How To Book Bars (And Get Paid)

I recently had a friend ask me about my gigging schedule and wanted some advice on how he could scale up his own schedule in the hopes of taking a really serious crack at full-time music. I sent along a bunch of voice messages outlining what works for me, and what one should keep in mind when reaching out to venues with the intent of playing a show, and getting compensated for your art. Since my last blog, that featured a bunch of practical “use-right-now” tips, seemed to get a positive response I’d like to take this week to walk you through how I get all my gigs and things you can do to get more yes’ and less crickets.

Step 1: Establish A Brand If Not Already Gigging

This isn’t just for those of us who are finally ready to play their first paid gig after hitting up the open mic circuit for a couple of months, oh no, this is also for the full-time touring artists that would like to make some grocery money in-between road season and studio time. If you are already an established musician playing original music, solo or with a band, it goes without saying that you are going to need to come up with a different name for your cover act. I have no issue with this because all I do is play covers, but if you’ve built up a following and are selling out clubs at $15 a ticket under the name “Billy Dudeson” you will not be able to sustain a following, regardless of your setlist, if you are playing the dive bar up the road the following weekend with no cover on the door. You don’t need to do a disgusting amount of promo if this is only going to be something to help pay the bills in the off season; a modest website, consistent social media posts, and updates on your local gigs will be more than enough to help you establish yourself in the cover circuit, but if this isn’t going to be your main thing, you DEFINITELY need to come up with an alternative name to use if you are going to be playing a few cover shows for cash. Using the same name for both projects won’t make you any new fans and will only confuse the ones you already have.

Step 2: Get That Social Media Going

Wipe those tears away. You don’t have to think up a brand new IG theme and posting schedule in order to maximize the amount of people flocking to that follow button. Venues like the idea of the artists they book having social media because it allows for cross promotion that doesn’t involve spending money exclusively on advertising. In a perfect world, you’ll be advertising your pub gigs AT LEAST a week in advance in order to help put some asses in seats and help put money in the venue that is paying you. Each post isn’t just promotion for your specific show but also promotion for the bar as well. Maybe it’s Monday afternoon and one of your friends checks out your social media to find a poster with a tasty-ass burger on it (and your sexy-ass face next to it). They’ll make their reservations for the show, sure, but maybe they’ll nip down on their lunch hour too, and grab a meal and a beer. Again, you don’t have to go ham and put a bunch of money into crazy photoshoots for your socials, but you should be posting once a day/every other day on them and using them to help promote your cover gigs.

Step 3: Determine Your Worth

It’s very important to sit down and think about the service you are providing and how it differs from other musicians. In a perfect world, the industry standard would be $300+hst for a solo act but there are a lot of musicians that a) have salary jobs and just don’t give a shit or b) have had promoters/bar owners/other musicians get in their head and convince them they can’t be asking for a fair wage therefore we have an onslaught of musicians willing to play 4 hours for $100-$150 and “politely” refuse your request to put out a tip jar. I always start at $300 as an asking price and then work my way down from there depending on additional perks. Here are some examples of reasons I will take less scrilla, and ways I negotiate my asking rate.

Why I’ll Take A Reduction

- The gig is only 2-3 hours and less than an hour drive away

- The gig is only 2-3 hours, less than an hour drive and they offered me free food

- The gig is only 2-3 hours, I know the audience is great with tipping/requests

- The gig is only 2-3 hours, but is a corporate bar in the heart of a city known for being the hot “unwind after a day at the office” spot (i.e. potential corporate/private clients)

- The gig is only 2-3 hours and not on a prime day (ie not on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday)

How I’ll Negotiate More Money/My Rate

- I’ll play 4 hours

- I’ll play 4 hours without a break

- I’ll play as long as there is a crowd

- I don’t need free food (this works really well for me because I intermittent fast)

- I leverage with my social media following

- I leverage with my ability to use social media marketing and advertisements (THIS IS HUGE, GOOGLE THIS SHIT, TAKE A COURSE, FIGURE IT OUT)

