I’ve been a music booker for a while now, ((People have even paid me to do it at places like The Montreal House, The Peterborough Folk Festival, Harbourfront Centre, and The Distillery Historic District.)) and over the years I’ve developed some guiding practices that govern most of what I do – something I think of as my rules for booking. I tend to stick to these rules because they work, and because whenever I’m unsure, I’ve got them to point to true north.
Other bookers are their own people, and I neither expect that they’d adhere to this exact set of ideas nor do I think any of these are brand-new – most of these rules I learned from other bookers. ((To whom I’m extremely grateful!)) The rest I’ve learned through painful experience.
Listen to every submission
It means listening to acres of untuned guitars, un-honed songwriting, and derivative garbage, but it also means that I discover great acts that I love. It’s worth it, even when it doesn’t feel worth it.
Comment publicly on the process
Artistic Directors and bookers are generally not very communicative, which leads to a lot of confusion amongst artists, and urban legends about what bookers do and how they do it. It has always been my policy to speak openly about my process and comment as much as I can about it.
Offer constructive criticism
I think it’s extremely important to offer constructive criticism, especially when I see a lot of mistakes repeated endlessly by bands that couldn’t know any better.
Anything negative that I have to say is always said without identifying the band. Anything positive is said while identifying the act I’m praising. It’s often said on Twitter, because Twitter is a medium that was basically designed for me to use this way.
I think the notion of booking one big draw is corrosive; you blow a big chunk of your budget, leaving relatively little to pay other acts, and you get an audience that’s only interested in one band. It’s better to book a mix of emerging acts and acts with a medium draw, as it helps build community & new audiences for artists.
Treat lineups like mixed tapes
Acts should flow from one to the next, and build to something, shaping a mood. When you get it right, it’s awesome. When you get it wrong, it’s okay.
Shows before bros
A lot of my friends are musicians, but no matter how much I love them, it’s very important to me that the act I’m booking fit the programme I’m presenting. Most artists (and most, but not all, of my artist friends) get that what they do isn’t going to fit every room/programme.
We live in the most fertile musical period in human history; there’s no reason to work with assholes, when there’s always an equally good or better artist who will be professional and decent to work with, and won’t be a dick to me, my audience, my sound techs, or my staff and volunteers.
Genre is bullshit
I’ve booked a folk festival, a dive bar, and a bunch of other stuff, and audiences have always responded well to a mix of sounds and styles. It’s more important to try to get consistency of performance than consistency of style – a great performer will hook an audience regardless of style, genre, etc.
Where there are women, men will follow, gay or straight. Putting naked ladies on your posters, or using marketing tactics that are offensive to women, cuts your audience by more than half.
I’ve had artists, managers, fans, friends, and colleagues try to bully me into booking acts. None of those people are currently in my life, and my life is better for it.
Emerging artists are often a pain to work with – they don’t have enough experience; they act ‘cool,’ they get on stage only to waste 10 minutes of their 45 minute set tuning, they patter too much or too little between songs. But when I see a spark of something, it’s worthwhile to encourage that where I can. Sometimes you get magic.
Never book when drinking or sleep-deprived
I never, ever book anyone at a music conference. I wait until the glow/hangover has faded, then go back and take a sober look at the acts I loved, and then make an offer.
I never book a gig where I can’t offer cash money in payment. Sometimes it’s not much, but it’s always as much as I can do.
I always ask what kind of fee a band is looking for; I never offer an amount first. Sometimes the number that bands come back with is hilariously low. ((Never tell a booker that you’ll play for free, or for cheap, unless you want to die in debt.))
Set minimums and maximums
At the Peterborough Folk Festival, I established a pay scale: $75 to anyone leading a 45-minute workshop, $400 – $2000 to any act playing a 45 minute set. It worked really well; I never chased anyone who couldn’t be negotiated down to $2k, and never offered less than $400 to a band, regardless of what ridiculously low number they asked for.
Music is terrific, and a great way to draw people together, but if it’s the only reason for what you’re doing, then your programming is going to be weak. If there isn’t something larger at stake, then there isn’t anything at stake.
Of course, like I said above, these are my personal rules, not general rules, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to adhere to them. I tend to port these over to whatever I do – for example, I used a similar series of ethical guidelines when I re-structured Artsweek Peterborough a few years ago, and have similar rules for this website.
Some people are going to feel that some of what I do is ridiculous, which is cool. It’s a big, weird industry, and there’s room ((and no particular pay)) for all of us.
I’d be super-interested to hear about other booker’s personal rules – I think most of us have them, even if they’ve never been articulated in list form. If you’re interested in doing a guest post on the subject, drop me a line.
Note: All of the pictures in this post are photos that I’ve taken, though they certainly aren’t all pictures of bands that I’ve booked.
I agree with very single “rule” you’ve mentioned, and – while I’ve never articulated it, I’ve always followed all of them.
That said, I HATE the word “act,” which (in my view) you use too often, if not exclusively, in talking about singers, songwriters, musicians and groups.
Yes, there’s a degree of artifice in every artist’s presentation, but a girl in a tutu balancing on a horse’s back in a circus ring is an act. The folk we work with, in our different ways, are “artists” or “bands.”
Yeah, you’re probably right – I think I’ve gotten into the habit of calling them ‘acts’ because at PFF, we had visual artists and artisans and workshop leaders as well as musical artists performing on stage, and it was clearer (and less insulting to the other artists on site) to call the people on the stage ‘acts’ instead of just ‘artists’ or ‘musicians.’ It makes less sense outside of that context, and I should stop saying it.
However, if I could afford it, I’d happily book a girl in a tutu balancing on a horse in a circus ring – even better if she was playing a ukulele! 🙂
I did the idea of that girl in a tutu. Work on it, and costs be damned… Once, Leon Redbone asked me to get a balloon blower as an opening artist for him. The balloon blower’s agent wanted $600.00 for a 25-minute spot! Damn, we’re in the wrong business…
David Cavan Fraser
Hi, Thanks so much for your words! I somehow stumbled upon your blog (I think from someone’s reply to a classic better-than-thou “let’s bitch about how stupid bands are” post). What a breath of fresh air! You must attract good people who are businesslike, don’t you? Why? Because you’re good and business-like. What an awesome concept! It’s funny that the people who complain about working with incompetent bands also want those bands to play for free. I like your approach and I wish you all the best!!