School of The Rock

 

Researching Local Gigs


Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.comô

 

So you have some talent and you’re working up song lists and you want to find places to play.  Whether you’re hoping to play for experience, for exposure, or for income, your process for researching the potential local and regional venues will be about the same. 

Note: This article assumes you already have your online “ducks in a row,” that is, at a minimum you have your own web page with music samples, photos, and other compelling information. 

Start Keeping Records of Who’s Playing Where

Local newspapers are a good starting point.  Learn when and where events get published:

  • Religious concerts may be published in the “Religion” pages, which usually only come out once a week.
  • Community events may be published in the “Local” pages, which come out every day.
  • Weekend “bar band” concerts, etc., are published in the “Entertainment” section.

No matter what kind of music you play, you have to keep an eye on all three potential resources.  I have a spreadsheet that has the following columns: 

  • Venue
  • Location
  • Contact Information
  • Who Plays
  • Additional Notes (like: favorable to singer/songwriters or Celtic or whatever). 

I divide my spreadsheet into different pages depending on the kind of venue, but I list every venue I come across.  In part because I have friends who play kinds of venues I don’t play, but also because tracking the “who plays” gives me a basis for determining whether I would every want to play there, or have a chance.  Frankly, there are “bars” that are really family restaurants and “churches” that scare me. 

I also list the seasonal or once-a-year venues like festivals and street fairs on a separate page.  

Where Do You Start? I get the Dayton Daily News, which has its problems, but does list upcoming musical events.  Again, I scan the Local and Religion sections for announcements, but most of my potential venues come from the Friday Entertainment section.  It lists who is playing, when they’re playing, and where they’re playing.  So it’s no big deal to plug the Venue, Location, and Who Plays columns.  In fact, it was a little eye-opening.  Back in the 1960s and 1970s, live music was huge in Dayton, and we played any number of places, but most of those venues stopped hosting live bands by 1980.  So I would have guessed, there were maybe fifteen Dayton-area venues that regularly or frequently hosted live music.  If you add those that are within an hours’ drive, there are more like ninety, although only about thirty of them show up in the newspaper on any given week.

The first time I did this, it took a lot of work, and the second time, it took nearly as much. I don’t bother to look up contact information if it’s not printed in the schedule, by the way - that’s easy enough to find later.  By the third time I did this, I already had most of the venues listed and I just had to list the bands who were playing.

Why List Who is Playing? Because that will give you a sense of what the venue is looking for.  One bar in the area features almost exclusively Punk Rock bands.  One church in the area hosts almost exclusively classical music concerts. Another church in the area hosts mostly Bluegrass groups.  One coffeehouse in the area usually features Americana acts.  And so on. 

Why Go Through the Whole List?  By the way, due to the way the DDN sorts this stuff out, many Christian, Folk, Americana, and Bluegrass acts wind up being listed in the same list as the bar bands.  So even if you have no intention of performing in any sort of place that serves alcohol ever, you need to go through the list carefully.  These days I can mostly skim it because I’ve gone through it so often, I know which venues are which, and I can get a pretty good idea of the kind of music they want by the kind of artists they feature.  But nearly ever week I find at least one new venue where I would personally feel good about playing.

Family-Friendly Venues? Once you start doing this, you’ll realize that a number of community centers, libraries, and Methodist churches in your area occasionally hold family-friendly concerts.  If you prefer to play at family-friendly venues, be sure to check the “Local” and “Religion” sections daily. 

Churches?  If you tend to play Evangelical-style “Christian” concerts, you’ll probably start out by tracking down churches that have similar theologies and host similar artists.  But you don’t have to be an Evangelical Christian - or even a Christian in most senses of the term - to give concerts in many churches.

I mentioned Methodists above because some regional Methodist organizations keep a list of “approved” artists, and most of the larger churches have a sort of “entertainment” budget for bringing in a certain number of acts a year.  The acts don’t have to be overtly religious; some churches prefer that they not be.  But family-friendly is usually a must. Which means that Americana, Folk, Bluegrass, Celtic, or Ethnic-specific artists who are capable of keeping a whole family’s attention may be welcome in Methodist churches in your region as well. 

Here’s an irony, there is a liturgical church near me that hosts classical concerts, as well as Americana, Folk, Bluegrass, Celtic, and Ethnic-specific artists all the time, but will not allow an artist who is overtly Evangelical.  It could be that they’ve been “burned” by Fundamentalists trying to turn what was supposed to be a musical experience into a “revival” service.  But, whatever the reason, I know not to contact them about hosting a CD release party for a Gospel album.

The short version is: “Don’t make assumptions about whether a church is likely to respond well to your contact until you’ve paid some attention to the kind of artists they usually invite.  You may be in for a pleasant surprise.

Coffeehouses?  These are usually pretty predictable. If you have the bandwidth to visit them before you propose playing there, you’ll get a good idea of what they like, whether they want laid-back or background music or whether they consider themselves a real concert venue and so on.  They aren’t always very good about posting gigs from local artists in the newspaper, so once you’ve tracked one down, check its web page once in a while to see how active they are.

Community Centers? Many small towns have at least one venue that hosts family-friendly music every so often.  In southwest Ohio, several of the small towns are trying to keep their ancient “opera houses” busy so the non-profits that support them have an excuse to keep raising money for repairs.  If you can draw a big enough crowd to pay the utilities for the night you play there, they may be happy to have you.  Some of the other towns have tax-payer-supported facilities, perhaps connected to a rec center or some such, that like to have a schedule of things going on.  Paying attention to the artists they host, and collecting contact information is crucial - often one person, maybe a volunteer, schedules such things, and if you don’t know exactly who to talk to, your phone calls and visits will be wasted.

