Philly Music 101 is our regular series guiding you through the wonderful world of the Philadelphia music scene: all of its passionate, loving participants, from artists to venues to studios and more.
Life as an independent artist in Philadelphia can be rough, especially when it comes to booking shows. When you approach a venue, what exactly are they looking for? Will your music appeal to them or turn them off? Where does social media presence lie on the spectrum? What will get your band a coveted spot on their calendar? Where is the damn instruction manual for booking a show?
We hear it from Philly artists all the time – they want to play out more often, but they haven’t had any luck getting promoters’ attention. Well, The Key is here for you! In an effort to provide some transparency in the live music world, we decided to hit up talent buyers for a handful of venues throughout Philadelphia to get an idea of what they expect, why they expect it, what will wow them and some general pointers on how to book a show.
Chris Ward for Johnny Brenda’s
Christianna La Buz for World Cafe Live
Sean Agnew for R5 / The First Unitarian Church / Boot and Saddle / Union Transfer
Jesse Lundy for Point Entertainment / Ardmore Music Hall / Philly Folk Fest
Yusuf Muhammad for Veteran Freshman / Voltage Lounge / various venues
How often are there opportunities for local musicians?
Knowing where to turn for local lineups is a good place to start, and certain promoters have more opportunities than others. After talking with many of them, it’s evident that Philadelphia as a whole offers plenty. Ward tells us that he tries to make space for local artists because he experienced first-hand how hard it is from his time as drummer in Pattern is Movement:
I try to carve out as much space as possible for locals to both headline and support touring bands. I do this because when I started playing in Philly in the early 2000’s, there weren’t many spaces for locals to play. And when you did play, you weren’t treated very well. I felt like my local show didn’t matter and so, when I got the chance to book a club, I wanted to create a different atmosphere.
Muhammad and La Buz are also advocates for the local scene and explained that their respective productions strive to incorporate Philly artists as much as possible and offer plenty of local showcases. Though sometime there are limits – Jesse Lundy, from Ardmore Music Hall, explained that he, like most promoters, oftentimes has his hands tied with touring acts who often come with opening acts as a sort of package deal. Even so, each venue is a different landscape and it’s important to consider that when looking to book a show there.
How do venues scout for local talent?
One of the biggest questions of all is how a promoter even goes about finding the talent that s/he will feature. It’s easy to imagine the conceptual show booker who spends her days bouncing from show to show to find the perfect band but, in reality, that’s just not the way it works. As Ward explains:
I’ll be honest: after attending some 4,000+ shows, I don’t go to as many local shows as I used to.
Due to the demands of the job, not every promoter has the luxury of digging around for a band via live performances, although Muhammad says that this would be the best way for him to book you since it shows initiative:
I have a saying that if I constantly see you working, I will do my best to give you work. Nothing better than an artist who takes initiative and anything you do is simply a bonus.
So, how else can they find you? Word of mouth is one of the most vital ways to earn attention from promoters. This doesn’t just mean through close friends and knowing the right people (though that undeniably helps). It also means media attention from the plethora of local blogs – like our own – as well as newspapers and magazines. Music is a hot topic in every city, including our own, and everyone is out there talking about it. Social media sites are also a place for folks to share and connect through music and can play a part in promoters finding you, which begs the question….
What role does social media play in booking a local artist?
The enormity of social media is evident in our society today. So where does it lie in the realm of show-booking? For the most part, it’s pretty important. What might be most surprising is the likes and followers aren’t the main focus here: it’s the engagement. Followers and likes don’t equal show-goers, and that is the main focus for a promoter. Lundy shares that, when considering artists for Ardmore Music Hall and Philly Folk Fest, it’s about more than just being on social media sites:
What I want out of social media from a band is to feel as though I know something about them.
This sentiment was shared throughout the promoters. One particularly strong take on the subject was Yusuf, who stated bluntly:
Social media can be smoke and mirrors. Invite me to your show and I can see for myself who is really “following” you.
