Val Esway: on booking & getting booked:

I've booked shows from both sides of the phone: A few thoughts on booking and getting booked. As an independent musician, I've booked my own shows and tours since 1996. Recently, I had the opportunity to book shows from the other end of the phone - as the booker of the Stork Club, a small eclectic bar in downtown Oakland. This was a wonderful opportunity to become more involved in my local music community, and it was also a huge learning experience.

Here are some tips for musicians:

Try to remember when calling a booker or promoter, that you are one of dozens, hundreds even, of people trying to reach a single person. You may have heard this before, but it can't be stressed enough - bookers are underpaid and overworked. You are one of dozens, even hundreds of people trying to reach a single person. Start things off in a nicer way and show that you consider the fact that bookers have needs too. Unfortunately, patience and professionalism alone won't change the fact that bookers don't return phone calls unless they have a gig to offer you. This leads to my next point…

Only the persistent shall get the gig. The sooner you accept this and decide not to take it personally, the better off you'll be. Persistence with professionalism and politeness pay off. Note: There is a difference between polite persistence and being a pest! Leaving five increasingly irritated messages per week, especially during non-booking hours, is not going to make a booker call you back any faster, if at all.

Generally, a booker does not have the time or the budget to call you back (especially if it's a long distance call) to tell you that no, s(h)e does not have the date you're requesting for your tour. If you had called during their hours and got them on the phone, they would've told you that. Leaving excessive messages tends only to make a negative impression, which won't bode well for your next tour or show. If a booker hasn't responded to your inquiry for a show on your tour, leave a polite message saying you'll follow up with them the next time, encouraging them to listen to your CD anyway, and keep you in mind if a cancellation should arise.

Respect deadlines: It can be a frustrating dance trying to get bookers on the phone, but it is far more effective to do the dance during the appropriate times. I know it's tricky booking a tour, but don't expect a gig to be confirmed as fast as you'd like. My band, Ramona the Pest, recently played the Casbah in San Diego on a Monday night, and ended up playing a sold-out show opening for Flogging Molly & The Blue Meanies. It took me two months of phoning the booker during his requested hours before the show was confirmed, but it was worth it.

When planning a tour, it's a good idea to begin making calls at least 3 months in advance. Even though some bookers won't confirm anything that early, it's better to get a head start than to miss out. That's why when I'm in the early planning stages of a tour, I make every effort to contact the booker to inquire about the basics: How far in advance do you book? Are you likely to book my kind of music? What nights of the week do you have music? These questions help you narrow down your choices and save valuable time and resources. Often you can simply call the bar during regular hours and whoever answers the phone can give you this information. I can't tell you how many press kits I've received in mid-January from a band attempting to book a show for mid-February. This is a waste of a band's resources. And no, I'm not going to call back to tell them that!

A good rule of thumb to remember is that it takes a booker a minimum of 3-4 weeks to review your press kit. Additionally, I like to make initial inquiries in the early planning stages of a tour, so I can mention the band's name and ask the booker to keep an eye out for the press kit. I also like to write on the outside of the package, along with my return address, something to the effect of "…touring your area March 12-16…." So I didn't call you back. Please don't take it personally! Here's what I deal with in an average day. Speaking from experience, an average 4-hour booking shift for me could go something like this: review the 30 plus messages since my last booking day. Write down all messages and determine which ones merit my attention.

Several calls are questions that easily could have been answered by using simple common sense, such as "What's the address of the club, so I can send a press kit?" Answer: look it up. Next, I deal with calls from local or out of town bands that've sent press kits and are looking to fill specific dates without having any idea what my deadlines are. Regardless of whether it's an upcoming date or two months from now, if the date is not available, I simply don't have time to return that call. Several calls are from people who leave out pertinent information such as their name, the band's name, their phone number, and the specific date or month in question ("Do you have anything on the 5th?"). So while I'm weeding through the messages and returning the phone calls, I'm also listening to demos for an average of 2-3 minutes each, while racking my brain trying to think of the perfect fitting band to book you with.

Some of the messages are simple reminders from bands: "Hi, this is So & So from the band Super Rock Stars... we enjoyed playing there last week and please keep us in mind for future bookings." There's nothing wrong with these calls, and I appreciate the reminder, but this person might be one of 10 people calling to say the same thing, so I will keep them in mind, but I won't necessarily call them back. Several messages are from people canceling shows that are happening within the next 2-3 weeks. In addition to calling more bands to find a replacement on short notice, I now have to fax updates out to my 15-20 different press outlets.

