I’ve been touring and performing locally since 2011. I’m a full time artist. I don’t have a ‘day job.’ I am earning a living through my creative ventures. I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran, but I have made some important observations along the way. For example, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two ways to get paid gigs. One way is by getting someone to hire you to play music for their event or for their patrons. Let’s call this type of gig a “Musician for Hire” gig. This can be a venue, a wedding, corporate functions, concert series and festivals, colleges and universities, seminars and conventions, party planners, etc. The other way to get paid gigs is by setting up a show yourself and depend on a solid fanbase to buy tickets and merchandise. Let’s call this type of gig the “Fan Supported” gig. With the exception of showcases, open mics and practice gigs, every show I’ve ever done falls under one of these two categories.
To make a living as an artist it makes sense to have a clear understanding of these differences in order to build a strategy to get the gigs you want. Deciding which category of gigs to pursue depends totally on your goals, your current career level, and financial needs. Gigs that fall under the Musician for Hire category require a different approach than gigs that fall under the Fan Supported category. I’m doing a mixture of both. Honestly, I wish I was doing more of the Fan Supported gig types because my dream is to empower, encourage, and inspire as many people as I can through my original music while making a living doing it. However, I, like so many other musicians I know, depend on their music for a living and don’t have enough fan support yet to solely exist without the need for Musician for Hire types of gigs. So I do gigs where I am basically background music to pay the bills, and I also do gigs that don’t pay as well but provide opportunities to meet and build relationships with people who like my music. Other musicians decide they want to earn a living solely with Musician for Hire gigs. They simply want to earn the money they need to pay the bills and aren’t as focused on the fan relationship aspect. Every artist has different needs. But if you want to make money, the question is how do you get the gigs that pay? After taking inventory of your needs and deciding what kinds of gigs you want, figuring out how to get paid gigs is the next sensible step.
Let’s take the Musician for Hire gigs, for example. The first thing to do is put together a list of who’s paying. This takes a significant amount of research. Here are a number of ways you can find out who’s paying.
1. Search local online event calendars.
Most of the time there will be listings of concerts and live music events happening around town. There are two pieces of information you can find out by looking at local event calendars. Number 1, which restaurants and venues typically present live music and number 2, what acts are playing. For venues and restaurants, write down all the venues/restaurants that present live music. The next thing you will need to know is what types of music they present, who does the booking, and how much they pay. You might be able to find some of this information from their website. If not, a phone call or an in person visit will get you the information you need. Once you determine the venue/restaurant is a good fit for you, reach out to the booking person and make your pitch. Make sure you have the proper promo materials before making pitches or you will be wasting your time. I’ve written a few articles about promo materials here and here. If you need to get your materials together, take a look around these articles for some tips. Keep contacting booking representatives until you get an answer. If they say no, don’t be afraid to ask why. It could be that they have a full roster and don’t need any other acts at the moment. In that case, keep them on your list and plan on reaching out again in six months. You never know what changes may come about after time passes by. Consider sending them a small gift or hand written note with your business card just to remind them who you are. The gesture will go a long way.
You can also search on Yelp, Urban Spoon, and even Social Media for venues with live music in your city. This will often turn up a list of venues as well.
Another piece of information from event calendars that will be helpful to you is artists who play locally. Make a list of all the local artists and see if you can find their websites. Look on their show calendars and see if there are any other venues they play at. This might turn up even more local venues/restaurants that might be worth looking into. I have booked many shows for myself and other artists by shadowing other artists.
2. Search Indie on The Move
Indie on The Move is a database of venues all over the country that present live music. Contact information is listed for each venue, plus each venue is categorized by location, capacity, genre, and more. Search in your city to find restaurants and venues to reach out to. You can also look for other artists and see where they are playing applying the shadowing technique I mentioned earlier in this article.
3. Specialty Gigs
There are other types of gigs you can find that pay as well, such as festivals, art galleries, Run/Walk Races, Farmers Markets, etc. These gigs can be found through doing a basic internet search. One resource I have used in the past is FestivalNet.com. It is a network of festivals happening all over the country. You can search by location and many other filters. The site provides a limited amount of contact information under the free version, but you can always do a secondary search to dig up the information on your own once you find a festival worth looking into. Once you find the correct contact person, send your materials and make your pitch. You have nothing to lose. All they can do is say yes or no.
