Booking your first out of town show is much like losing your virginity:
My first time came in 2003. My now defunct hip hop band, First Team, released our debut project, Anti-Social. We'd been playing all over Atlanta, and began building a decent following; however, after months of playing the same songs to the same people in the same places, we decided to step our game up and book some out of town gigs.
Because I didn't have the dough to buy them initially, I would sit in the cafe section of Border's until it closed with a notebook and copy information on venues from books like The Musician's Atlas and Billboard's Musician's Guide To Touring and Promoting. For those who may not know, these books are probably some of the most important things that an independent artist can own. They are released annually, and provide very useful information. For me, it was the state by state listing of venues and press.
I didn't have a computer at the time, so I would spend an expensive amount of hours at Kinko's, and would run up my cell phone bill calling the venues to make sure the information was valid. After two months of red eyes, deteriorated hearing, and cotton mouth I narrowed it down to about 100 venues that we could potentially play at. Now it was time to hit it.
Back then, there were no epk's and "send me a link to your myspace". If you wanted a show you had to send it by snail mail. That meant a bio in color (none of Microsoft Word shit), an 8.5"x11" black and white photo, a CD with at least 3 songs on it, and a couple of press clippings in a manila envelope with a stamp.
Knowing that Kinko's would cost me an arm and a leg to get that done, I went to Staples where it only cost me my left arm. Since I am right handed I didn't mind it so much. I put the packets together, and took them up to the post office to hold the line up for 20 minutes while the lady weighed every package and put the right postage on it.
Altogether, I spent something like $500, which was my entire check, to get the packets together and send them out, and I hadn't even booked a show yet. It had to be done though, so I didn't complain to anyone, but I did get a second job so that I could make rent.
From everything that I'd read and was told by people that toured regularly, I should wait a few weeks and then contact these places about shows. Well, that took a whole other batch of trips to Kinko's, and minutes ran up on my cell phone. It got so bad that Sprint switched me over to an unlimited plan that cost $100/month, and it cut down my bill by a couple of hundred.
Another couple of weeks went by and I finally got a reply from one spot in Chapel Hill, NC called The Skylight Exchange. The deal was that we could have the door, and something to eat. Really? Shit, we would've probably done the show for a bottle of Tequila and a pack of cigarettes (I don't think any of us even smoked cigs, but you get the point). I told everyone in the band the good news. Now all we had to figure out was how we're going to get there.
There were 5 of us and our equipment (bass, guitar, drum kit, and amps) to account for so we couldn't just take one of our cars. Instead, we had the bright idea to rent a 15 passenger van so we could ride up in comfort and style. Besides, we weren't worried about it because we'd make it all back at the show.
The drive from The A to Chapel Hill was about 6 hours, which was more than enough time to allow my imagination to set the stage of what was to come at the end of this trek.
How many folks would be at the show? Around 100
How much merch should I aim to sell? After the crowd hears us play, we'd probably sell everything we had, which was around 50 CD's.
Then I thought, "Damn, maybe I should've brought more"; however, once we got there I realized that I'd probably brought too many.
By day, The Skylight Exchange was a small independent book store, and hang out spot for many of the "better than Barnes and Noble" hipster kids that showed their disgust for the corporatacracy by shopping at "indie" multi million dollar chains like Urban Outfitters. We felt pretty good about that though, because that was our core college audience.
The thing that made us say, "Whoa!" was the performance space. Basically, after 8:30 they cleared out the tables and chairs in the middle of the floor, put a riser for the drums there, and it was showtime. This didn't even bother us. Shit it was a show...our first show out of town. It didn't matter where we were playing to us as long as the people came and we made money. Then I looked to my right, and got bothered.
About a month earlier, I had printed up about 400-600 fliers and 20 posters and sent them up to Skylight, as they'd asked. I was under the assumption that they were going to be putting some up and handing them out to promote the show coming up, but I should've known what happens when I assume.
Bringing everyone up to speed on what the situation was, we decided to take the stack of fliers and pass them out after sound check. Not fully letting go of my visions of playing a packed house, I figured if we took the couple of hours we had before the show and hustled fliers, we could still live that reality.
We hit Franklin St (the main street in Chapel Hill) hard. We taped fliers on poles, put them on parked cars, handed them to folks walking down the street, and hit up the workers in restaurants.
We handed out so many fliers that people were like, "You guys just gave me one".
Despite that, we had more than half the stack left. That's when we stopped and actually looked around to notice that, even though we told everyone we came across about the show, there weren't that many people out and about, especially for a Friday night in a town supported by a major university.
My first thought was that there was a football game going on, but since it was Friday I dispelled that pretty quickly. Then I thought maybe there was an out of town game going on; however, this was University of North Carolina football in the early 2000's...not basketball. So I would think it highly unlikely that the town would be practically deserted of its student populous for just another game.
Stumped, I did what I should have done in the first place, ask someone walking down the street about it. We were told that the school was on Fall Break. "Fall Break?", I thought to myself, "What the hell?" Between the 5 of us, First Team had 3 Bachelors Degrees, a Masters, and almost 30 years worth of college under our belts, and none of us knew what Fall Break was.
To be honest it didn't matter much, because the bottom line was that we were about to play a show in a town that...
...we'd never been to.
...wasn't promoted by the club/bookstore.
...was on Fall Break.
Still we kept our chins up and our faith in the night strong (most likely because that's all we had left at this point). Some of it paid off before the night was over, too. Of the 30 people in attendance, at least 20 were met while on our last minute promotional blitz, we sold 20 CD's, and walked away with $60 off of the door (we decided to drop the door to $2 from $5 because of all of the things that came to light that night).
After the show, we drove straight back to Atlanta, spending the entire six hours conversing about the night, and how dope it was. Over the next couple of years, we played Chapel Hill four more times (Three of which being at The Skylight, including once when Yahya (our drummer) fell off of the drummer riser in the middle of a show), booked shows throughout the Southeast regularly, and had a national tour. I attribute all of that, including my solo career, to that night in Chapel Hill.
Quanstar is an American underground hip hop artist, indie filmmaker, comic creator, and self published author from Atlanta.