All of these examples, thus far, don't need a return call.

Next, I've got several phone calls that I DO need to return - to discuss or confirm gigs that have already been penciled in. While all this is happening, it's keeping me from doing my other day to day tasks like listening to demos, booking the calendar for whatever month I'm working on, and writing press releases for upcoming shows to help generate an audience. Did I forget to mention that while all this is going on, the phone is ringing off the hook, and that I can focus on any of this for about two minutes? And by the way, if it happens that during this time that So & So from the Super Rock Stars calls and GETS ME ON THE PHONE to inquire about a gig, since I've got my calendar in front of me, I'm highly likely to book them if I can find an appropriate slot. Now I'm sure you get the picture and you're not taking it personally that I didn't return your four phone calls. Survival of the fittest, baby.

You and your booker: a few possible scenarios:

Scenario 1: So & So from Super Rock Stars calls and I have a vague memory of listening to their demo three months ago, but I can't exactly remember how they sound-they are 1 of 50 bands I book per month. So I ask them to refresh my memory as to their sound, so I can find them an appropriate booking. They have no idea how to describe their sound, because really, they are so fresh and unique. Really I understand, but how about saying something like "Power pop in the vein of Green Day "or" Art rock. At least then I've got a clue. This helps me avoid booking you with a death-metal band if you're a folkie. It's ok to offer suggestions; you may not get what you want, but it certainly doesn't hurt to ask.

Scenario 2: So & So calls and mentions briefly that they have a feature story coming out or a radio appearance booked for a certain month, and that they'd like to book something in conjunction with that. Now I'm more interested in booking them, and probably for a better slot, because I know they're out there working it, and that they care enough to promote their shows.

Scenario 3: So & So calls and says "Hey, I'd like to put together a show at your venue. Would you be willing to give me a date to book The Super Rock Stars and The Roadies?" My policy as a booker is that if I've worked with this person before and am confident in their professionalism, and they can sell the other band as well, then I'm likely to let them put together this show. But remember, if you go this route, follow up, follow through, and be responsible - there's nothing like a cancellation two weeks prior to a show to create a lot of extra work and hassle.

You've confirmed your show, now what? So you know how hard it is to get through to bookers in the first place, and now that you're actually on the phone, it's a good idea to re-state the details as you record them. For example: "We're confirmed for Friday January 24, 10pm set time, 8:30 load in time, 40 minute set, payment is a portion of the door, 21 and over. Thanks, see you then." DON'T call the booker two days before the show requesting all the details that you seem to have misplaced and expect an instant call back! Or if you misplace the details, don't call me first. Call the club directly to see if someone can answer your questions. Usually the club's staff has the information you need. So I'm sure you get the idea, and will forgive me if I'm a bit cranky next time……

Other ways to increase your chances of getting booked: What do bookers want? It goes without saying that hopefully you're making original, interesting music. Beyond that, you want to be professional, respect deadlines, know what you want, and know what the booker needs. Show bookers how their venue can benefit from having your band perform. Work together with a booker to put on a successful show. Notice the difference in these two approaches: "Hi I'm Val from Ramona the Pest, do you have anything for us in March? " Versus: "Hi, I'm Val from Ramona the Pest, do you have a moment for me to follow up about a possible gig n March? Great…we were hoping for something towards the end of March, and we can suggest a couple of other bands who are interested in playing a show with us, or perhaps you have an appropriate bill in the works that we could jump onto - say, something in the pop vein with influences ranging from the Throwing Muses to Low." You should be able to tell which approach I'd rather deal with.

Get involved in your local scene by networking with other bands and putting on interesting shows. Ramona the Pest and Hoarhound work together each year to put on the annual Halloween murder ballad bash. Part of the reason the show has been so successful is its unique nature. Bookers are often receptive to these kinds of shows because it provides something different. A booker's job is to get people into the club. If you can demonstrate that you are motivated to promote your show, they are much more likely to book you. And while it goes without saying… you need to promote your shows. Promotion a whole other ball of wax that we'll cover in future issues, along with more details about booking tours.

In the meantime, be kind to your bookers and consider their time restraints, but most importantly, don't give up.
Your perseverance will pay off!