making it up as you go along:
the bad timing guide to being a promoter

(March 2004)

We interviewed Bad Timing the other week and all they wanted to talk about was putting gigs on. Not surpring really, they are promoters. Anyway, they agreed to write something about their experiences over the last couple of years and we agreed to stick in on the web and so here it is, and many thanks to them for it.


the basics
You might end up putting a gig on because you're looking to bring a style of music into your local scene. You might know, or be, a band or DJ, and want to play live. No matter how you come to be putting on a gig, you're going to need to organise booking the venue, ensuring anyone who needs to be paid (musicians, venue, sound engineer) actually gets paid, and making sure you've publicised the event well enough that people actually know there is something on and come down to see it.

what, when, why?
Know your local music scene, assuming there is one! Maybe there is no-one putting on what you want to see, but there may still be things you can learn from the existing scene - what kind of gigs do well, what days of the week work, what the venues are like and what kind of music goes on at them, and so on. If there are people doing the sort of thing you want to do, support them and hopefully learn from them. Also, pay attention to what kind of people come out to gigs - students, locals, people from out of town? For example, if students are a going to make up the majority of your punters, keep track of their holidays so you don't book a night when they'll be away.

Every town will be different in the way that venues work, and what sort of music can go on at particular venues. If you can't find the perfect venue, don't let that stop you putting things on. What you mainly need from a venue is for it to be affordable, professional, have good sound, and, hopefully, for it to be run by people who are helpful.

Find and work with a sound engineer - go to local gigs and see who is doing a good job at the sort of nights you're interested in. If you are hoping to put on a type of music that currently isn't represented in your town, you might have to guess who would work well with your gigs. Ideally you want someone who understands the type of music you are putting on, and is experienced enough to sort problems out when things go wrong.


why no-one came
Publicity is probably the biggest job of all, with the most potential to affect how well the gig goes. If no-one comes, no-one has a good time, and no-one gets paid. Plenty of informative and honest publicity (flyers, posters, on-line and press) is what you're looking for.

Contact the local press, listings and student magazines, and so on. Try to get preview articles where people will see them. Commercial papers are into previews, since the venues often advertise in them, and previews help people to come down. Student magazines and fanzines, on the other hand, are more likely to be up for printing reviews of your nights. Both are useful. Offer journalists free entry to your nights on a regular basis.

everybody does it
Find out (from the web or a press release) as much as you can about your acts and write at least a few lines about them where you can. Even if you know your act really well, it pays to see how they've been written about by others, especially if they've had some publicity before. Have a web site with all your gig information and include these little write-ups. Submit a few lines to the listing magazines. Produce more detailed write-ups for press previews. Pigeonholing stuff by genre is an evil everyone in the music industry has to deal with, but don't overestimate people's knowledge or memory for the names of lesser known bands and labels. Some people will also try out new stuff based on a description or other reference points like labels, collaborators or influences.
the bands
When starting out, look for up and coming artists who need and want more exposure, rather than going straight for established acts. Once your night begins to evolve and develop, and you have a history of promoting credible gigs with new or unheard of artists, then approaching a more established artist will be easier for you, and more attractive for the artist in question. If you can show the artist that you have a firm understanding of the music scene they are part of, by booking the right support acts and DJs, this will make your night more attractive to artists you want to play.

the dreaded local support
Even if you mainly hope to bring outside acts to your town, you should still work with local acts, who may want support slots, and who may help you to bring acts and punters in.

booking a band
Booking newer or smaller acts can help you get connections with labels and on to their mailing lists of upcoming tours. If your night goes well, you will hopefully get a good word-of-mouth rep with that artist and thus with the label. This can mean getting to book nights directly with the label/artist, rather than through an agent. But this isn't guaranteed: people on the same label may have no real connection personally, or even musically.

booking a touring band
If you want to book an act on tour, you'll probably have to deal with an agent. Some acts will refer you to their agent, or put agent contact details on their web site. Agents will probably want to get a guaranteed fee for their artist which you must pay, no matter how well your gig does. And if by some miracle you actually break into profit on the night, you'll quite often have to pay out a large percentage of that too. You may end up having to sign a contract with the agency. Especially for these gigs, you need to be sure you can get enough punters down to pay the guarantee! On top of that, you're likely to have to pay for food and drink (the "rider"), accommodation, and local travel. Often, the involvement of agents ends up making gigs cost too much to put on, sometimes as a result of London-centric ideas of how many people will come to see a certain artist, which may turn out to be unrealistic in a smaller town.

bastard agents
Agents tend to ask you to "make an offer" when booking an artist, rather than telling you how much the artist expects. This is almost certainly in the hope that you will offer more than they were prepared to accept. Since agents take a cut of the guarantee, you'd be forgiven for assuming the worst about this method of working. But remember, they are also trying to help their artist meet their expenses and earn a living. So don't treat this process too suspiciously, and just be honest: offer as much as you truly believe you can guarantee. If you miss out on the booking, at least you didnt bankrupt yourself.

Make sure you know what the artist's technical requirements on the night will be. Usually you will receive this information in advance. If you don't, ask for it! If you don't understand anything, ask your sound engineer or the venue. Often you'll have to improvise, but be sure to do your best getting these requirements satisfied. Check with artist or agent if you're not sure you can do it. Sometimes, tech riders can involve equipment rentals, something which obviously raises your costs on the night and you are expected to pay!

on the day

the school run
On the day of the gig, be ready to collect your artists from whereever they arrive, or to give directions if they're driving, and be able to meet them when they do arrive. The more you can do for them travel-wise, the happier they'll be.

loading in
Try to arrange early arrival times with your artists, and also early "get in" or "loading" times with your venue. This is the time when you get access to the venue, to get your artists' gear into the place.

Try to have at least a couple of hours before you open the doors to punters to fit all this in. Your artists will need to get set up, then spend time soundchecking (so your sound engineer needs to be here by now, too), then they'll probably want to eat something.

mind your Ps and Qs
There's a lot you can do to make a gig a better experience for you and the act, with only a little effort. Being polite, helpful, and making sure people have decent food and drink, can help a lot, especially when they might have travelled a long way on the day of the gig to play for you, and need to chill out briefly before going on. Treat them as guests, and how you'd like to be treated, and everyone will be happier at the end of the night.

will i enjoy it?
As a promoter, you might not get to enjoy gigs in the same way you do when you're just a punter. You'll almost certainly have to fuss over musicians, punters, venue staff, etc., during the gig instead of being able to become completely absorbed in the music, have a few drinks and relax. But these aspects of the gig are usually enjoyable.

will i lose money?
Only bother putting on music you like, otherwise you're less likely to be happy on the night and if things don't go well financially, the pain of losing money will be a lot greater.

Altogether, you've got a lot to do for publicity, a lot to manage on the night, and possibly a lot of financial risk to worry about as well. So don't try to do it all on your own: do it together with like-minded friends.

remember: it's all about the music
Last but not least: if you think you will make any money out of doing this, you're in the wrong game. You'll have to work hard just for the love of it, you'll have constant frustrations and worries, and you'll regularly be slightly or very out of pocket. But do it because you're into the music, and you won't regret it.

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