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Cherry Lane

Making Your Way To The Clubs

by (Guitar Staff)

Making Your Way To The Clubs

The good news: It can happen. The bad news: It's so much easier said than done. Guitar interviewed 12 booking agents at 12 premier clubs across the country and asked them what they look for, what they like, and what really ticks them off. From New York to L.A., everyone seemed to agree on three things that can make or break a band when they're hoping to play live. To ease the process for yourself, try to abide by the following golden bits when you begin your journey on the long and arduous road to rock-and-roll success.

Do It Yourself The only person who's going to work for your dream-for no money-is you, and maybe a reliable bandmate. Choose one person from your band to be the contact person for everything. When you send materials out, include their number, and have that person-and only that person-make all the follow-up calls thereafter. Booking agents hate to deal with more than one person; they have no time to repeat information and no patience for disorganization.

Market Yourself This is a strange time in the music industry-use it to your advantage. Clubs may be willing to try out new styles to see what does and doesn't work. Just remember: No matter how much a club or booking agent likes you, they are still a business. Whoever can get people in the door (and, ideally, buying drinks) will most likely get a regular gig.

Once you have a good demo, be sure to use that in conjunction with any press clippings your band has received. Booking agents are most impressed by reviews from outside your hometown. Networking and name-dropping are also integral to making yourself known on the music scene. Use your associations with band mates-present and former-to further your self-marketing. When attending shows or hanging out at bars, introduce yourself to other musicians. Who you know can sometimes be the extra push you need to land the gig of your dreams. Finally, if you have a substantial following, mention it or make sure it's apparent to the booking agent. Club owners want to hear that you're going to fill their club. If you don't have a following, make sure to try and develop one.

Sell Yourself Know how to present yourself. Press materials are important, but you must be able to talk the talk. The number-one complaint of all the agents we interviewed was bands with a bad attitude and a reputation for being difficult. Sure, when you become the next Metallica you can be nasty if you want to be. But for now, being humble, making friends, and trying to influence people will get you much farther.

Surprisingly, several agents said a majority of bands never follow-up on the materials they send, and many bands never even call the club to see if their materials were received. A proactive approach is essential to your success. Be sure to follow up on everything. By the same token, be careful not to rub these people the wrong way. While following up with dedication and persistence is important, don't let the situation become a fatal attraction. If you send materials to a club, call a week later to see if they were received and what the booking agent thought of them. If they tell you to call back in three days, be sure to do so. If they say they'll get back to you, leave them alone for a while. It's a fine line to walk when you're eager and you have to wait for someone else to decide your fate. But overall, the agents we spoke to said a positive attitude, patience, and persistence can really pay off. (Oh, and a little musical talent won't hurt your chances either.) Stefanie Schwalb

Gig-A-Bites "The more information, the better. If you send me something that says you played with all these other bands that are good, it helps me get closer to what you're trying to accomplish." Kristine Wood, Crocodile Cafe (Seattle, WA)

"There's not a lack of talent, just a lack of people who understand that what really counts is just good, straight-up human interaction. Being polite, punctual, and kind will help you get a lot further in this world than even just raw talent." Billy Cohen, Last Day Saloon (San Francisco, CA)

"The only policy I have is that I'll only book what I like. I won't book a band I don't like. No other club does that, though." Steve Weitzman, Tramps (New York, NY)

"A suggestion for any band just starting out is to [play] regionally. Get really popular in your hometown and then the surrounding areas. I don't think there's any reason to go and try to play a two-week tour if nobody knows who you are." Velena Vego, Forty Watt Club (Athens, GA)

"Bands need to follow-up on their attempts to get gigs, but they also have to realize not to push too hard and annoy anyone. I like to know that a band really wants to get a gig, but I don't want to hear from them every day. That's the best way for them to not get a gig with me." Mike Henry, Electric Lounge (Austin, TX)

"What I expect from bands is a demo wherein I can distinguish what they really sound like. I don't want acoustic material from a band that's heavy live. It wastes my time and their time and money if they send something that doesn't really represent them." Chris White, Brownies (New York, NY)

What Was Your Worst Onstage Moment? "When we hired a new guitar tech and he strung my strings upside down by accident. He kept handing me other guitars that were 'tuned' because it sounded so awful, but they were upside down too. I had a complete out-of-body experience at one point. Finally, I screamed at him, 'What the fuck?' and he started laughing and shrugged his shoulders and left the stage. It was horrifying. He did the same thing the next night to my boyfriend's brother, and I felt better."

