For most bands and artists gigging is a big component of their overall strategy. Although their are a few who have successfully taken the road less traveled, the vast majority of artists need to play live if they want to grow and sustain a music career - this is true whether they are megastars performing in packed coliseums on world tours or local bands in a small bar.
At a time in history when music sales are continually fleeting, the live performance has never been more important. For many artists it generates their most significant revenue stream.
From local open mics to concert tours and festivals - there are a lot of key players that keep the live music machine moving behind the scenes. Since this is such a critical part of the music industry, it’s important to know who these players are no matter what stage you’re at in your career.
There’s a lot of ground to be covered here: venue owners, promoters, booking agents, managers, stage crews, live sound engineers, security, ticketing vendors, and more. I’d suggest at the very least making sure you have a basic understanding of each of these roles.
Right now we’re going to focus on just one of them: concert promoters. Arguably the most important for you to know, especially early on in your career. Why? Because reputable managers and booking agents (the people that can quantum leap your live show opportunities) don’t typically show interest in artists until they have established their own track record of performing. How do you establish said track record? By building relationships with promoters.
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What Do Concert Promoters Do?
A concert promoter (also called talent buyers) pays artists to perform live at a certain location at a certain time for an event. Often times they pay for all of (or most of) the expenses associated with that event in hopes that the event generates enough revenue (usually through ticket sales) to cover the costs and make money.
There are a ton of different types of concert promoters. But if you boil it down they all do one thing: pay artists to perform live. They buy talent. I use the terms “pay” and “buy” loosely because payment isn’t necessarily always monetary. For example, in-house promoters for small venues sometimes offer exposure as the only payment for new or small bands when booking them to perform.
Having a basic understanding of what concert promoters do and the role they play is essential. That said, information by itself is not enough to begin cultivating good relationships with the right promoters. You also need to understand the different types of promoters so that you can identify which type you should be targeting with your networking efforts.
There are plenty of variable circumstances and business models, but generally speaking the type(s) of concert promoter you should be focusing on will fit into one of the 5 categories below, no matter where you are at in your career.
1. In-House Talent Buyers For Bars And Clubs
Most bars, clubs, and small venues that host live music have one person or more in charge of “in-house promotion” or booking for shows. Sometimes this is their main role within the establishment and other times either the owner or one of the staff members handles this as one of their many responsibilities. When you’re first starting out getting ANY promoter to give you the time of day, even these guys, can seem like an impossible feat. But getting on the radar screen of these promoters is usually the first step to breaking down those barriers.
2. Independent Concert Promoters
Independent talent buying operations are usually ran by a single individual or a small team. They are not owned or employed by any specific venue although they often have partnerships arranged with one or more of them. Sometimes, in-house promoters for venues run their own indie promoter business on the side.
Indie promoters are true “hard ticket” talent buyers because ticket sales are their primary revenue source. They pay to rent the venue, secure the talent, and for just about everything else - printing posters, online advertising, ticketing fees, security (sometimes included with the venue rental), etc. The plan here is that after funding, planning, and coordinating the whole event it will sell enough tickets to recoup those costs and turn a profit.
Typically, these type of promoters assume the most risk. Although just about anyone can do this it usually takes heavy financial investment, a solid understanding of the business and industry, and good relationships with music venues and booking agents to do it well.
These promoters are often the most valuable for artists early in their careers. Why? Because some of these promoters throw shows comparable to shows being thrown by large venue buyers (which we will talk about next) - but the difference is these indie promoters are sometimes easier to reach and willing to negotiate more favorable terms. I have also noticed they’re more likely to portray an “in it for the music” attitude. Therefore they are often times more willing to show interest in local artists beyond just thinking about how many tickets they can sell.
3. Local And Regional Talent Buyers
This one might be the most difficult threshold to breach. Although the national and international talent buying corporations that we will discuss next are considerably larger; working with them does not take much effort on the artists’ part once you are established enough to have their attention.
“Large Venue Talent Buyers” usually dominate a local scene or region. They might not possess a full monopoly on the area, but they are the most prominent force. Typically the concert promotion business and the main venue it books talent for are owned by the same person or company. Often times they even own their own ticketing service provider.
Although they are not paying to rent venues they are paying to run one. Between that and the concert promotion and ticketing operations a lot of people need to be employed and a lot of overhead is created. It’s not just ticket sales, but the combined revenue streams that keep these operations a float: ticket sales, ticketing services, liquor and beer sales, sponsors, etc.
There is usually someone or multiple someone’s who has the sole job of “talent buyer” and establishing a good relationship with that person specifically can be a game changer. Not only is this person directly in control of being able to place you in front of large crowds, but they also have a myriad of relevant connections in the local scene from popular artists to influential people in the press.
4. National And International Giants
By the time you’re ready to worry about these guys you’ll probably have your own dedicated team of highly capable professionals handling all of the legwork for you so you can focus on what you do best, being a rock star. Nevertheless, it’s still important to be aware of this upper echelon and it’s main participants because they really do monopolize this category. In fact, the two global giants AEG Live and Live Nation control an estimated 70% of the box office. But there are several other big contenders in this space, some of the more notable of which are “indie promoters” in their own right and grossing millions of dollars annually.
5. Bad, Slimy, And Scam Promoters
Always research who you’re dealing with. If you’re actively trying to establish rapport with targeted promoters then you should already have a good idea of which promoters are most valuable for you to know. Beware of promoters with bad reputations, slimy “pay-to-play opportunities” (they aren’t always slimy, but they’re rarely the best investment you can make), or scam-y businesses like Afton (if you have a ReverbNation page for your music then you’ve probably already gotten emails from them).
All of these succubus promoters prey on naive artists and they are hidden in each of the four categories mentioned above so I’ll say this one more time: make sure you always know who you are dealing with. It doesn’t hurt to make informed, strategic decisions, too.
As you can see, at times the above five categories cross into each other. There are talent buyers for bars, clubs, small venues, medium-sized venues, ampi-theaters, tours, private events, sport half-time shows, festivals, conventions, colleges, after parties, and more.
The focal point of your strategy as an indie artist or band should be one or more of the first three categories depending on where you are at in your career. New acts with small followings typically start with category one and climb their way up. But maybe you’ve paid your dues in the first category and it’s time for you to shift focus to the next step.
What’s most important to take away is that you should know which category to target, and then spend some time researching who those promoters are in your local market and specifically which promoters you’re most interested in working with. You should be considering what type of shows they do, how successful their shows are, what their reputation is, and how accessible they are. Next, you need to develop a strategy to build a good relationship with them. Essentially, you need to find a way to add repeated value for them in hopes that it gets reciprocated.