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Gigs

How to make the most out of a support slot

A crowd at a gig. Image accompanies an article about how to make the most out of a support slot.

Headlining a gig sounds much sexier than being a support act, and bands often get excited at the prospect of being at the top of the bill. But for most unsigned or new bands it’s usually much better to play on a bill supporting somebody else.

There are a few reasons why: the most obvious being that to headline a show you need enough fans to fill the venue. Most new bands – by virtue of the fact that they are new – just don’t have a sizeable enough following to make a headline show work. We’ve all been to gigs where an enthusiastic but unknown headlining act comes on only to find that the venue has emptied out. In some cases, we’ve been that band. It’s a depressing scenario.

Playing support to another band by contrast gives you a chance to play to full venues and expose your band (ooh er) to another act’s following. It also allows you to play earlier, which can be important if you’d like to invite some industry contacts to see your show. No matter how free the bar is, an A&R guy is far less likely to hang about till 10.30pm to see your set than he is to pop in after work for an 8pm set.

However, playing further down the bill is not without its challenges. Firstly, most of the people at the gig are there to see somebody else and are less likely to be paying attention to what you’re doing. Secondly, even if you grab these folks’ attention with the quality of your music, it’s easy – human nature being what it is – for those potential new fans to walk away from the venue without catching the name of your band or signing up to your mailing list. When this happens, it means that your support slot arguably becomes little more than a rehearsal in front of a crowd.

There are things you can do however to maximise the chances of converting a listener's casual interest into something more useful. I’d suggest two main areas to focus on: increasing the visibility of your band’s name and starting a relationship with members of the gig’s audience.

Increasing the visibility of your band’s name

Use bass drum heads

Make sure your band’s name is (pardon the pun) drummed into audience’s head. To make a bad pun even worse, a good place to start with this actually involves drums. By using a graphic bass drum head featuring your band’s name (and website URL, if there’s room), you are instantly making it easier for an audience to leave your show with an act name to Google or a website address to enter into a browser.

Use projections

Similarly, you can use projections to ensure an audience can't miss your band name or logo. Not all venues will cater for this, but if they do, it's worth hauling a (cheap) laptop and a VGA cable along to your shows.

Ensure you mention your band’s name on stage

In your head you may need no introduction, but in reality you probably do. You should ensure that your witty stage repartee includes occasional references to your band’s name and website – particularly as you wrap up your set and prepare to leave the stage.

Don’t forget pre-show publicity

Just because you’re not headlining the show doesn’t mean that you should neglect pre-show publicity. Ensure that the venue or promoter you are dealing with lists your band’s name on all promotional materials – posters, websites, flyers etc. This means that the audience of the show may already know your band’s name before you start playing.

Starting a relationship with the audience

Although there’s scope for quite a few groupie jokes here, by ‘starting a relationship with the audience’ I technically mean capturing as many of the crowd’s email addresses as possible. We have a whole article on how to go about this here, but here’s some quick pointers:

  • Try to have a mailing list signup form at the door of the venue and on your merch stand.
  • Leave sign up flyers or cards on every table (these should include details of your Facebook page, website etc.)
  • Where possible, use new-fangled devices like smartphones or tablets to capture email addresses directly onto your mailing list.
  • Be pro-active: if you have somebody who can go into the crowd with a clipboard or tablet and encourage sign-ups to your mailing list, this can drastically improve the number of email addresses captured.
  • Incentivise: offer a free track in exchange for an email address.

Another thing you should do to maximise sign-up rates is ensure that your website is 100% geared up to capture data effectively: if a member of the crowd looks you up online after the show, it should be blindingly obvious to them how they can sign up. This can be done using 'welcome mats', pop-up forms (occasionally controversial but usually quite effective) or prominent sign-up boxes embedded onto your site. Similarly, all your social media links should be to the fore – and where possible use ‘like’ and ‘follow’ buttons rather than icons which have an immediate action.

So now you know how to make the most out of a support slot. The next challenge is how to get one – and we’ll have more to say on that soon…

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5 key ways to promote your band's tour

Drummer - image accompanies image about how to promote a music tour

Touring is a hugely important part of gaining an fanbase. People who turn up for gigs are arguably the most dedicated music listeners you can reach; and as such they can also be the biggest evangelists for your act if they like the particular type of noise you’re making.

The problem is that touring is also (1) very expensive to do and (2) often incredibly hard work. And it can also be a disappointing experience (to say the least) if nobody turns up to your shows. So in this post, we’re going to give you a few pointers on how you can plan and promote a series of gigs.

1. Capture postcode data before you tour

When planning a national tour, a lot of bands take a bit of a scattergun approach to venue selection (emailing just about any venue they can find and playing anywhere that will have them). However, it makes more sense to take a more focussed approach, and concentrate on towns where you have the highest concentration of followers. So that you have this data handy, you need to ensure that in addition to the bog-standard name and email address fields, you add postcode to your mailing list sign-up forms, because you can then...

2. Use mapping tools to find out where your fans live

Assuming you have followed the sage advice issued in point 1 above, and have a truckload of postcodes handy, you can use mapping tools to get a visual overview of where your fanbase is located.