- I leverage with exclusivity (ie. this is the only bar I’ll play in this town)

Step 4: Actually Booking The Gig

Okay! We made it! Christ, that took forever. So when it comes to actually booking the gigs you have probably heard the age old proverb “send 1000 emails to get one response.” Those people don’t know shit about booking bars so let me break it down for you; emails are just the beginning and should never be your only means of communication with the bar. The best thing you can do, and how I’ve gotten most of my gigs in the last 3 years, is actually go to the venue and try to meet with the manager face-to-face. You might be able to book some shows right then and there and that’s awesome (this is how the majority of places do it, which is kinda risky on their part to be honest, I don’t think they’ve ever even asked me for a reference or to name drop another artist). Sometimes (rarely) they might want you to give them a free sample. Bust out a short 20-30 minute set in the corner (you didn’t bring your system with you? Back to the drawing board sweaty) and lock the deal in that way. When you get home, send an email to the address on the business card you grabbed (you got one of those right?) and confirm details discussed or potentially ask for some more bookings down the road. On a day off, I’ve hopped in the car in the mid-afternoon and driven within a 100km radius of my place just filling up my calendar. A lot of bars that do live music might also have open mics as well, these aren’t a guarantee but can’t hurt as it will get some of the staff in your corner to help lock in a show and could win over a couple of patrons that want to catch you when you have a gig. These are often busy nights, however, and it would be in your best interest to NOT try and corner the manager/owner (should they even be there) in hopes of locking in a Saturday night. If a bar is packed on a Wednesday night you are not, I repeat, not even CLOSE to their top priority.

Now I try to basically tour every month. What I mean by that is, I will play once or twice a month in every neighbouring town/city about 1.5-2 hours away as opposed to just playing all the bars that are in my immediate township (ie. if you’re a Kingston musician, go a little farther than Napanee and Gananoque for your out-of-town gigs). This allows me to fill up my entire year and build an audience in several different cities but comes with a price, that price being it’s kinda hard for me to do the thing that I said you should do in the last paragraph. This is where the good old fashioned cold call comes in. Call up the establishment you want to play at and ask to speak to the person in charge of booking live entertainment. Give them your elevator pitch and hopefully lock in some dates. Follow this up with an email containing some YouTube links and your achievements and AWAAAAAY WE GO.

Lastly, if you’re someone who suffers from phone anxiety or you couldn’t get in touch with a manager this is when your email becomes the last line of communication and your first contact with the bar. When you craft an email you should have your name and what you are looking for in your subject heading, be specific to month but not with dates, the reason being that these people are busy so if you specifically request March 14th they might just write back “Sorry, we are booked the 14th.” The body of your email should be 2-3 sentences max.

Sentence 1: Hey/Hello/Sup (just kidding) my name is …. I’m a ….. Looking to book a show at ….

Sentence 2: My good friend …. (definitely a musician that plays there frequently) has told me a lot about your bar and I think we’d be a great fit.

Sentence 3: I’m looking for these dates (list your dates)

Thanks so much for your time and consideration …. (sidenote, if you can, start your email off with their name and title. These people don’t work 40+ hours a week to be referred to as “Whom It May Concern”

With the body done, it’s time to add some awards/accomplishments (remember if you are in a touring band you can use those awards/accomplishments) in list format and 2-3 youtube clips of you covering popular songs (definitely don’t send over your cover of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” by Iron & Wine) in decent enough quality that they can tell you are actually good.

In conclusion, this job rewards those of us that work the hardest. Blending a mixture of old school hustle with new school marketing is a sure fire way to keep yourself busy in the bar circuit. If you want to just make a weekend go of this while your main project recuperates from the road, you will be working for (on?) the weekend in no time and I can’t wait to hear your next album. If you, like me, enjoy THE SHIT out of being a human jukebox, then keep grinding and honing your craft and I’ll see you next St. Paddy’s 18 hour jam day!

© 2019 by Logan Brown.