After spending most of his life wishing that more people would buy tickets, veteran promoter and agent Jim Driver (a sheep in wolf’s clothing?) reveals his Top 10 Tips for aspiring promoters. This is just a fraction of what every aspiring impresario needs to know, but it should be enough to start you off on the right foot.
1. Don’t do it!
2. Be cautious
Assuming it’s too late for “don’t do it!”, the next best thing is to be ultra-cautious. Start small and never gamble more than you can afford to lose. It’s always a good idea to have put away enough money to pay the acts and promotion costs before you set any wheels in motion.
And be prepared to lose it all. You might be lucky on your first promotion and make a killing, but don’t bank on it.
3. Know how the business works
Every time I hear a story about a new promoter setting up shop and contacting the music agents, the term “lamb to slaughter” automatically comes to mind. It may not be terribly original, but it’s usually horrifyingly accurate. It really is a jungle out there and, before you contact any agent – even the helpful, ever-friendly Shoreditch Music Agency – you should have an inkling of how the business works and what’s expected of you. Here’s a brief crash course…
It goes without saying that the headline act will want a fee. This can either be a “flat fee” (music biz-speak for a pre-agreed sum that doesn’t depend on how many people attend the gig) or – more likely – a guaranteed sum (“guarantee”) against a percentage of ticket revenue (split/ percentage). On paper this will look something like this: “£500/ 75% net door receipts”. “Net door receipts” means the ticket money less your pre-agreed expenses (venue hire, advertising and so on). “Gross door receipts” means every red cent of the ticket money – except for PRS and VAT if you are registered and the band aren’t. Percentages against gross door receipts will typically be lower, maybe 50-60%. At this stage, you don’t really have to worry about VAT or PRS, or any other form of government-sanctioned protection racket. All that comes later…
I suggest you always contact agents by email. That way you always have a written record of your negotiations. Sending and receiving emails also gives you chance to think about what you want to do before responding, and it lets you look up any terms you are not familiar with before you have to reply. Plus, agents are usually super salesmen who pride themselves on being able to force Ice on to Inuits (Remember Ice? They were big on the Inuit disco circuit in the 1990s). The big thing to keep in the back of your mind at all times is that the agent is representing the artist, not you. Good agents try and keep both the band and the promoter happy, but when push comes to shove, you’ll be the one who gets shoved.
Making initial contact with an agent can be tricky. Don’t be surprised if they ignore you completely or pass you on to a secretary or intern. Most of the big agents are stinking rich and can’t be bothered dealing with novices. My advice would be to ignore this type of agent, at least until you have a few gigs under your belt. If you don’t get a reply after a day or two, email again. In my case, if I don’t respond it’s either because I’m away or because I didn’t receive your email in the first place.
You can divide most entertainment agents into two general categories. The first group insist on high fees for their artists, don’t care how well (or how badly) the promoter does, and generally communicate via one line emails. The second category are – like me – in the majority. We want the promoter to succeed and keep coming back for more of our acts. This type of agent likes a quiet life, whereas the other thrives on confrontation.
To be honest, every agent worth his or her salt will try and get as much as they can for their acts – that’s their job – but the agent who’s in it for the “long-term” will try and make sure it comes out of ticket sales, not out of the promoter’s life savings.
So how much should you pay? Most agents will ask you to “make an offer” for the act. This is a clever move, because if the offer is too high they’ll snatch your hand off, but if it’s too low they’ll snort in derision and ask for more. Unlike tribute acts and wedding bands, there’s not really a a fixed price for any act. Instead there’s a minimum the agent is not allowed to go below. The price you pay depends on your location and on other factors, such as the day of the week and how good you are at negotiating. If you have budgeted properly (see below), you’ll have some idea of what you can afford to pay. If you offer slightly less than you think you can afford, you will leave yourself some room for negotiation.
4. Treat promoting as a business, not a hobby
Selling tickets for a gig is very similar to what Starbucks do (selling coffee), and what Waitrose, Tesco and Lidl do (selling groceries). Think of your tickets as a commodity just like any other. The only way to succeed in gig and concert promotion is to…
Take more money in ticket sales than you pay out to the artist and for your overheads
This is the bottom line of music promotion. Write it down and stick it on your wall.
Avoid the idea that promoting gigs can ever be an extension of your social life. You must treat it as a business and keep your gig-life totally separate from your “off time”. You may have friends and acquaintances you can sell tickets to – fine – but be aware that most of them will expect to get in for free.
Make it plain from the outset that you can’t afford to give away free tickets, because you can’t. I used to buy fruit and vegetables regularly from a greengrocer. He found out what I did and one day he badgered me to let him in for free to a gig I was promoting. I did, even though it wasn’t selling well, and in the end I lost money. When I was in his shop the following week, I suggested – in a jokey manner – that he give me a week’s worth of fruit and vegetables for free. The cost of these was around half the price of the free ticket I’d given him. The guy almost had a heart attack. He couldn’t do that! It was his business, he said, and if he gave away stock, he’d soon go bust. Exactly. For some reason, people don’t think of music as a business – but you have to.
Business is business and free tickets will not help you pay the band or the venue hire. Also, if a gig is packed with free-loaders and the band are on a percentage of the ticket sales, they may start to worry about your honesty.
