So you want to play more gigs.
It seems like other artists you know are performing all the time, so surely there must be a secret formula to getting gigs. That, or all the other musicians up on stage are friends with the venue owner or have a manager getting the gigs for them, right?
Maybe. But nine times out of ten the singer up there on stage has no insider information, no manager, and no friendship with the venue owner whatsoever.
So the burning question is….what is the Secret Formula to booking gigs?
I could reel off a few quick bullet points to whet your appetite, but to be honest that wouldn’t help you very much and here’s why: if you came up to me tomorrow and asked me how to get gigs, the first thing I’d say is, “What type of gig do you want?”
You see, not all gigs are created equal. Some gigs will pay well but won’t help you build a following; some gigs will pay next to nothing but will be massive fan builders; and some gigs… well they don’t get you fans or money but can still be valuable if used properly.
Confused? I don’t blame you.
You see, before you can get gigs you need to understand the type of gigs that are out there and what each one can do for you. Once you understand this, it makes going after gigs a whole lot easier because you can look for a gig that is going to help you with your business (yes, you are a business) and is suitable for where you’re at in this phase of your career.
Have a look at the Gig Matrix below. These are examples of just some of the types of gigs, placed into a matrix that works on a scale of high versus low pay and high versus low fan building.
Note: This works for any musical genre; you just have to rename the gig slightly. For example, the musical theatre equivalent of an ‘Open Mic Night’ is doing a community theatre show for free.
Bear in mind that this is not an exact science. The music industry is highly unregulated and I know that some musicians have done very well with ‘low pay/low fans’ gigs like busking if they go on a regular basis, however this is not always the case. To make things even clearer, let’s take a look at each of the areas of the Gig Matrix and find out what the benefits of each category can be for you.
Low Pay/ Low Fan Gigs
If after looking at the Matrix you thought that you would scratch Low Pay/ Low Fan gigs off your list straight away… well, think again. Every gig in the Matrix has its purpose and each is more accessible to you depending on what stage you are at in your music career.
For example, busking and open mic nights are a great way to test out new material or to gain performance practice when you are just starting out, and they are the easiest gigs to obtain; you can busk in most places by obtaining a simple busking licence and open mic nights take pretty much anyone.
In fact, I personally use both of these types of gigs for this very purpose. I’m currently working on some new folk material and am playing guitar for the first time (I’m usually a jazz performer and play piano and sing) so when I’ve got my material ready, I’ll hit up an open mic night to take my new songs and skills for a test drive.
Similarly, if you are in musical theatre, the best way to grow your resume is by doing free community shows. You’ll meet people in the industry and can work on your performance skills while you hunt around for new opportunities.
High Pay/ Low Fan Gigs
On the flip side of the Matrix there are High Pay/ Low Fan gigs. These are what I call ‘Bread and Butter’ gigs because basically, they pay the rent. For contemporary singers, these might be bar/ club cover gigs where the venue pays you to play music their clientele will like, which usually means well known covers.
For me as a jazz musician, these are corporate gigs at some stuffy legal firm’s cocktail client night and I’m there to provide background music and look pretty. Yep seriously. Why else would they hire a band if they just want background music? It’s all for show. This is definitely not the place to pull out my massive ‘Nicola Milan’ banner, set up my merch stand complete with flashing lights and plug my CDs at the end of every set. You’ll be lucky if you get to hand out a few business cards during the break and get a quick thank you from the head honcho.
Use these gigs to fund the Low Pay/High Fan building gigs that we’ll have a look at next… and make the most of the free canapés while you’re there.
Note: Some musos only want these types of gigs. This is when it’s not so much about building a name for themselves than it is making money as a musician without having to leave their local area (Which is totally fine by the way. I know plenty of very good musicians who make their living this way) — but for those of you who want to make a mark, raise your profile, and reach for what can happen when you do start becoming known (i.e. a higher charge rate, better gigs, a deeper connection with fans, getting your message out there, and all the possibilities that come with being a person of interest) then read on.
Low Pay/ High Fan Gigs
I love/ hate these gigs. I know they are going to be good for my profile but I also know I’m going to run at a loss and as someone who relies solely on income derived from music, the costs involved can bite.
