The difficult part of booking out-of-town shows always comes down to your lack of a local following. This is what most bar managers look for when they hire a band, which is a little bass-akwards (compared to hiring based on talent) in my opinion, but that’s a subject for a different article. When I book shows on the road, I counteract this by underbidding my gigs. Whether you need the extra cash or you want the extra exposure, it may be worth it take a pay-cut. After all, a little money is better than no money at all and the same certainly goes for exposure.
There are three ways to snag a show on the road: You could call a venue; email them or message them on social media; or walk in and talk to someone in person.
If I’m traveling in a foreign country, it’s hard to know where I’ll be in a week or two, and harder to contact the venue—especially if I’m unsure whether I even speak the same language as them. I’ve had the best luck by just walking in and talking to a manager. No matter which route you take, be confident. I was able to book a show in Italy using only my terrible Italian simply because I was confident. I researched the words I needed to convey my intentions and simply walked in there and acted like I did it all the time. The manager didn’t even ask to hear my music. If you sound professional, many people will assume you know what you’re doing. Now, let’s build up that confidence by giving you some specific how-to advice!
What to Say
Remember: Be confident. You know exactly what you want, so tell the booking manager. I try to act as though I’m a salesperson whose product sells itself. The intended effect is to trick your brain into thinking it’s simply a matter of negotiating price (rather than trying to cold-sell them).
Be careful not to sound arrogant, however. Like the Fonz, just be cool. Before you go in, decide what the lowest amount you’d take would be. Even practice what you’re going to say before you walk in. You need a sales pitch to be an effective salesperson.
As an example, I’ll retell my conversation with the bar owner in Italy. This one was definitely rehearsed since I had to speak it in a foreign language, but here’s an English translation:
Owner: Nods head and smiles–“Ciao!”
Me: “Ciao! Do you speak English?”
Owner: “Mmm no, very little English.”
Me: “Ahh, I speak very little Italian.”
We both chuckled. I had practiced this beforehand, so I jumped right into my spiel in Italian.
Me: “I play music. Myself and a drummer. We play American music. We play for two or three hours, you pay us euro.”
Owner: Smiles and keeps nodding. “Yes, yes. What kind of music do you play?”
Here is where the language barrier really kicked into overdrive and I had to resort to what I call traveler’s charades, this time complete with an air guitar performance. The message, albeit comical, was portrayed and he understood.
In retrospect, I should have known he would ask this question (considering it’s asked almost every time you’re booking a show anywhere) and rehearsed it in Italian as well. The message to take away from it is this: It doesn’t matter if you get into a jam like that. Just stay confident and keep moving along.
Owner: “Yes, you play! Friday, you can play?”
From there it was a matter of price negotiation. Let’s just say if a venue back home offered me $100 and a couple beers for a five-hour show, I would have laughed at them and maybe cried a little.
However, the owner and I both knew that I didn’t have a local following. Not to mention, it was still a good chunk of change for me—triple what I was making during a day of busking. I was appreciative. At the end of the show, he not only paid exactly what we had agreed to, but also fed us twice—before and after our show—and arranged for a ride to take us back to where we were staying. He also booked us again the next Friday!
This transcript is relevant to book shows while traveling as well as in your home region: Tell them what you do, how much you want to do it, and be ready to negotiate. I usually tell them I’m on tour and looking to snag an extra show for an added portrayal of experience.
There’s a tip I learned long ago in the art of booking shows: Don’t be afraid to “bullshit.” Get your foot in the door and if your music is good, the manager will be happy at the end of the night.
How Much Should You Charge?
This will obviously vary between artists. If you’re an experienced touring musician, you can probably charge higher. However, with that being said, if you’re an experience touring musician you’re probably not reading this article. My general rule of thumb is 1/3 to 1/2 the price I charge in my local region. I will reiterate here that it depends on your specific situation. It should be noted that if you provide your own P.A. you will most likely be able to charge a higher price and you will have some other benefits as well, which I will mention in a moment. If you really need the money, you can go lower of course. This is entirely up to you. If you aren’t playing shows in your local region yet, you should probably wait a little while before you delve into the task of booking on the road.
Do You Need a P.A.?
Unfortunately a P.A. just isn’t practical when I’m abroad, so I’m forced to do without. But if you’re able to bring one with you on your travels, it could come in quite handy.
A few shows I’ve booked—like the one in Italy, or another at the rooftop bar of my hostel in Peru—did not have a house PA system, so I had to either belt out vocals at the top of my lungs or cobble together some kind of rudimentary setup. (In Peru I borrowed the hostel manager’s guitar amp and hooked up my condenser mic to it.)
Bringing a PA will also help you out when busking. You’ll draw a larger crowd when busking with a P.A. system, therefore, earn more tips.
To answer the question, no, you don’t need a P.A. to book shows while traveling. But if you can bring a small one without bogging yourself down (if you’re traveling by car, for example) it could do you a lot of good.
Be confident: Know what you’re selling, and sell it. Know how much you want to charge, and the least amount of money you’ll take. Go into it knowing that if you’re booking shows while traveling, you’re most likely not going to get paid as much. Most of all: Be personable. Venue managers will be much more likely to book a band they’ve never heard of if they like you rather than if you sound like an egotistic asshole. Similar to dating–where your level of insecurity, confidence, or arrogance can drastically affect another party’s opinion of you–you need to find that sweet spot, which I think is just a tiny, tiny bit above confidence.
If you’d like a LOT more tips for traveling musicians, making money while you travel, getting places to stay for free, and stuff like that, please consider grabbing a copy of Tune Up & Travel: The Indie-Musician’s Bible.
Or, if you’d like to read the hilarious journey of my friends and I attempting to vagabond our way around the world, check out my book Planes, Trains, & Broken Strings!
Peace and happy travels,