5. Do your research. Then do some more…
You can’t know too much about your prospective gig. Among the many questions you need to ask yourself are:
- Has the band played your town or area recently?
- If so, how many people showed up? What was the ticket price? Did the promoter make money?
- If not, why not? Is there really a market for them?
- How much are people prepared to pay to go and see them? (Tickets to see a solo folk singer are often cheaper than those for a 36-piece orchestra).
- How big a venue do you need? To keep your overheads down, go smaller rather than bigger. It’s always better to turn people away (though it breaks my heart) than have a venue less than a quarter full. Veteran promoter Harvey Goldsmith once told me that he always tried to put acts into venues that were too small because “nothing sells tickets for the next gig than a sell-out on the last one”.
- Is there a choice of suitable venues? Do they regularly run gigs there? Is there already an audience for your type of music? What kind of equipment and facilities are available in-house?
- Why isn’t someone else doing it? This may sound like a weird question to ask, but assuming there’s already at least one established promoter in your town or area, why haven’t they already done what you are thinking of doing? It may well be that they don’t know anything about the type of music you are wanting to promote, or it may be that they’ve tried it and there simply isn’t a market for it. It really would help to find out which it is.
6. Budget realistically
Before you commit to anything, you need to know exactly what your costs are going to be. Some aspects, such as the band’s fee (especially if a percentage is involved) and “hospitality rider”, are hard to gauge exactly, but make an estimate and make sure you are “over” rather than “under”. Count everything, even stuff like travel costs when you go to leaflet other gigs, and office overheads like postage, envelopes, and printer cartridges. The proper way way to work out your ticket price is to estimate how many people you are expecting, based on previous performances and “like for like” gigs. You should be estimating, based on information you have researched (see above), not “guessing”.
If a venue holds 300 people, I like to price tickets so that I can break even on 150, though this is rarely possible. Usually I settle for 60-70% of the capacity as my break-even. Be pragmatic and don’t just do gigs for the sake of doing them. If you can’t realistically make money by charging a ticket price that is comparable to similar gigs at similar venues, DON’T DO IT.
Here’s a top tip… Don’t price tickets on round pounds (or 99p for that matter): if someone’s prepared to pay £15 for a ticket, they’ll pay £15.50 without blinking. The difference is, when you sell 300 tickets you’ll have an extra £150 to play with.
7. Give value for money but aim to be Waitrose not Tesco
You should always aim to give your ticket-buyers value for money, but that doesn’t mean you should offer bargain basement ticket prices. Just the opposite. A mistake many new promoters make is to try and put on cheapo gigs. Because all their friends agree that gig tickets are too expensive, they try and do it cheaper, assuming that people will appreciate the gesture and give them extra support. They may, but you can’t rely on it. Music is a niche industry: a relatively small proportion of the population go to any gigs, certainly less than the number who drink coffee. Unless you totally over-price a gig, the people who want to go and who are able to attend will buy tickets.
Rather than have to cut corners because your ticket price is too cheap, it’s better to charge a little more and give added value for money. A proper DJ between sets, for example, might be better than just playing a compilation CD from the PA, and the extra cost will add up to a few pennies per ticket. Similarly, including a cheap support act no one wants to see on the bill isn’t good business when you can pay a little extra and put on a better act that will attract extra people. Even consider making it a double bill. Make your gigs fun and a little better than people are used to and they’ll be more likely to support you and come back for more.
Another top tip: never ever book a support act you know are bad, just because they’re cheap, pull in their friends, and a few extra people. People who come to see the headline act will be outraged and think you have ripped them off. Very often headline acts are not as talented as their support acts, but that’s a different story. Every aspect of the bill should be as good as you can possibly make it, even if it means spending a little more money.
When Tesco first started out, the supermarket’s motto was “pile it high and sell it cheap”, now they’ve left all that discount philosophy behind and are trying to emulate the success of Waitrose, who have always traded on better quality. A cup-cake that might cost you 49p in Tesco is out-sold by a more lavish version at Waitrose that could set you back a couple of quid. As the Americans say, “You do the math”.
8. Letting people know the gig is on
Before they can buy a ticket, people who might be interested in going have to know that your event is going to take place. So tell them – but only tell people who might want to go. Don’t waste your money advertising to millions if only a few thousand interested parties are likely to see it. In this day and age, press advertising is too scatter-gun and likely to be seen by very few of your target market. A better idea is to go on Facebook, target the fans of similar acts and venues to the ones you are promoting, and go from there. Get into Twitter and even forums and message-boards which are still popular in some musical genres.
One last thing, be aware that just because people know a gig is happening does not mean that they’ll automatically come along. Even if they are fans of the band, there are plenty of factors that might prevent them from attending. Go for over-kill, but only with your target market.
Also, be prepared for one or two disgruntled fans saying afterwards, “I would have come if only I’d known it was happening”. You will always get this, no matter how much time you spend promoting and advertising your gigs. If lots of people start saying it, you might have a problem, but there’ll always be one or two. I find they’re usually the ones who sign up to your list then, six months later, report your emails as spam!
9. Be honest with everyone – including yourself
In order to get the acts you want – and get them for repeat shows – you have to be trusted. That means being totally honest with your percentage payments, ticket receipts and paying people.
10. Don’t do it!
But if you have to, ask Shoreditch Music Agency first.