We first interviewed Chris White for Cycle 1 of Independent Scene (check out the interview on www.independentscene.com) Chris is the creator of the Brantford-based solo acoustic act Fire Star, as well as the guitarist and backup vocalist for the Toronto quintet, Benhur. An amazing talent, he wowed us all with his roof-top performance for Independent Scene. Below, check out what he has to say to indie acts about booking shows.
Shows: they’re the mainstay of any musician worth their salt, and the backbone of a band’s ability to gain exposure and make money to further their endeavors.
How the hell do I get a show?!? (you, the newly minted musician say)
Good question! So, you’ve got a band, or you’re a solo artist just starting out?
Yeah! Should I go to an open mic night?
No! Don’t go to open mic nights. Open mics are for people who can’t put an actual show together, or find a show on their own. It's one thing to go to an open mic to see what’s you’re capable of, hone songwriting skills, or get over stage fright, but once you know you've got what it takes it’s time to go find yourself a real show.
Alright! Who the hell do I call?
Anybody! Look close to home first at local clubs, bars, and cafes that have live music; most will want to support local artists. Once you’ve tried everything in the immediate area, branch out to other cities and towns. As a general rule it’s best to stay within an hour’s drive. That gives you a big net to cast for little travel cost. Selecting the right venue may seem like common sense, but it’s important to keep in mind where your audience is. Make sure you find out what a venue is looking for. Do they want 4 hours of cover tunes or 30 minutes of originals?
I want to play my own songs! I don’t want to play covers!
Don’t be averse to playing covers. We all have great art that we want to promote, but you have to accept that, at least in the beginning, the average person may not take an interest. A good way to get people interested is by playing familiar songs. There’s nothing wrong with it; other people's music is what got you into music in the first place. Besides, playing covers at bars, cafes, weddings and other events is a great way to make money and promote your music. I've sold many a CD at gigs where I was playing purely covers.
These bookers never return my calls and emails!
Be persistent, and by persistent I mean be prepared to harass the shit out of people. Some people (for reasons unbeknownst to me), when asked about performing at their venue, will simply not respond. This is BS and you should not stand for it. I've sent one poor person emails that were actually titled "harassing email # 1 through 7 before they relented and sent one back, I'm now on number 4 again. Another gig I booked just recently required over 15 emails and phone calls just to get the booker to give me an answer (that was fortunately positive), and I still not sure they ever even listened to the tracks. However, you should be prepared to take no for answer: some places have plenty of bands, for some you aren't the right style. Just don’t take no answer at all for an answer. Above all, you should always be professional. Being courteous and patient will sometimes be the edge that gets you a gig with less hassle.
I want to get paid, dammit!
Do ask about compensation (and yes, compensation is the right word to use). You're playing music, you're good at it, and what you do has value, any venue or person who thinks you should play for free (or worse, "pay to play") can do the biologically inappropriate thing of your choice. Keep in mind some places have different budgets and different clienteles. Some places have a built in draw, other don’t. Again, be prepared to be accommodating. Typical compensation schemes are the rare and coveted flat rate (eg. $200 for 4 hours playing), the more common and fair till percentage (eg. you get 15% of the bar sales during the time you’re playing), and the door cover charge (eg. charge what you want at the door, you keep it).
They want me to draw a crowd out, where do they get off!?!
Some places will only let you play if you have a mystical thing called a following. If you have one, or have a group of dedicated friends and want to use it as leverage to get a show, that’s fine, but don’t lean on your friends for every show. They'll support you, yes, but traveling long distances or paying $10 every weekend to see someone they've known their whole life do something they've done their whole life will wear thin, real fast. After multiple shows, even true fans will get a little tired. Play shows sparingly if you must, no more than once a month in the same city with the same crowd.
I just saw this great opportunity on Craig’s List …
Be very careful with what you find on the internet. Online searches and postings are valuable tools, but it sometimes takes a keen eye to spot a genuinely good opportunity. Don’t ever take a gig where the promoter requires you to sell tickets, PERIOD. There is a word for those kind of shows: they are called scams. Gigs that only rewards you a dollar or two (or whatever) based on your draw aren’t much better, but aren’t the end of the world. Just keep an eye on the ratio of compensation. Charity shows are not a bad bet either, but be sure they’re legit. More than a few people have made off with money by calling their show a charity (which is, of course, illegal).
As always, make sure you capitalize on every show opportunity you get by having things handy like a mailing list, merchandise, CDs or samples, and business cards. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry, it seems like it’s tough to do, but with a few tries you’ll soon get the hang of booking yourself shows and getting paid to do what you love.
If you want to check out Chris White live (and we highly recommend you do) check out his MySpace at www.myspace.com/firestarskies for upcoming show dates.