These three options alone can keep you busy making pitches for months if not longer. If you need more help finding gigs or help making your pitch, check out my Free How to Book Gigs e-Course. It’s a 4 day course that provides resources to find gigs as well as e-mail and phone scripts that will help you organize and present your materials in the best light.
Another way to earn money as an artist is through playing Fan Supported gigs. These are the types of gigs where you basically put the show on yourself and depend on your fans to come, buy tickets, buy food, and buy merchandise. This approach is a little more involved and takes a lot more time to get off the ground because success in this area happens one relationship at a time. You have to build real relationships with people in order to see the support you really need to earn a living. You also need to have a significant support base in multiple cities. That way when you put on shows, your fans will come out. Putting on your own show can be as simple as renting a room and hosting a show. Or, you could partner with an established venue that does door or bar deals. Either way, you’re depending on your fans to come out and show support. In order to make a living with Fan Supported gigs, obviously you have to have fans. But how does an artist win fans?
If starting from scratch, you will have to invest in yourself. Whether it’s money or time, an investment must be made.
More than likely you will have to take no or low paying gigs. You can find these gigs by searching Craigslist, Indie on the Move, approaching local coffee shops, asking friends and family if they have any parties coming up where you can perform, approaching local organizations and groups asking if you can perform at their next event, and busking at festivals or farmers markets. Be sure to choose wisely which gigs you take. Just because the event planner or venue says you will get exposure doesn’t make the gig a good fit for you. Who will be there listening to your music? Will these people represent those in your target market? Will you have an opportunity to collect e-mail addresses and talk to people? All these questions must be answered to your satisfaction before taking the gig. Your mission with every gig will be to get to know people on a personal level and add as many people to your mailing list as you can.
Your mailing list is your bread and butter. It is the most important tool you have as an artist if you are approaching your career with a ‘Fan Supported’ business model. When you have to tell your fans where you’re playing, what you have on sale, ask for lodging, and anything else, e-mail is the most effective way to do that. Once you’ve added people to your mailing list. Reach out at least once a month if not more. Any less than that, they will forget about you, forget they signed up to your mailing list and unsubscribe. Then, all the efforts you made to win them over will be lost. Keep the conversation going. Find out when their anniversaries and birthdays are and send them a note. Tell them about your accomplishments and your disappointments. Be transparent. Be a person. When they respond to your e-mails make sure to answer them in a timely fashion. Do not ignore them. They are very important to your career. Treat them like it. After a while, they will ask how they can support you or when your next show is or when your next album is coming out. These are Super Fans. These are the kind of fans you want.
When you get enough Super Fans, then you can start renting out venues and hosting your own shows. Their support will not only pay for the cost of the room rental, but it will earn you a profit. Start with small rooms. Invite 10 people and tell them to bring at least one person. Shoot for 10 – 20 people for your first couple of shows. Make the show appealing by adding a twist to it such as a tribute show, or a themed event. Get a very small room so that it will look like the place is packed. Put on a great show. Have flyers on hand so that you can invite them to the next show. It is very important to collect ALL of their e-mail addresses. If you don’t have an e-mail address for someone who came to your show, they might as well be a lost contact because you have no ability to contact them about your next show. If you’re depending on them to remember you, don’t hold your breath. It is up to you to maintain contact with your fans.
Try to shoot for doing one show every three months or so. You don’t want to oversaturate yourself, but you also want to keep a good momentum going. Once more people start coming, rent bigger venues. Repeat this process in multiple cities. Where to rent? There are many places to rent from such as Apartment Clubhouses, Community Centers, Colleges, Church basements/multi-purpose rooms, AirBnB, and Art Galleries. Some hotels might have small multi-purpose rooms you can rent for the evening. If you can find a volunteer to have a house show, you could even have it at someone’s house! The possibilities are endless. Use your creativity and have an open mind. By having such a small circle, you have the ability to host unique and very memorable shows. When you grow and need larger venues, your shows won’t be as intimate and memorable.
I hope this inspires you to take your career into your own hands. You don’t need people to ‘give you a chance.’ Give yourself a chance by investing in you. Opportunities will come naturally when you invest in yourself.