“So What Did I Do Wrong?”

So here’s a new segment called “Ask Grassrootsy”. Got specific questions about pursuing music, about promoting yourself, about anything relevant to this blog?  Send them in!  Your feedback is also appreciated. After reading an “Ask Grassrootsy” post, feel free to also post you comments and recommendations.

In this first installment of “Ask Grassrootsy”, many of the original names have been made anonymous for good reason. It’s also fairly long, but read it and you’ll learn a thing or two. I promise.

THE BAND : Midway Fair via frontman Jon Patton
THE SCENARIO: I had a problematic gig recently that I thought would make a good topic for Grassrootsy. I greatly value your advice because many of the promotional ideas you’ve posted have worked at least somewhat well for me and my band. I really am frustrated because I can’t figure out what we did wrong.

I developed an idea for a show called “Poets and Lyres” with other songwriters, where we would all talk about some aspect of our songwriting in a way that would be easily understood by regular audience members, with the intent of connecting the listeners with the lyrics. We teamed up with a local Hostel that would give it a nice house concert feel in a room with really great acoustics. Small donation-only cover charge with 100% going to the artists.

A friend of mine, Mike, helped out and got a well-known songwriter on board fairly early in the proceedings, which was nice because his band gets very large crowds.  Mike also convinced the leader of one of the best folk-rock bands in my city to do the show. This part sounds okay so far, right? This folk-rock group also has a good-sized crowd at their shows.  But then I tried to confirm the date, time, play schedule, and equipment needs with them and couldn’t get a response.  I couldn’t get in contact with them except to go through Mike. This was fairly frustrating, because I’m under the impression that musicians should at least make some contact with the organizer for an event they’re playing. My plan to get the lineup cemented two months in advance to get lots of promoting done was down the drain and we ended up with only three weeks left when the dust had settled.

I developed the promotional materials (posters and a press release), sent them out to list servers, and posted them to all the important events calendars (radio stations and the City Paper, etc). The Hostel was helpful in getting the event posted to their web site, hanging posters at colleges and local businesses and libraries, calling local independent radio to have it announced on the air, and so forth. I also sent it out on our mailing list. We told as many people in person as we could. The Hostel let all of its guests and potential guests know.

But the headliner did absolutely NO promotion for the show. I mean none. I’m just mystified. He’s got a band web site and a MySpace and he didn’t even put the show on his calendar. He didn’t even post something as simple as a Facebook status. He got a third of the donations even though the only person there to see him (who I think was his girlfriend) rode in the same car with him. He even booked a second gig for later that night and was leaving right after his set.

But this is what frustrates me the most: A bunch of people got up and left right before my band’s set. Both artists left before we’d played a note. So did their fans.  The only ones left in the audience were my band’s friends and family, all of whom have been to our shows. A handful of Hostel guests came in during our set and stayed the whole time.

Although I and the venue did what we thought were a lot of things right as far as promoting, my band got almost nothing out of a couple dozen hours of work I put into this single show. I didn’t get any local listeners because none of them stayed for our set. I didn’t get any networking benefit out of it because the other two musicians left before we played. Essentially, I could have done nothing except make a couple of phone calls to my friends and family and had exactly the same crowd.

THE QUESTION: How do you handle local musicians who are on the next tier and are in the same genre as you but just give 1% or less when they’re working with you — and don’t even give you the courtesy of listening to you when you’re playing a show together?

ANSWER:  First of all, John, you did everything right. You had an excellent goal to book the show with plenty of time for promoting.  Unfortunately, outside factors (i.e. other people) made the process much harder than necessary.  Here are some things to consider:

1. Book Shows with artist who actually care. I’m all about splitting the bill with bigger names; but I’ve found (all across the board) that I’d rather do a show with a “small” name that cares more about the event and the spirit of working together with other local musicians. In many cases, “smaller” names don’t play out as much and for that reason, they get more pumped about a gig and will do everything they can to bring a turnout.  In some cases, they may even bring a larger turnout that a “big” name.

2. Make sure an artist is “on board” before you confirm the show with them. Nothing sucks more than doing 100% the work and only getting 30% of the financial credit.  I have a list of artists I don’t work with specifically because they don’t chip in on the workload. I love their music, but disagree with their work ethic.

3. Put yourself in the mind of the other artist(s). To give the others the benefit of the doubt, realize this; a show that is big for you, might not be big for another group…especially if they’ve been in the game alot longer. They’ve likely been moving up the tier and might be used to doing bigger events. Shows have different levels of significance to different people.