Libraries?   Similarly, many libraries like to have things that fill their calendar and make them look like they’re offering learning experiences to their communities.  Some have meeting rooms that are never used, and will open them to anyone who can credibly propose a learning experience (such as “learn the history of our town through the music of its people”).  Others will rent them out cheap, but put your concert on their calendar as if it’s one of their programs.  Again, pay attention to the artists they host and safeguard any contact information you come across.

Libraries in larger communities may have annual programs they plan out a year in advance.  One library in the South Dayton suburbs hosts five to six folk-based concerts every spring, trying to get a variety of acoustic, traditional groups to play them.  By the time you see something like this listed, it’s too late to get on this year’s schedule, of course, but toward the end of the current “season,” you could try getting onto next years’ schedule.  

Seasonal Events, Street Fairs, Festivals, etc.   Similarly, many communities host annual street fairs that welcome live music, as long as you got onto the list well ahead of time.  I once got onto a local County Fair schedule simply by finding out when they had an empty stage.  The key here is to plan well ahead - the stage schedule of many festivals is “cast in concrete” several months in advance. 

A potential downside to this kind of “engagement” is that you can get “bumped” if someone else they like better contacts them at the last minute.  If this happens to you, take what you can get and be gracious about it.  Folks will remember if you pitch a fit - even if you’re “justified” in doing so - when they’re making out the next year’s schedule.  

Other Sources of Venue Information.  Some venues have web sites that they keep up to date.  Some don’t.  Do your best.  Some towns have a weekly tabloid that lists entertainment options for the weekend.  Some radio stations’ web pages list upcoming concerts and festivals that would appeal to their target audiences.

Many local acts that gig all the time have schedules on their web pages.  You might find gigs that never self-report to the newspapers.  “Following” local and regional acts that play similar music or appeal to a similar demographic will also give you an idea of how much demand there is for your kind of music.  Please don’t make a habit of skimming other folks’ gig lists just so you can outmaneuver them for the next venue opening, though.  They’ll notice. 

Expanding the Venue List.  So what happens if you determine that there are only two venues in your region that ever schedule your kind of music, and four acts that are more established than you are in constant - if not cutthroat - competition for those slots?  You could:

  • Find potential venues, such as similar businesses, churches, coffeehouses, community centers, libraries, etc., that aren’t currently sponsoring any live music and get them to try you out.  If you’re unsure of your draw, invite a similar act that does have a draw to share the gig with you, trading sets or whatever. 
  • Tweak your act to suit the needs of a venue that doesn’t ordinarily hire “just music.”  Maybe combine it with a free music or history lesson or something; you may get opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise.  Offering to play an evening of banjo music appropriate for a 1915 Irish immigrant recently got me into a historical society gig I would not have gotten otherwise.  
  • Try to get something started on an “off night” at a venue that is already hosting live music .  Bluegrass jams, open mics, songwriter circles, whatever suits your style.  If you can “own” the night, as MC or house band or whatever, that’s even better, at least until you build up some name recognition.
  • Find a facility you can rent cheap, be it a library’s meeting room, a civic center banquet room, an Elk’s Lodge, or a small town’s opera house, and hold a concert or start a series of concerts featuring you and someone else who would draw a similar audience. 

Note About Performing Rights.  Depending on the kind of music you perform and whether you play originals or covers, you should try to make certain you’re staying on the right side of ASCAP, BMI, etc.  If a venue is already sponsoring live music or karaoke or has a juke box, they may already being paying the appropriate performing rights fees, and adding another night of music might be perfectly acceptable.  As a folk-inspired artist, if I’m unsure about whether a venue is already paying for this sort of thing, I stick to public domain songs and originals.  One ASCAP member recently learned the hard way that a sports bar that just used cable TV to entertain its clientele wasn’t licensed for live music, so he had to turn down the gig or risk getting the venue sued.  So be careful, especially if you plan on building a long-term relationship.

Reciprocate. Yes, there is always the chance that someone you invite to share a gig with you when you’re trying to open up or break into a new venue won’t invite you back - he, she, or they may even take over the venue and freeze you out. (Yes, I’ve had that happen.)  But don’t be that person, and don’t let it make your paranoid.  Real musicians know that “live music” acts have far more competition from video games, sports bars, karaoke, and a dozen other  kinds of entertainment than they have from other artists. Build community, not strife. And if you discover you’re the only regional musician in your genre with any integrity, hold onto your principles regardless.

This is Just a Start. You still need a web site, a Facebook Musician Page, an online press kit, downloadable mp3s, a compelling “story” and “look,” and lots of other things.  But having a list of places to contact disabuses you of the notion that you have to play in such and such a venue to succeed. 

For example, as an acoustic musician who burnt out on the bar scene decades ago, I would have imagined that there were maybe fifteen non-bar acoustic-friendly venues for live music within an hour’s drive.  There are at least fifty eight.  If I wanted to play “out” once every two weeks for the next six months - say, until I decide what the next phase of my “music career” will entail, I would only have to get my foot into the door in 26 of those places (or fewer, if I get repeat visits). 

You get the idea.  The more you know, the more power you have to control your own musical future.   

Stay in Touch

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,

Paul

SchoolOfTheRock.com

 


Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

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