A couple of weeks ago I played a show to 7 people...yep, 7 people. Let me rewind a little. I have a tour series called “The Just Bust Tour." What we do is book shows all over with local, regional, and national talent. The purpose is to get independent music in front of crowds that would love it, and present it to them in the right way, as a show with great performances, DJ’s spinning, and dancers (coming soon).
On most occasions, I book 3 shows, then come home and insert myself back into husbandry, fatherhood, and mindless employment. This time, however, there was a little hiccup in the plans. One show fell through, and the other was cancelled. With three weeks to go, that left just the final show, which was 9 hours away. Driving that far for one show was possible, but tough. Very tough. So what would be the logical thing to do?
Right off the bat, one would think to try to reschedule the show; however, with not much time left, it would be pretty hard for the venue and promoter to find another act to book in time. This could have several negative consequences. The most critical of which being that we wouldn’t get a show through that promoter or venue in that city again.
Also, I’d already spent money on flyers and posters. Besides, we’ve played this particular place on more than one occasion, and averaged between 70 to 100 people a show. So there was no reason to think it would be different; however, it was. By the time of the show, which was around midnight, there were 7 paying people who'd come through the door.
Now, I could’ve pulled the “ungrateful artist” role that many indies tend to use as their default and argue with the promoters and ask them now useless questions like:
I chose not to, though. Instead, I stayed smiling and professional, conducting myself the same as if the spot was packed to capacity. Went on stage, rocked our set, and thanked everyone for coming to see us. The promoters came to apologize for the turn out. I told them, “It’s cool, you win some and lose some. We’ll both make sure that it’s a better a show next time." The owner of the spot then came up to me, and said, “I don’t know why the crowd was so thin tonight. I’m sorry. You guys were awesome as usual." Then he gave me money from the bar’s cash register to help cover our expenses, even though we were supposed to have just gotten a cut of the door. That covered our gas up to the show and back home. If I would have acted an ass, I would've walked away with a loss.
The moral of the story is that the professional artist always trumps the asinine artist in the long term.
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.
Every artists’ career is made or broke by marketing and infrastructure. Marketing is your advertising and is the engine that drives the car in the race. The best marketing strategies are pretty simple and easy to execute. All have general tasks across the board, but vary on specific terms and tactics which are based on the artist and the demographic that is being targeted. I am currently working on a series of articles that deal with marketing to the “underground hip hop” (I hate that phrase) and college demographics. This will take a few months to complete, so by process of elimination, my next three articles are about infrastructure.
Your infrastructure is all about who’s handling your marketing and revenue streams; in other words, the pit crew that makes that engine run. The most important components of this is management, publicity, and booking. They determine how you’re going to get out there, who’s getting your music, where your music should be pushed, and when is the best time to put your music out there. For many independent hip hop artists all these questions are dealt with and answered by one person…you. This in itself is a pretty huge task, especially when adding the time and concentration it takes to write songs. Overwhelmed by these tasks, most artists, including myself, have shopped the market for help to alleviate some of the pressures of the “Do It Yourself” lifestyle; however, in the process of looking for a manager, booking agent, and/or publicist I can probably guarantee that most run across one of these people:
This perfect storm of give and take makes it nearly impossible to know who’s legit. I felt like I was making nothing more than a guess, and I wasn’t; however, I wanted that guess to be an educated one so I hit the books at my favorite “free read” spot, Border’s. The following articles are some of the things that I’ve learned about each.
Part 1 of 3
Booking a tour is very meticulous. First, you have to figure out where you want to go, then you have to contact all of the promoters and clubs in each area. Compensation has to be negotiated, contracts sent and received, and, in most cases, deposits made. Booking agents take this stressful task out of the hands of the artist. Good booking agents are aggressive, and fight hard to get their clients the money they deserve. They DO NOT increase your money. If you average $500/show before you have an agent, you’ll probably get the same with the agent minus their fee.
Here are some things that you should know before looking to to hire one though. First, a booking agent’s standard fee is about 10%-15%. If an agent asks you for a flat fee, like some might, they are probably not very legit. Why would you want to even do it anyway? If you have someone working strictly of a percentage of what you make, then it is only obvious that they would bust their ass to get you your dough because they get paid only from you getting paid. So be prepared to give that agent $50-$75 per show for that $500 that you’re making. It’s worth it.
Please note, though, that just because you’re looking for a good booking agent doesn’t mean that they are looking for you. For one, unless you’re signed to a major labor or a touring heavy hitter none of the bigger firms will fuck with you (though there may be a few exceptions); the smaller agencies typically always have a full roster because if they don’t they probably won’t eat.
The next thing, which is always hardest for entertainers to grasp, is that you may not be worth their time. Booking agents, as stated before, are compensated through a percentage of what you make. You being paid $300/show may not be worth their time, because that means that they would only get $30/show. For example, $300/show at 100 shows/year is $30,000. The booking agent would get $3000 of that. This is small beans in eyes of the booking machine; however, there are instances where agents may take you on as a client because of your upside. Who knows?