We can recall this being the case when looking at Jordyn White, whose YouTube fan base was revealed to be a hoax. This is why promoters look at content and engagement with fans versus numbers. And how to gain fans IRL? Being physically in the scene is an important way to make an impact on potential fans that will push you forward. Ward stressed that this support of the scene is vital:
It’s important to have a social media presence today, but it’s not the only presence you should have. You should be going out and meeting other bands you like and networking. Supporting the music scene is more important than how many followers you have on Twitter or how many likes you get on Instagram.
It’s important to remember that social media is there for having conversations, not just the numbers.
Even for a social media king like Questlove, numbers aren’t everything – interaction and engagement is.
What do promoters look for in a local act?
As you get started in looking for performance venues, you might be wondering what exactly promoters are looking for in an act. For most bookers we spoke with, there were certain elements that they unanimously agreed were vital; professionalism, audience draw, original music and dedication were major factory in determining whether an artist was suited for the gig. However, there were some outliers for certain bookers – like how Ward looks for locals that aren’t playing the city all of the time.
We are a small city (for shows) and if you think you can play every month, you most likely won’t be playing my room.
Sean Agnew keeps his ears open for bands that will compliment touring acts. These are all contributing factors that will lead to picking one local act over another.
Do show promoters tend to lean towards a specific genre?
The venues of Philadelphia provide spaces to artists from a broad range of genres, so it can be hard to decipher whether or not their promoters are genre-specific. We asked bookers whether or not genre was a factor, to which all of them responded that it wasn’t, just as long as the artist is putting something original and well-crafted out there.
Agnew explained that since he is booking shows all over the city in a variety of rooms, genre isn’t particularly important to him. Muhummad holds a strong focus on hip hop and urban music, but his love of music stretches across genres so a good artist to feature in his eyes isn’t necessarily locked into hip hop.
But while all the promoters we talk to book a little bit of everything, some book more or less of some styles than others, knowing their venue and their audience. LaBuz explains:
We don’t really book a lot of metal, rap, EDM or punk because we’re not the right room for it.
Don’t be shy when approaching a promoter with your music, though, because it seems genre isn’t as important as one might think.
Genre doesn’t need to matter, evidenced by hip-hop trio Ground Up rocking Rittenhouse Square with Americana jammers The Lawsuits.
While booking a local opener, how important is it that the genre matches the headliner?
When there’s a spot for a local to play as an opener for a touring band, the two artists’ genres have to match…right? For some promoters, yes. For some, not so much. Agnew reflects that matching artists by genre is a recent shift and it’s become irksome for him:
We could add hip hop bands to indie rock shows or have folk acts play with grindcore bands back in the mid-90s. That was awesome and it made shows interesting. Now, no one does it. A lot of these touring packages of bands have become pretty boring.
It seems this feeling is shared with other promoters in Philadelphia with many of them explaining it’s more interesting and fun to mix it up, though La Buz stresses that for her, the acts just need to make sense together:
My goal is always to book interesting openers who have similar enough qualities with the headliner that everyone walks away with some new fans in the audience. Some overlap, but not so much that it’s overkill.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You never know if you might be just what a promoter is looking for to compliment an act in a fresh, new way.
What is the best way to reach out to a promoter (i.e. Facebook, email, sending a formal press kit, etc.)?
As you dig around the internet and find contacts for a venue you want to play, you want to make sure you approach them in the best possible light. Which is what, exactly? The promoters we spoke to all agree: email. It seems that the lines can become blurred with popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter now being options for artists to reach out, but this is not the way to go. Sean Agnew, among the others, expressed his dislike of booking shows through Facebook messaging, saying:
Please, no Facebook, ever. I think that’s because I was a few years behind that curve but doing business / messaging on FB seems weird and confusing.
The rest chimed in, explaining that is not what those sites are there for. Instead, utilizing their work emails to reach out are the best option. Perhaps it might take a few tries, as promoters deal with a lot of email traffic, but it is much better than being a buzzing mosquito in their ear. Muhammad shared some insight on this, saying:
It is important to be patient and to realize that it is perfectly ok to not work with everyone. You may send out 20 inquiries. But all that should matter to you is the ONE who responds and making the most of it, not dwelling on those who didn’t.