Gig Talk Anna Waronker: That Dog

What Was Your Worst Onstage Moment? "When we hired a new guitar tech and he strung my strings upside down by accident. He kept handing me other guitars that were 'tuned' because it sounded so awful, but they were upside down too. I had a complete out-of-body experience at one point. Finally, I screamed at him, 'What the fuck?' and he started laughing and shrugged his shoulders and left the stage. It was horrifying. He did the same thing the next night to my boyfriend's brother, and I felt better."

Working With Agents Booking agents: Is it true they eat their young? Maury Slime, the agent played by Steve Lawrence in the film The Blues Brothers, fulfills the common perception among many struggling musicians that all agents are bottom-feeders at best. However, managers and agents are often the first people thanked by artists at award shows. Kissing up? Perhaps, but agents exist at all levels of the music business and are often extremely valuable to an artist's career.

At the highest level of the entertainment business, there are three national full-service agencies: CAA, ICM, and William Morris. These multiservice agencies include a music department within their many functions. Underneath the big three are boutique music agencies: Premiere Talent, International Talent Group, Artists & Audiences, Agency for the Performing Arts, American Talent Group, Universal Attractions, Pyramid Artists, and Rosebud, to name a few. Each boutique may be as large as the music department in the big three, and they are formidable players. For example, Artists & Audiences had both Paul McCartney and Guns N' Roses on tour in the same summer, garnering over 50 million dollars.

For the hoi polloi, local agents proliferate. In New York City alone, there must be several hundred local agents with offices on Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 57th Street, according to Ashwood (Will) Kavanna, Esq., an entertainment attorney who, in his former life as agent and promoter, represented artists as diverse as Muddy Waters and J. Geils since the 1960s. A local agent can book you into area clubs, the lounge circuits, colleges, county fairs, and concert halls. For their trouble, you can expect to pay a commission ranging from 10 to 15 percent of your gig's gross; some may ask for 25 percent or more, but that's pushing it. To get an agent, decide where you'd like to play, then call the club and find out who books it. Follow up, call the agent, be polite and persistent, and have a good-quality demo tape ready. Need a press packet? An agent may help you with this, but first sketch a preliminary one for your act (Preparing: Building A Press Kit).

Remember, it's a business. A good agent looks for artists who are clean (they get burned by drunks and drug users) and loyal. Be a pro, stay positive, and keep your word, and you can attract the right partnership. Elizabeth Rose

Minding Your Business

Honing your chops is a good thing, but that's only half of the game if you hope to survive or thrive as a working musician. Whether you're a freelance session musician or a member of a soon-to-be-touring band, your career may never get off the ground unless you tend to the seemingly mundane aspects of the biz. Here, for your consideration, are the recommended tools of the gigging musician's trade.

An answering machine There's nothing worse than missing out on a gig because you weren't home to answer the phone, so invest in an answering machine that allows you to check your messages remotely. A digital-based machine will be best, and hopefully it will be equipped with a simple voice-mail system that lets you hear only the messages intended for you.

Plastic cash and business cards Don't leave home without a credit card, a phone card, and (if you've got them) a handful of business cards. Your word may be good, but only a credit card will secure your band's Rent-A-Wreck or a reservation at the Local Yokel Motel. Likewise, a phone card will come in handy when you blow a tire on the way to Indianapolis and need to call a tow truck, the nightclub that's expecting you, and your mommy. The prospect of owning business cards may sound serious, but you never know what musician, booking agent, A&R rep, or would-be groupie you'll meet out there.

Transportation Whether you're a studio cat or a road hog, you'll need a way to get you and your band around. It doesn't matter if you rent or buy; just be sure to seek out a vehicle that will accommodate you and every other member of your band while securely holding all your equipment. A van is traditionally the best bargain, but make sure it gets good gas mileage and has secure door locks, working brakes, and seats that won't make your butt beg for mercy over the long haul.

A personal entertainment system Hopefully that van of yours is equipped with a decent stereo system, but be forewarned: As much as you like your band mates now, you'll learn to hate them and their music tastes very quickly unless you own a portable stereo with headphones. This will save you from their babbling and their tasteless music while allowing you to tune out the endless miles of cows, truck stops, and flatlands that await you.

Road maps Prevent psychologically damaging conversations with indigenous people by purchasing an up-to-date road atlas. Unless you've got a global positioning satellite hookup, there's no better way to get to your gig and back again. Always have a pen and a piece of paper in the glove compartment for those times when contact with the locals becomes unavoidable, and make sure to wear sunglasses. (You'll need to protect the natives from your bloodshot eyes, and you'll need some form of defense against their mind-numbing brain waves.)

