10 years ago, when I was much newer to the money losing business of music, I used to waste time perusing the sites of “booking agents” that were representing bands that I’d seen play at clubs like Room 710 and Beerland. I was usually surprised at the way these “agents” (usually just a friend, lover or dealer of one of the band members) played up their bands — and even moreso by their selection. Most of the bands lasted about a year at best or had a better name than they did music/talent. I was baffled that these bands that were lucky paid $50 for a gig had representation. (I still see this. There’s just no accounting for taste – even my own.. which apparently is out of touch with everyone else and has been forever.)
These days, I realize how hokey those “agencies” were. Still, as rinky-dink as they were, the bands on them had one thing I didn’t – someone that wasn’t in their band that liked them enough to take on the pain in the butt responsibility of booking the band and pumping up their image to the gate keepers. Having someone like that in your corner is very validating for a young band and communicates something to talent buyers. Even if they did a crappy job, at least these people were talking up their bands.
I certainly didn’t have that. The only person talking up my band was me. So I set forth on the long road of building my own reputation. I wasn’t any good at making myself look good. In fact, I was better at doing the opposite than anyone I knew.
Eventually, I gained a little confidence indirectly by simply failing so many times. I developed what I now know as the “fake it til you make it” mentality. I started saying yes to opportunities that had seemed unrealistic and outlandish or even undesirable because that’s all that was coming my way. “Can your band be in San Marcos on a Wednesday at 4:00 PM and play 2 sets outdoors in the freezing cold on an open stage in a parking lot to sick children? Oh yeah and you’ll need your own PA.” That’s character building (I just hope Tommy, Adam, Phil and Leila see it that way now) but it also opened some doors. Lots of times we didn’t really have 2 sets worth of material or PA suitable to playing outdoors. We did it anyway. We faked it knowing that even if we blew it, we didn’t really want to play that gig again anyway so… what the hell?
But there’s some level of fakery that bugs me and I don’t think I’m alone.
I finally unsubscribed from a Dallas booking agent’s email list after receiving an invitation to the video shoot of a wedding/cover band with a link that read, “See the band that People Magazine” is raving about (I can’t remember that exact wording but it was something like that.)
I clicked the link which took me to a tedious article on People’s web site about a high society wedding for a pair of rich people I’d never heard of. Buried among the paragraphs was a single sentence that simply said that that this band provided live music for the wedding. It also mentioned the catering company.
I guess you’ve got to take what you can get… but this was free advertising at best and hardly a rave review.
Everyone in the entertainment business is always trying to play themselves or their clients up to be bigger than they are. Why? Because there’s some truth and value to the idea of “fake it til you make it.” Plus, image is almost everything. If you’re perceived as a pro who’s done this a million times it can often mean more opportunities and more money.
There’s nothing wrong with learning as you go. We often learn stuff best by simply doing it and confidence can be the key. As I started venturing into bigger soft-ticketed events, I slowly learned that simply stating something with confidence was often the difference between a confirmed gig and a “maybe next year” email. I’ve wound up sub-contracting sound engineers and even staging, lighting and power when my knowledge about these things was cursory at best. My clients (that sounds so weird) didn’t even have the cursory knowledge though. As long as I seemed confident and positive, they were happy (even if I was actually pulling my hair out and cursing myself as soon as I hung up.)
You might hit boundaries. That’s ok. I just hit one a year ago. I was trying to turn around a silent movie booking situation that had gone awry (original talent buyer booked it then quit the company as we were on the verge of confirming) and learned the hard way that Warner Bros. does not deal with third parties – only directly with movie theaters. The theater felt embarrassed when WB asked them why I was trying to book a movie at their theater instead of them doing it. My final phone conversation with the theater made me feel like a 19 year old grocery sacker being fired because the boss was in a bad mood.
So you don’t want to be over-confident. Afterall, there are some things that you can’t fake til you make. If you tell a club booker that you normally draw 100 people when you really only draw about 25, it won’t take long for you to find yourself back on Tuesday nights – unless you pretty quickly find about 75 more people willing to come see you.
Well… maybe you CAN fake this if you have enough money. A former artist manager I know used to refer to a concept he called “papering” the audience which is simply when a promoter can’t get people to buy tickets and offers discounts or even free tickets/drinks just to get people they know to show up. Even if they lose money, they made it look like the band sold a lot of tickets. Remember Fletcher Clark’s “joke” about the best way to make a small fortune as a musician is to start with a large one? If you can’t get people to come see you even for free, why not pay them to be there? I think we’d all be surprised at how much this kind of thing goes on even at high levels (Glenn Danzig’s comments about Ozzfest being a “corporate buy-on” are not the first I’ve heard of bigger bands paying to play even at high levels.)
But most of us can’t afford to do that.
Last year, I got an email from a talent buyer in Ft. Worth that I’ve worked with asking me I’d ever seen a particular band that was asking him for a high guarantee. I hadn’t. They had an impressive web presence and touring history. They’d traveled as a supporting act in big venues for pretty high level acts with commercial radio airplay and name recognition among people who shop in malls.
But they’d barely ever played in North Texas. I noticed they’d played Austin a few times but only one weeknight at the Lucky Lounge (nothing against Lucky Lounge – it just wasn’t the even close to the size of the other shows they’d played) and a handful of unofficial dayshows during SxSW. I asked the booker if there was any reason he thought they might do well at his club (which is the same size as the Lucky Lounge) and how he heard about them. Apparently they just sent an email to DFW promoters with a pitch and dollar figure. I guess that was enough to get his interest because he was considering it. He kept asking around about them.
A few weeks later, I was dealing with him on another gig and asked about that band. He said he told them to stick it.
But maybe I don’t know how to balance or manage confidence. Years ago, we played an official SxSW showcase with a buzzing San Marcos shoe gazer band who had a manager that was a total dick to the SxSW sound engineer. I thought he was way over the top. As negative as my experience with him and his band was, in the end, he was right – that SxSW showcase sucked. The stage manager was passed out drunk on the couch in back when we loaded in at 8 PM and the sound was pretty damn bad and this is not unheard of during SxSW. At least these guys had someone willing to stand up for them and say, “you can’t treat us like this.” I simply grinned and powered through.
(Side note – that band borrowed our bass amp when theirs blew and ours was never the same after they used it. They didn’t even thank us and then they played an encore AT A SXSW SHOWCASE that we had to follow. I wish I’d had their manager to yell at them.)