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How to NOT book a band.

June 28, 2014Will Leffert,

Photo credit: Johnny Berg

I've played a number of gigs over the years, in a variety of situations. From classical and jazz venues, to the street, I've plied my trade as a musician. It is, of course, something I love doing - I wouldn't do it otherwise - but like many of my fellow musicians, I've had bad gigs. Today, I'm going to share with you a few bad gigs of my own, as well as ones of my friends', in the hopes that venues will see this and learn that we, as musicians, DO enjoy a bit of professional treatment.

One gig I can recall was while I was in college: A small tour with the college concert and jazz band. We played a small variety of gigs on the way, as well as a few in Chicago, but the gigs themselves weren't necessarily bad (if a bit banal, but I digress). The bad part was our lodging.

Venues, it's a great thing that so many of you provide a place for your touring bands to stay. Hotels are expensive, and for non-major acts, impossible to afford with what little we make on a gig (especially with gas prices). However, one thing you really should ensure of when provided a location to sleep is that the place is clean.

We slept in an empty retail building on old mats that had been sitting in the basement for years. Dust was EVERYWHERE, which for many of us completely ruined our tone and breath support because of allergies. The mold was another disgusting factor, permeating the walls, and even our mats in many cases.

So, venues, remember this: If you provide a temporary residence for the band, please ensure that it is clean at the very least. We'll try to leave it in the same state it was in when we arrived.

The next story is about a great friend of mine who helped me out on a number of occasions, including introducing me to Betty, my old reliable Mexican-made Fender Telecaster.

He was booked for a major festival in the town I lived, performing at a venue he's played a number of times (with great success). He was coming from the other side of the state, with no stops in between. That's an important fact for what the venue did next..

They called him not 48 hours before the gig and told him, "We don't need you this weekend, we think we'll make enough money without having a live performer".

Yeah, you do NOT do that. Cancelling a booking with such short notice is a great way to get yourself blacklisted by a number of musicians (because we DO talk to each other).

The venue itself ended up pulling in a last-minute performer, realizing their error, but the performer was, well.. Less than spectacular. The lesson? Once you book an artist, do NOT cancel on them without a week of notice minimum. If you do have to, for whatever reason, pay out at least half the fee, because many times expenses are set in motion already (especially for a touring act) for your venue.

I was asked to play a Blues in the Schools benefit a few years ago, out of town. Given my passion for music education, I was all about this gig, and extremely excited to be a part of helping out the program. I even took it without pay (even considering the expensive of traveling). I usually play one benefit a year at no cost, nor do I solicit tips at those gigs (as the tips should be going to the benefit). I don't do this with ALL benefits, as I'd never make any money; some benefits are structured well enough to afford to pay the bands at least SOMETHING.

This wasn't one of those gigs, apparently, because I got there with the other artist performing, and there was a whopping total of about 7 or 8 people there. Why so few, I wondered? Well, as it turns out, the person putting together the event was a marketing student in college, and had barely promoted the show beyond designing a beautiful flyer.. Also, I guess the fact that the show was on a Tuesday evening should've been a big clue.

The lesson to be learned: Venues, PROMOTE! Make every artist performing at your venue feel like a celebrity with the amount of press they're getting. The more you promote, the more money you make. They'll promote to their own fans, but remember - not all of their fans live near the venue. You're supposed to bring the locals in!

Also, a lesson for bands (that I've always had a hard time learning): Always charge something for a show, even if it's 1/4 of what you'd normally charge. Give them a reason to promote the show!

One of the best things in the world, to me, is being a street performer. You live and breathe on the tips from passers-by who have no reason to stop and listen unless they like your music. When I was going through financially difficulties, I was literally paying for my supper by being a busker.

Also, being a street performer nets you interesting gig opportunities, this next bad venue story being for a farmer's market.

I had played it before, and this time was no different from the first, as far as booking goes; They called, confirmed I would be available at the time stated, and thanked me. I get to the venue and set up; it wasn't exactly a big market, and I could easily cover the entire thing with my guitar & singing 100% acoustic, but it was starting to grow (hence having live musicians to bring more people).

A problem arose in that another musician appeared at the other side of the venue, facing me. I had already started 30 minutes ago, but one of the vendors told him to set up by his booth. He started playing, facing me directly.

I looked to the person doing the booking, and she just shrugged.

After another 30 minutes, I decided enough was enough. I was doing this for tips, which I can usually pull in well enough to justify the time. As well, the vendors always load me down with way too many greens to even consume in a week's time! With him in the picture, though, it just created chaos, and neither of us could walk away with much.

After that experience, I decided I wasn't going to play that venue again. Tell me - as a venue, would you allow another band to come in and set up opposite the band that was already playing? No, because it would cost you customers, and piss off the band you were paying. You should treat buskers the same way - when you book one, ensure that the venue is THEIRS!

This final gig I'm mentioning today is one that I'm actually supposed to be at when this post goes live, and the reason I decided to write this guide for venues in the first place.

I learned a long time ago that open mics can be a great way to rehearse tunes live, and get gigs. This past Thursday is a great example of that; After my set, a man came up to me asking if I'd be interested in playing a summer gallery opening festival that weekend. I said sure, gave my contact info, and he said the guy managing the event would be giving me a call the next day.

Friday morning I received the call, and worked out the details. 1 hour busker set (so no up-front pay, but these types of events are ALWAYS great for buskers) Saturday afternoon, family friendly music, strictly acoustic. No problem, I'm used to these types of gigs. The last minute notice irks me, but I had nothing special planned, so no big deal.

With all the details worked out for it, I set out to start promoting on my end while they got ready on their end..

..And then I get a text later in the afternoon. "I have a request from the gallery owner that you just stick to guitar and harmonica. No vocals."

Wow. You book me last minute, aren't paying me, and now you are telling me that you don't actually want me to do my set I have prepared for just this sort of gig? No thanks. I politely informed them that I would have to cancel, then, as I don't have an hour instrumental blues set prepared.

Inside, however, I was seething. I stepped outside to breathe for a minute, and then let everybody know that the gig was cancelled.

I won't list the gallery's name here, but my local following knows, and won't be making an appearance, either.

The lesson to be learned: When you book a band, don't dictate their set after booking. If you want an instrumental band, book an instrumental band. If you don't like the singer, don't book him/her. Also, do NOT do this to ANY artist when they are scheduled to go on in less than 16 hours.