Plan ahead about how to handle on-stage mishaps and awkward silences – and even, what you’d do if the venue’s sound system (or your gear) failed entirely. Be able to play in various formations, either with your bandmates or as a solo act, for those times when it’s just more financially viable to strike out on your own.
Make sure to learn a few standards and covers so that you can easily jam with unexpected guests if the opportunity should arise. If the venue owner happens to want to drop in and play a song with you, be ready and you’ll come off as a star at spontaneous improv! Likewise, it doesn’t hurt to pepper your show with the occasional sing-along and crowd-pleaser, no matter the genre – as long as the songs in your repertoire resonate with your particular audience. Having a few standbys in your arsenal can lift the mood of a crowd or bring the room together when the chatter is on the rise. Put some thought into your onstage wardrobe and consider developing a few holiday tunes to tailor your show to the season.
Get Your Booking Game On
Starting locally is usually the best way to begin, especially if your town has a few different live venues. You want to build your fanbase on your own stomping ground where your friends (and their friends) can help you build your connections and your numbers. But whether you’re setting out to play at home or on the road, it helps to do your research. The more organized you are, the more success you’re going to have. Track which venues are hosting other musicians whose repertoire is similar to yours. Opt for venues with smaller capacity, especially when you’re starting out; industry experts agree that it’s better to sell out a smaller room, than have a larger room seem chilly with all those vacant seats. Determine where you have friends who can help to host you, and save on motel costs – this will help you determine the routing that works best for you. And don’t underestimate the power of the House Concert, both to round out your itinerary and to widen your listening audience (house concert hosts pretty much always have their own mailings lists, and it doesn’t hurt to put yourself in front of an audience that trusts their host to cherry-pick quality acts; just make sure that you put your mailing list sign-up sheet, front-and-center with your merch selection, so you can keep in touch with your new fans, directly).
Make the Most of Your Time on Tour
When you’re out on-tour, use your time wisely so you maximize the hours you spend away from home. While you’re exploring new markets, reach out to local radio and music stores; arrange sponsorships with local artisans; develop a workshop you can offer that complements the interests of your fanbase and brings in new followers; document your travels with daily “stories” or your social media; research any local “influencers” in the town you’re visiting, who you can collaborate with.
Is the third town on your tour known for its local craft brews? Contact that brewery and find out if they’d be interested in a sponsored radio performance. Or try this approach: is your own hometown known for a particular kind of chocolate? See if your local chocolatier would sponsor you, and supply a custom flavor for your fans.
Maximize Your Merchandising Potential
This is where your advance research is going to help you have a successful night. Rule #1 is to get there early. Be sure you know your load-in time, and then plan to arrive at least a half-hour before that to allow for rush-hour traffic and difficult parking.
There are all sorts of ways to maximize the experience of your live show, and create profit for you – but the most immediate way to realize extra cash at your live gig is to focus on your success at the Merch Table. Find out the merch deal before the gig, and use it as a negotiating point when setting your deal. Does the venue take 15%? Try to negotiate it down in advance (remember, that the last percentage that the venue might take could be your only profit margin after paying for CD shipping and the label’s wholesale price). If the venue insists on handling merch for you, ask if you or your Merch Manager can be on-hand to answer specific questions (and keep a hawk-eye on sales), and make sure that you inventory precise numbers before and after the night – don’t just hand over an uncounted box of CDs.
And, take a moment before doors open, to really evaluate the position of your Merch Table. If the venue has a pre-determined place where they usually sell merch, approach this one gently (eg. don’t burn your bridges). But often, good Merch Table placement can make or break a night financially. Make sure your selling spot is in a prominent position; if it’s too much in the entry hall of the club, people will walk right on by as they head out for the night. You want to catch people while they’re in the mood, and before they have their coats on. Ideally, your Merch Table should be visible as you perform; it should be well-lit (more on this later) and sign-posted, so that your fans get curious as they watch you play. Be sure you can get to your Merch Table immediately after you finish performing; if fans see you signing CDs and doing your meet-and-greet, they’ll be much more likely to come up and purchase something, just to have a chance to say hello.
