the accidental gig promoter’s guide to gig promoting;

There are certain things that, once you get the “bug” for, you’ll never be able to get enough of – or so the old wives’ tale goes.

Things like getting tattoos (guilty); exercise (if it ever happens, I’ll be as surprised as anybody); and, it turns out, putting on gigs.

It’s been a good two and a half years now since I last played promoter for travelling bands, but a combination of factors over the summer (more free time, perhaps, and certainly a burning desire to see Franz Nicolay live again – but definitely not an excess of cash) mean I’ve actually found myself missing it.

Franz Nicolay live at the Admiral, August 2012, poster by Kat Lombard-Cook

As a music fan, putting on my favourite bands was one of the most exciting and rewarding things I ever did. As a sensible, grown-up “dancer with a desk job” (© Jesse Malin), it was easily one of the most frustrating. Of the five shows I promoted between 2011 and 2014, I think only the highest profile broke even (the first came close, since it’s easier to twist your pals’ arms to come along when it’s a Friday night, and a Big Deal, and something you’re super excited about). I have nothing but respect and admiration for Scotland’s independent-minded, DIY promoters that do this sort of thing on the reg: people like Make That a Take; New Hellfire Club and Infinite Hive.

This is not a guide for people who know what the fuck they are doing. This is a guide for people like me, who want to take a chance and give something back to the community that they love. It’s a combination of a few things I learned, and a few things I wish I had done differently; and it’s designed, I guess, for people who have already had an offer of a headliner (as I did for each gig I put on). I hope you find it useful.

She Makes War performs at a Last Year's Girl gig, April 2012
She Makes War performs at a Last Year's Girl gig, April 2012

1. Pick your date.

Obvious, right? And if you’ve been contacted by a band or artist asking for your promotion help, you might not have a lot of choice on that date front. But there are a few things that you should bear in mind either way.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are your best nights for getting punters in for obvious reasons, but they’re also the most expensive. If the show you’re putting on is for somebody with a cult following, who hasn’t played in your city or the vicinity for a while, it might be worth taking a chance on a midweek night in exchange for an offer of free venue hire. Even more important, though, is to make sure you scan the listings for both your town and the next one over before you opt for a date: what else is on that night, and the night before? Is it likely to split your audience, or deprive the people who would come to your show of the necessary funds? Fun fact: I once put on a Franz Nicolay show in a half-empty city centre bar on a Thursday night, the night after Against Me! (a band he has played in in the past, and one that later became one of my absolute favourites) came to town. Don’t be “that guy”, by which I mean me.

2. Find your venue.

Where are your favourite places to see bands? How many people are you expecting to get through the doors? You could try a site like Venuefinder, flick through the local listings or even look up where the act you are promoting played last time they visited your city to give you some ideas. I’m a big fan of shows in slightly unexpected places, but be honest about why you’re booking the space and how much noise you expect to make – you don’t want to risk falling foul of not having the correct licensing requirements in place.

Some venues might waive the hire fee if you can guarantee a minimum number of punters through the door, or a minimum spend at the bar. Again, think carefully about whether you’ll be able to hit those targets, or whether it will just give you something more to stress about on the night. Check with the band whether they have any requirements, for example a quiet room to prepare in or relax before the show, and make sure your venue will be able to accommodate that. And think carefully about whether it’s worth sacrificing foot traffic for something a little cheaper that’s off the main drag.

The Old Hairdressers set up for Jim Bob show, May 2012

3. Draw up your budget.

Yes, I’m talking about budgeting for the second post in a row: don’t @ me. I’ll tell you why though: there is no way you can figure out your ticket price before you figure out how much you’ll be spending on the show.

You’ll need to factor in decent fees for your artists (including supports); venue hire; potentially separate PA hire and sound engineer costs; travel and accommodation for the bands if you’ve agreed to cover this (personally, I prefer to arrange a bigger fee but YMMV, especially if you’ve got space to put up some touring musicians and none of them have cat allergies); poster design, printing and distribution; any other marketing costs; beer or other rider. I like to make sure my bands get a decent meal, particularly if there’s time to kill between soundcheck and showtime. You may wish to include a little profit for yourself – lord knows, you’re doing the work – but if you can manage to cover all those costs while still keeping the ticket price low then you’re doing better than me.

Some artists will ask for a percentage of your ticket sales rather than a flat fee. To be honest, I prefer the latter because that way I know that the people whose actual jobs are tied up in the show are making guaranteed money at the end of the night. But then, bear in mind I only put on five shows in two and a half years and had a decent job at the same time.

4. Choose your supports.

If your show is but a stop on a wider tour, at least one of the supports may already be taken care of (this was the case for three of the five shows that I booked). My preference for club shows is a three-act line-up: two supports of half an hour, plus a one hour headline slot. Again, this might be down to your headliner and your preference may vary.

This is Last Year’s Girl, so of course I’m going to tell you to think about the gender, as well as genre, make-up of your bills. To be honest, and before anybody jumps in to remind me that two of my shows featured three male solo artists apiece, it’s something I only began to think about towards the end of my promoting career, and these days I would probably aim for at least gender parity. Each act should be of the type you’d line up next to each other on a mixtape, but I’d try to actively avoid picking three that sounded too similar. Even my early bills juxtaposed folk-punk with acousto-storytelling with indie cabaret.

Franz Nicolay, City Cafe, Edinburgh, January 2011 (not my gig)
Chris T-T performs at Last Year's Girl gig, April 2012

5. Get the word out.

Where are fans of your acts likely to go to find out about upcoming gigs? Where do you go to find out about upcoming gigs? Creating a Facebook event and invite people is a given, but is hardly “promotion”: how often have you said that you “might” attend something you had no intention of ever going to, or so that you could easily find it if you changed your mind?

Who deals with listings for your local area? The List? The Skinny? Is there a local paper, either in the town where you’re putting the gig on or in your hometown, that might be interested in your efforts (NB: this probably won’t be an option if you live in Glasgow, and there are five different gigs on every night of the week). If you’ve got graphic design skills, make up an eye-catching poster and see about distributing it to display in local venues and cafes: if you’re in Glasgow, Braw Robot and Direct Distribution can do this for you. When I’m promoting touring acts, I like to set up saved social media searches for the band’s name and “Glasgow” so that I can answer attendees’ questions about the show in something approaching real-time: a touring band won’t necessarily have the answers.

6. Enjoy the gig!

If you’ve made it to show day without losing your mind, sold a decent number of advanced tickets and everybody’s at the venue in time for soundcheck, there’s very little else that can go wrong. Your venue, acts and sound engineer will almost certainly have done this before, so it’s time to relax and enjoy the fruits of your hard work. Just remember to make sure everybody gets paid at the end of the night!

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This is a sponsored post, but all views are my own and unbiased.