Also, another reason why a booking agent may not be interested in picking you up is because hip hop is a specialized art form that deals with specific crowds. Meaning that, unless you are an established artist, there may not be 100 shows/year worth any real money available to you.
Despite all of that, if you want a booking agent you should look into getting one; however, make sure your ducks are lined up because first impressions are everything in this business. Here are some quick points:
My first national tour
First off, let me apologize for the late release of this month’s article. I’ve been having the hardest time deciding what this issue was going to about. My first thought was to do it on how to book shows, then it was on getting press, then it was going to be about promotions; however, I decided against these because every one of the 12 million music industry books out there can tell you how to do any or all of these things. The purpose of Indie Hip Hop 101 is to give insight past the surface issues. So I mulled over it for a few weeks, but still came up with a blank. And then I talked to a young aspiring emcee who will remain nameless, and got slapped right in the face with it.
This cat was asking me about how I put together all of these tours with no money or radio play. So I told him a little of how I go about doing what I do. Even though I was putting in an effort to be careful not to overload or discourage him, I could tell by his facial expression that I was failing miserably. I pressed on though, because he needed to hear it. Then the youngster slides out, “How do you make your money?” I laughed and replied, “Very carefully.” In truth, that’s when the light bulb went on in my head.
The issue with the game today is that new artists have been brain washed by reality shows and fake “record deal” contests into thinking that it’s an easy feat to survive and succeed in this business. They think that the money’s fast and the fame lasts (that rhymes. I think I’m putting it in a song). So the next few months are going to deal with the realities of the business, or more specifically, the “how-to” behind the “how-to.”
My first national tour
The first time that I booked a national tour was with my band, First Team. I booked it out to Cali, up to Portland, and back to Atlanta. This was going to be monumental for a few reasons:
It accomplished all of that and more. I think we sold close 450 CD’s, which was about 28 CD’s/show. Also, we made a name for ourselves with a lot of promoters in a lot of cities. All in all it was perfect…not. The truth is, that with all of the good and great that came from the tour, there was a whole bunch of behind the scenes shit that made me want to pull out my hair.
For most independent artists, your first tour will be your hardest to book, it will take the most time to book, it will cost you a lot, and you will lose the most money. I can almost guarantee it. The silver lining, though, is that you have to do it any way. I know, not much of a silver lining. Okay, try this one. Everything begins with a step, and if you don’t take this first step, you will never have the opportunity to take a second. Hip hop is full of cats that never take a first step; just look around the scene of your hometown.
My first step took me almost 6 months at 4 hours/day to book 16 shows. All of this on top of already having a full time gig, a woman, and still booking and promoting all of our local and regional shows. Since this was before Myspace totally blew up the digital world, everything I did was by mail. Which meant that I sent out 6 months’ worth of press kits, which was about 275-300, at about $1.50 each. That’s not including the price of the ink it took to print the press kits and CD’s.
What it took to book the tour paled in comparison to what it took to actually leave: I had to get a rental that would fit all five of us and our equipment; the cost of CD manufacturing; gas. Plus, leaving money with my lady to cover rent, bills, and expenses.
Then, you have to somehow figure in that things won’t go as planned. Two months before the tour I reserved a minivan, but when I got to the rental place they were completely out and didn’t know when the next one would be in. So after bitching, a couple of curse words, and a where’s your supervisor, they gave me a week free on the rental; however, the largest thing that they had was a Durango. I don’t know if you know about a Durango, but it’s not an ideal vehicle for a band and their equipment. So somehow we had to fit our bags, the drums, our two amps, and two guitars in this. We did it, too; it just wasn’t very pretty or comfortable.
Once we were on the tour, there were a couple of things that we had to account for. In most places, we were given hotels, but there were a few places where we had to accommodate ourselves. Eating out killed us too. We ate at A&W, Burger King, McDonald’s, Whataburger, Jack In The Box, Taco Cabana, and everywhere else you can name. I spent at least $20/day on eating; however, none of this combined even came close to the price of gas. Also, we were touring with Dropbombs, and their van broke down somewhere in Kansas. So we had to find them, rent a trailer, and tow the van back to Atlanta. Truth be told, the only reason we sold 450 CD’s was because we needed to to get back home.
All in all, to leave Atlanta cost us about $1200/each, and we came back with $200/each, which I spent on the next bill that came through the door. However, by most standards, the tour was a flying success. After the band broke up, Evaready RAW and I continued to tour as solo artists. Two tours later we broke even. The next tour after that, I netted 3 months rent.
Soon after that, the economy tanked and those guarantees were either split in half or turned to door splits, and hotel rooms turned to crashing at the promoters crib. We still toured very successfully, but we revamped how we did so. I became smarter and more efficient with our money and time. Here’s some of the things that I learned:
Quanstar is an American underground hip hop artist, indie filmmaker, comic creator, and self published author from Atlanta.