If you don’t tour with a Merch Manager, recruit a loyal fan to manage your merch table specifically for the period when you’re onstage. Guaranteed, you will miss out on potential purchases if you don’t have someone there at all times. Even after your show, it helps to have someone managing sales so that you’re free to do autographs and chat without the stress of tending to sales. Make sure your Merch Manager is engaged, knows the basics about your products (like, which CD featured that first song you played). Be sure you count your items at the start and end of each night, then subtract your “bank” or cash reserve. Here at Musician’s BASS, we like to do a simple spreadsheet for each show, listing each item for sale, quantity at start/end of the night, quantity sold, selling price, and a place to list any complementary merch given away. Voila! There’s your merch settlement sheet, which you can easily reference the next time you tour this same area (as in: “Wow, we completely forgot that our fans in Eugene actually bought way more of our first CD than the fans in Portland did!”)
Get your Merch Table ready: travel with a lightweight and attractive fabric table cover that can double as a coverup to hide your gear when you park outside Denny’s after the show. Don’t underestimate the value of having a rig of compact, battery-powered lights (we like clip-on reading lights, which can stand alone or clip to a range of displays at each venue – they also come in handy as reading/navigation lights in the van or on long flights!) Pre-print signage for your Merch Table, with prices, package deals, press quotes, and highlights about feature products (examples: “New!” or “Recorded here in SF!”). Always have a stash of at least $50 in small bills to make quick change for your customers; set up Square or another mobile Credit Card processing option (check with your bank for options they may offer) – and always have extra sharpies (black, red, and silver) at the ready.
Go the extra mile and post your tour itinerary at your merch table. Anyone who approaches your table is not only a potential customer, they’re a potential word-of-mouth publicist. You may be looking at a sea of strangers in a town you’ve never been to, but the folks who come out to your show may very well have friends in the next town on your route…or, they might just drive to see you again. Make it easy for them to know where you’ll be next. Better yet, print up quarter-sheet handbills with your tour routing and details. Why not make it memorable with some creative graphics, so they’ll want to share?
Get Creative with Your Merch
Let’s face it, although CDs may still sell, they are fast becoming more of an expensive business card than a marketable way to share your music. Make sure you have an assortment of different items for sale at various price-points so that even your most modest fans can show their support. Ask yourself: What do my fans need? What would they want to take home? Here are a few examples as to how to think outside-the-box: Do your fans love your insanely beautiful lyrics? Why not hand-write your best lines on a stack of napkins from last night’s gig, and offer them as bonus gifts for each purchase? (Offer your autograph for free, of course).
Is there something you routinely use and throw away while on the road? Find ways to create memorable merch pieces. For example: Do you plow through guitar strings on tour? Pinpoint an Etsy star from among your fanbase and commission custom earrings or keychains from your used strings. Boom, it’s a win-win!
Above All Else, Build Your Fanbase and Stay in Touch
Beyond the immediate perk of merch sales each night, one of the central benefits that your live show or tour will afford you is new fans. Be sure to harness them as you perform with a multi-layer approach: encourage your public to follow you on social media and get those individual email addresses so you can communicate with them directly. Having a direct link to your fans is imperative because you can never guarantee that Social Media platforms will keep their formatting and organization consistent; if all of your fans are cultivated on one platform, imagine how destroyed you’d be if that platform suddenly disappeared!
Encourage your fans to share their email addresses and then use those points of contact. Reach out regularly. Share news and new releases that you’ve posted online. Encourage them to share your music or to communicate with you personally. It’s the one-on-one interactions that make the best impressions and cut through the anonymity and noise of the greater music industry.
The time, energy, and resources it takes to tour and perform live requires a serious commitment, but with smart strategies, you can make the most of it and maximize your earnings. Live shows give you a chance to interact with your audience in-person, which is the most memorable and effective way to connect. Live shows also give you a benchmark for your success and, once you see your audience grow steadily from one performance to another, your momentum will be unstoppable!