4. A busy artist simply cannot promote every show: An artist will usually work to promote the biggest show of the month. The bands in your above scenario were probably thinking “we want a big crowd at 1 show instead of two small crowds at both shows.”  I personally run into this problem alot. I play roughly 10-15 shows a month and I honestly don’t have the time or energy to put into every show. Either way, they should have at least listed it on their websites.

5. Don’t be afraid to be cutthroat. Sometimes you need to kick someone off the bill. I’ve had it happen to me before. I told the booker that I couldn’t promote the show as heavily as he wanted. He told me he would have to look for another artist who could devote more time to promoting the event and guaranteeing a good turnout. Makes sense, right? And if the band you’re working with doesn’t communicate with you from the beginning of the process, that’s a clear sign that you shouldn’t work with them.

Hope the above tips help, Jon.  I’m also eager to know what suggestions Grassrootsy readers have. Leave them as comments.

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4 Comments on ““So What Did I Do Wrong?””

  1. Allie Says:

    This series is a great idea, thanks for posting the question (and the answers). This is a challenge we are running into as well, and I completely agree with the concept of sticking with artists who “actually care,” even if they are not at the next level. I’m working very hard to climb the ladder, so to speak, and gain respect of some of the “higher-level” bands and venues… but therein lies the key. Respect. If those bands/venues won’t respect your efforts and either step up to the plate, or be honest about not being able to promote or commit fully… then I think it’s worth looking elsewhere, even if it’s not as “high up.” Great post!

  2. Steve Says:

    Personally, the term higher up is all relative. If you mean they draw a bigger audience because they have had time and exposure enough to have a larger following than you then you’re expectation that they might want to share that following with you at an event you instigate presupposes that they are secure in themselves enough to fear diminishing the attention that following can lavish on them. By definition this would exclude most performers except drummers and bass players who perform as base players. With all the years I have been around this game I am continually amazed at the lack of interest one musician or songwriter often has in another’s work. But I find it particularly characteristic of the mediocre ones. Those who are comfortable with their work are much more open to sharing and cooperating in promotion of new sounds. It seems to work better to show up at a gig of a more established musician (often an older hand) and bring a few new faces then ask if he is comfortable with you playing a few tunes during a break. This only works though if he’s familiar with your style and material and he at least knows about you. You might occasionally get turned down but not as often as you might think and if you don’t ask you won’t get the exposure. Musicians you play with at open mikes or jams are a good place to start.

  3. Eric Downs Says:

    (1) Consider adding terms to the event when you reach out to people, and have backups on hand when your first picks don’t come through.

    “I’d love to have you headline the bill with me. I’m trying to make this show as big as possible, so there are a few things I’d like to ask of you. Hang up posters, promote online, blah blah blah.” When this stuff doesn’t happen, drop ’em and head to your backup.

    (2) Joy is right – a band might only focus on one or two “major” shows a month, so MAKE that show the one! You not only have to convince the public that the show will be big/memorable/worth the time/money, but now you have to convince the other artist(s) as well so they’re willing to put their time and effort forward. What’s going to make your event stand out? What’s the cause? What’s the event’s name? How much are you paying everyone? How are you determining the split of the money? How much press coverage/radio airplay do you already have lined up? How much draw you/the other artists already have in this market? When was the other artist’s last show and when is their next one? What’s the incentive for fans to come (and STAY!)?

    I recently read a nice little article about making it in the music business, and while it offered many many great tips, the one that stood out was this:

    If you prepare and make decisions based off of what EVERYONE ELSE involved (other artists, the venue, the promoter, the AUDIENCE) wants, you’ll have them eating out of the palm of your hand every night. Why should everyone else want to work with/for and cooperate with you? What’s in it for them? (This kinda piggybacks on Joy’s #3 answer)

    In my view, everyone who ever said that making it in the music business is about who you know is only partially right – it’s about who you please/impress. 10,000 bands could be knocking down that other artist’s door to get them to promote and play, but if you’re the one that comes to them and says “I’ll do what everyone else is saying they’ll do, plus (insert incentive here),” it’s game over.

  4. Great writeup! I just came off of trying to play a show every weekend for the last 2 months and can definitely agree with what you’re saying. I learned that inundating my fans with multiple shows only lost my fans. I think the best approach is to still perform as often as you can, but heavily promote only one or two shows that you think are going to be great each month! This will keep the fans you have while still reaching new people.

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