If these suggestions seem excessive, do yourself a favor and heed this last bit of advice: Have a pillow and blanket, or a sleeping bag, on hand at all times. You never know when you might have to camp out on the road, in the middle of nowhere, with a blown tire and all kinds of freaks stalking your van. Michael Gelfand

Gig Talk: Tinsley Ellis

What Was Your Worst Onstage Moment? "Lip-synching behind '70's teen heartthrob Leif Garrett at Six Flags Over Georgia in Atlanta."

Getting Paid

Once you get a gig, the next obstacle to overcome is getting paid for it. What follows are a couple of different scenarios showing what you and your band can expect to encounter when an offer to "play for pay" is made. The first thing to remember is that many clubs have a standard deduction for the use of a soundman and their PA system. The payment of basic expenses that clubs incur to have you play is the only policy that every club stands firm on. The only other thing that's standard about payment deals in the music business is that there are no standard deals.

- Pay to play The twelve clubs we surveyed said they no longer adhere to the notion that bands should pay to play at their club. But within that tradition, your band would pay, say, $250 to use their space. Once the club breaks even, you would be paid through any one or a combination of the following:

- Tickets through discount passes Your band would receive a portion of the dollar amount of tickets sold through the discount passes the club receives at the door. The club may offer to give you a cut of the ticket price-say $1 for each $8 ticket that's sold-as your means of payment. Sometimes this is used to gauge the support behind a relatively unknown band, or it can be done as part of a promotional package involving a local paper or radio station if the band already has a following. If you're unknown, the club might ask you to help sell a certain amount of tickets to prove your worth. If you've done your part to show that you made the best effort to get people to stand behind you-and indeed people did-the booker will most likely let you play the next time for something with even more incentive (aside from the special perks of free beer and peanuts, of course).

- Percentage or splitting up of profits from the door Pay is based here on the number of people who show up before and during your set. The club will work out a percentage they've determined is acceptable for your band (in terms of your experience and what they know about you), ranging from 10 to 50 percent.

- Percentage of the bar Here is where the real money can be made. Most clubs we surveyed didn't give bands a cut of this action. This can be blessing or a curse, however, depending on how many people show up and how many of those people like to engage in alcoholic indulgence.

- Guarantee plus percentage of the door This is when you know your band is really on its way up. This is usually the preferred means of payment for bands recently signed as well as for renowned nationally touring acts (although obviously their base guarantee is going to be much higher). In this scenario, the club offers you a flat fee to play and adds in a percentage of the door, or a bonus. Depending on how many people show up, the band will either get a raise or they won't be asked to come back.

Overall, clubs seem eager to work with the bands they want to try out. If you're an unknown band, clubs will do what they can to try and ensure success for both parties. That way things work out the best for everyone--they won't lose money, you'll get the break you need, and then some. Not that you'd be able to retire from any payment offer they might make, but a little bit of something is much better than nothing at all. And if you want to making a living through gigging, you should always take what you can get. Stefanie Schwalb

Estimating Costs: Putting Their Money Where Your Band Is

How do you charge for your music services? This question goes right to the heart of your sense of worth as a professional musician. Virtually every new gig begins with a negotiation about the money. Many neophytes tend to undercharge for fear that they'll offend a potential buyer. More experienced bandleaders have learned to sell their music services by wise positioning of themselves in the market place.

"If you sell your band solely on price, you'll be perceived merely as a commodity," says Wayne Michaels Hochberg of Chicago, whose company, Live Music, has been a full-service music organization for 15 years. "I tell my clients that hiring a band of music school seniors will be cheaper than professionals, but you probably won't get the experience and expertise that you would get with seasoned pros."

Are there any guidelines for bandleaders to follow when booking dates? In a sense, yes. The American Federation of Musicians publishes union scale rates for all sorts of live gigs: from soloists to large orchestras, taverns to concerts. "Union scale to me is minimum wage," says Hochberg, who is also president of the Association of Professional Orchestra Leaders. "Would you want to use a physician who was being paid minimum wage?"

Ultimately, you will have to juggle a number of factors when pricing your gig, including the venue, day of the week, size of the band, traveling distance, cartage, and backline equipment, to name a few. There is also the "heart" factor: Many of us will saunter to higher-paying parties (like weddings) for $200-plus per person but will scamper to a local club to work out with our own band, happy to get a cut of the door.

The following chart might help you decide what to charge for certain gigs. It is based on a combination of factors such as union scale, leader quotes, and dues paid. Elizabeth Rose

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