All independent musicians at some point are
going to go through the process of booking their own shows.
This means identifying, contacting, and performing at venues
across your hometown and beyond. But all venues are not created
equally. Sometimes it's because the management is shady; other
times it's because the sound system will give you tinnitus.
Either way, you shouldn't play a show just for the sake of
playing a show, and you shouldn't book a venue just because
they'll have you.
While some nightmare experiences at venues
are completely unpredictable and out of your control, many
of them are totally avoidable – if you know what to
watch out for. Here are the top seven red flags that a venue
will be more trouble than it's worth.
1. You'll be getting zero promotional
help from the venue
Most venues expect the artists to promote
each show — that’s built in with every gig. You're
being booked because of your fanbase. Unless the venue is
also a bar that has a built-in crowd, it depends on the music
to fill the room. However, no venue should 100 percent depend
on a band to promote the show.
If a venue's social media pages are inactive,
the managers don’t hang posters, and they have a reputation
of never promoting, that isn’t a good sign, and you'll
want to think twice before booking a show there. A good venue
will post flyers on its Instagram, create Facebook events,
share YouTube videos of the performers as a show approaches,
put up posters in the windows, etc.
Venues need to make money, too, but if a venue
isn’t willing to lift a finger to promote, you might
want to really ask yourself if it’s worth it to perform
2. You have to pay to play (without
opening for a bigger talent)
We all know the pay-to-play model better
than we care to admit. It can be a crucial investment in your
music, but it can also be a scam. Venues that make you pay
to play without anything to offer in return are not worth
your time. If you have to pay to just perform with other local
bands that will likely draw a crowd no bigger than yours,
then you’re better off finding a venue that will give
you a percentage of door and bar revenue.
Paying to open for a famous band or to perform
at a big festival can be a smart investment in your music,
but paying to play at a small venue that really promises nothing
in return is going to be more stressful than it’s worth.
3. The venue doesn't seem to put much
thought into lineups
A poorly managed venue is one that doesn’t
do its research. Sadly, it’s not terribly uncommon for
venues to pile bands in completely random genres onto a lineup
just to get as many people in the room as possible. That's
not to say you shouldn't book shows at venues that are open
to a wide range of musical styles, but a venue that doesn’t
seem care at all about who you play with is worth avoiding.
It might feel great to be booking a show,
but if you're playing in front of the wrong crowd, the best-case
scenario is that you'll be ignored by the audience, and the
worst-case scenario is that you'll end up making anti-fans.
Find venues that actually put effort into the lineups —
venues that know a thing or two about bringing in people with
similar interests to experience a whole show, so that all
the bands have a real chance to gain new fans.
4. The sound system is unbearable
Unfortunately, every musician is going
to play more than a handful of rooms that just sound bad.
Either the acoustics of the room are completely unforgiving,
or the sound system is so cheap, old, or broken that you can
hardly even make out what you’re hearing.
If the venue that you’re thinking of
booking a show at has a notoriously horrid sound system, is
it really going to be a good representation of your band?
Check out a show at the venue in advance – if a muffled,
distorted sound comes out of the singer's mic rather than
a clear (or at least semi-clear) vocal, that’s a sign
that the venue probably isn’t worth your time. Your
fans might forgive you, but if new people are hearing your
music for the first time on an awful sound system, they might
not be generous enough to give you a second shot.
5. The venue overcharges its customers
Some venues like to jack up the price
at the door way beyond what you (and your friends and fans)
are accustomed to. If you’re unable to negotiate with
the venue staff on the price of tickets, and they're insisting
you charge way more than you’re comfortable with, don’t
waste your time.
Say you typically charge $10–$15 for
your shows. If, out of the blue, you ask your fans to pay
$25–$30, they’re not going to be happy, unless
you have some incredibly special event planned. Practically
speaking, don’t try to play at a venue that’s
going to ask too much from your fans. Sure, you might be offered
a nicer guarantee than you’re used to, but don’t
expect them to book you again if your fans can’t afford
to get in the room!
6. They're unwilling to sign a performance
As a performer, it's completely common
(and smart!) to have the promoter or talent buyer sign a performance
contract that negotiates the settlement, pay, event details,
etc. This ensures that both parties will know exactly what
to expect from the show, so that there aren't any misunderstandings.
However, if they seem hesitant or flat-out unwilling to sign
a simple agreement, that's a big red flag that they might
be planning to take advantage of you.
At the very least, there should be a written
agreement that ensures you know how and when you'll be paid,
and what the venue expects to make. But if it's all up in
the air, and they won't commit to a contract, the venue could
easily change its "terms and conditions" last minute
– and guess who's going to get the short end of the
stick? (Hint: that would be you.)
7. The communication is one-sided
This is one of the most important red flags to look out for
early on in the booking process. If you find yourself sending
email after email with little to no response, the venue probably
isn't going to be reliable in helping you put together a strong
show. Sometimes, a talent buyer may respond promptly, but
it'll be short, unprofessional, and only address one part
of your email. Even worse, you'll just be ignored.
It's a shame, but some venues that have
great reputations for the concert experience happen to have
horrible management. Planning a show takes tons of communication,
so if it's pretty clear that you're the only one putting the
effort into communicating, do yourself a favor and do not
book a show with that venue.