What are the next steps for an artist after getting booked?
So – you got your gig. What now? Performers might think that the only thing next is showing up at the right address on the right day without missing a band member, but there are some things that you can do in the meantime to show that you are adamant and grateful for the slot you got. Making a solid impression with show bookers can create an important relationship in the industry. A good place to start is with promoting the show on your end, and not just leaving it up to the venue. Promoters like it when a band is excited about their performance and getting people out to see them. Agnew talked about how this will start you off on a good note for venues:
You will quickly become every club’s favorite band if you hustle and get folks out for the show. You’ll definitely get invited back and then quickly rise to the top of the list for when we can add local bands to bigger shows.
This kind of attitude lays the foundation for a trustworthy relationship with promoters, which can lead to a solid future of booking shows. It’s also important to know that promoters are peers who are often friendly with one another. Word can easily spread about a band that didn’t give their all to a performance. Muhammad comments:
All the major bookers know each other. Do not ruin your reputation by being someone who is known not to give their all.
Lundy added that another important thing to have at the ready is a quality photo of the band. The process of making promotional posters and online posts is made infinitely more simple when a band provides a quality, high-resolution photograph to the promoter at the start, rather than a pixelated, vague one taken on a cell phone.
What are the biggest mistakes that newly booked bands make?
It’s important to know what you’re expected to do once you have a show, but what are you expected to not do? What are promoters sick and tired of dealing with that you might not even realize irks them? Well, for one, don’t promote a future show before you’ve even played the one you have booked with them. This is a serious issue for promoters: they need to sell tickets for their show and when you immediately turn the focus away to somebody else’s show, it can strongly impact your future relationship. Lundy stressed this:
I’ve had some pretty serious falling-outs with bands about that. I don’t care what you do the instant you walk off the stage, but until then, your commitment is to help sell tickets at our show.
It’s important to understand what he means by our show. It’s not just about you (or your band) – there are other stakeholders, and it’s important to be considerate in this regard. La Buz added that there are a slew of smaller things that can add up that put the future bookings at risk:
Being late, uncommunicative or generally unreliable or rude would be a huge bummer. Trashing the stage or greenroom would be a terrible idea! The biggest mistake I see after shows is a lack of follow-up. I’m amazed by how many bands don’t have a simple email list.
So the takeaway here is to be courteous and conscientious of everyone who helped you get where you are. Simple habits like following up and being available are ways to stay on booking agents’ good sides.
Please, please, please don’t trash the stage.
Promoters’ parting words:
Yusuf Muhammad: My only parting words would be that I wish more artists started doing their own showcases. Taking fellow artists they know and continuously adding to the music scene. Not waiting on opportunities from the bookers. In addition. TRAVEL. You can only play the venues in your own city but so many times. Get out there and research and do your best to get bookings elsewhere or even connect with other artists and put on shows in their market. Plan your work and work your plan.
Sean Agnew: Bands that set up their own shows in alternative spaces get 100X more attention from any booking person in the city. It basically proves that you can do it yourself and are serious about things. Oh and money works, if you want to pay our staff lots of money, we will put you on whatever show you want. [NOTE: We’re reasonably sure he’s half joking about that last thing. -ed.]
Christianna La Buz: It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. It’s a pretty small industry and everyone knows each other, so don’t talk smack. Stick around for the bands playing after you. Be kind to your openers; you never know, you could be opening for them someday. Treat your sound engineers with respect – it’s a thankless job and they can easily make you sound like garbage. Tip your bartenders well – they talk to more people at the venue than anyone and it’s just the right thing to do.
Jesse Lundy: Artists need to take the business side of things seriously. They have to realize that selling tickets is the business that I have fallen into and if you can’t help me sell tickets, then nobody wins. It’s just a lose lose. Make every gig actually count for something and not just book gigs because you want to play gigs. There are gigs that are for that and that’s great, but you get into the ticketing world and it’s about selling tickets.
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