Many support gigs with better known artists will fall under this category (initially at least.) As anything in the music industry, there will be exceptions but when you have no fans apart from your rent-a-crowd mates then you don’t really have much value (in terms of business dollars) to add to a gig and the opportunity to perform with a band that does pull a crowd is a good opportunity for you, because it means you get to play for fans of a similar sounding band. If they like that band, then they may become your fan too. However, it’s not such a good deal for the venue or the band with the bigger name.
The reason is because these type of gigs usually operate on a pay by door sales basis. If you have no fans then your ability to help with the door sales intake is going to be minimal and therefore you shouldn’t expect to be paid for something you didn’t provide. The catch here however, is this: if you are a singer who uses an accompanist or session musicians in your band, then you still have to pay your musicians and you will have to fork out of your own pocket to pay them. It is easier if you have a band dedicated to doing any gig they can to ‘break in’ but for singers, this is frequently not the case.
The good news is that if you make the most of these gigs, you should start building fans from the first gig and it does get easier. That, or you can do a heap of advertising to get people through the door… but that is a topic for another blog post.
The bad news is that every time you want to break into a new market (location) you will have to repeat the support gig process, unless of course you have a major radio hit and venues are clambering over each other to book you… and we all know this is definitely not the norm.
However, playing support gigs is the fastest way to go from zero to fans and get you one step closer to the juicy gigs we’ll have a look at next.
High Fans/ High Pay Gigs
Ah yes, now we reach the realm of the Rich and Somewhat Famous and I can hear you thinking ‘Now we’re talking. Ok Nicola, just tell me how to get heaps of these gigs, really well paying and in front of heaps of fans.’
My answer? “Patience, Grasshopper. They are not YOUR fans… yet.”
I’m not saying this to hold you back by any means because on average, festivals and promoted shows with advertising dollars behind them are hands-down the best way to get your name out there as an artist. The gig in itself would be enough, however most Festivals are accompanied by advertising dollars to spread your name further and have media salivating over the opportunity to get you on their interview list. Yes these are the best gigs to get, but they are also by far the most competitive.
Festivals are expensive to put on and so the Festival Promoter needs to ensure they will attract an excellent turnout each year. They do this by booking artists that they know will draw a crowd, which means that you need to be doing pretty well and have a solid following to get one of these gigs (that, or be good friends with whoever is in charge.)
Don’t worry, there’s a catch to Festivals which is your secret way in. Create a list of the Festivals that support your type of music in your local area (and beyond if you can afford the travel costs). Most bigger Festivals don’t even accept artist applications so scratch those off initially. Your best bet is to target smaller festivals and then build up from there.
Keep an eye out for contests to play at bigger Festivals but realise the competition is going to be fierce. Some Festivals do offer busking opportunities which you can snap up if you perform solo and acoustic, then make the most of it; get your banner out, play loud and promote, promote, promote!
The other type of show that can sit either under this category in the Gig Matrix or under the Low Pay/Low Fans category is a show that you put on yourself. You hire a venue or agree to a split of the door sales and then it’s your job to book the support acts and get people through the door (this is where that rent-a-crowd friend base comes in handy).
These gigs are great for a reason to promote yourself in the local media and can be decent earners if your door numbers are solid. Do a good job and your rent-a-crowd might actually become true fans and bring more friends along next time.
So let’s go back to the start and revisit our original question: how to get gigs. Now that you can have a think about the type of gig that you want, doesn’t that make it easier to know where to start looking?
My advice is to pick the gig according to what your needs are as an artist. If you are just starting out, go for the Low Pay/Low Fan gigs where you can get some performance practice singing in front of a crowd. That way, if you stuff up, it’s not going to be such a big deal. If you’re past this stage, then have a look at the bands gigging in your local area that sound similar to you and reach out for a support gig.
Whatever the stage you are at in your music career, go for the gig that will benefit you the most… and once you have it, make the most of it.
Author bio: Nicola Milan is a professional singer, songwriter, recording artist and vocal coach. On her website Singer’s Secret, she shares tips on how to improve your singing, gain confidence, and get gigs when you’re just starting out.