This is really easily done (and for free) with Google Maps - you just upload your mailing list and Google Maps will provide you with a map highlighting where all your fans are located - you might see that nobody likes you in Leeds, for example, while you are huge in Hull. Or if you fancy something even snazzier, try Power Map for Excel - this will let you play with your data in all sorts of visual ways. But even if you’re only able to put a simple table together based on your postcode data, the point is to create a system or use a tool that lets you find out where your fans live, because that way you can plan a tour around where the relevant ears are. You will also be in a position to say to promoters or venue bookers that you have X number of fans in town Y (and provide them with graphical / statistical evidence if needed!).

If you haven’t got a lot of postcode data to play with, all is not lost. If you have a Facebook fanbase, you can use the Insights > People tab to get a list of cities (and countries, if you’re planning a world tour) to get an overview of where your fan hotspots are.

3. Research the local media scene in each of the locations where you’re playing

As soon as you’ve confirmed your list of venues, make sure that you put together a list of local media outlets in the towns and cities you’re going to be playing. It’s considerably easier to get regional radio airplay and press than it is to do so nationally; but there always has to be a ‘local angle’. And convenient, by playing locally, you’re providing that local angle. Radio, as ever, is particularly important and if you can get on the airwaves of a radio station or two that are in proximity to the venues you are playing at, this can considerably help you boost attendance. If you can stretch to investing in a regional music press campaign to support the tour, so much the better (well, we would say that).

4. Make use of geo-targeting when promoting the gig online

If you’re using online adverts to promote your music (and in 2016, you really should be) the good news is that Facebook, Twitter and Google Ads all give you the option to target fans (or potential fans) in very specific geographical locations. This means that you can focus your ad spend on the areas that you’re playing your shows in, saving money and maximising attendance at the same time.

5. Remember to capture data at the gigs you play

The promotion doesn’t stop once you go on stage - if anything, at-the-show promotion is the key part (and purpose) of the tour: you want to make new fans after all. Ensure that you have a plan to capture data at gigs and that everyone coming out of the show knows your website address. You can do this via on-stage announcements, but there are more sophisticated ways to develop relationships with fans available (as such, you might find our article on data capture at gigs handy). All this is particularly important if you are playing a lot of support slots - you need to win over the fans of the headline acts, and capture their details (so that next time you play the same venue, you're headlining).

Hope you’ve found these tips handy. A final pointer, of course, might be this: don’t forget to rehearse…

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Getting data capture at gigs right

Clipboard - image accompanying an article about capturing data / email addresses at gigs

In a recent post we looked at how to put a good newsletter together – and a large part of that article dealt with sorting out your database before actually emailing anybody. Of course for musicians, a hugely important aspect of building a database involves collecting email addresses at your live performances, so in this post we give you some quick and simple tips to ensure that you’re not missing any tricks when it comes to capturing your fans’ info at shows.

1. Start capturing attendees’ data BEFORE the gig

Eh? How do I do that? Surely I have to wait until there are punters streaming through the door of the venue before I can get them to scribble down their email address? Well, actually, no – you can capture data well before you get anywhere near the stage, by selling tickets online in advance. You don’t have to be in the ‘Ticketmaster’ league of bands to do this – there are lots of low-cost tools like Stubmatic or Wegottickets that allow you to sell e-tickets in advance of your shows and, just as importantly, capture relevant data about your fans (the main thing you want, obviously, being their email addresses). Even simple Paypal transactions let you do this. No matter how you go about selling tickets in advance online though, make sure that you are able to export a list of attendees which you can then import into your e-newsletter tool (Mailchimp, Mad Mimi etc.) or database.

2. Get somebody reliable involved to capture the data

When people think of mailing lists generated at gigs, they are usually visualising a disinterested hairy guy at the door of the venue stamping people's hand with a stampy thing and only very occasionally asking for email addresses. And yes, that hairy guy is unreliable. He’s a bit stoned, or he’s a bit shy about talking to punters, or he just doesn’t like your band. Either way you end up with less email addresses than you should. So don’t leave things to the hairy guy. Put somebody you trust to do a good job at data capture on the case. This could be your best friend, your girlfriend or your mum – it doesn’t matter so long as they know how to charm people into handing over their data.

3. Use technology to capture the email addresses

Don’t forget that it is 2014 and there are a few more options than the old pen and paper method of collecting email addresses available. You can capture them direct to iPad, for example - and before you complain about the lack of wifi signal in the toilet venue you are playing, you don’t actually have to be online to capture email addresses (many e-newsletter tools, such as Campaign Monitor or Mailchimp have apps that store data locally on your iPad and then upload it for you when you go online). Various services also exist that allow you to capture email addresses by SMS. One thing though: don’t forget to insure your iPad, and pin-lock it…

4. Don’t just leave your sign-up form at the door - take it round the venue

Depending on the kind of gig you are playing, you can be quite proactive about data capture – i.e., you don't have to simply rely on the ‘leave a clipboard at the door and hope that people sign up’ approach. For example, you could ask the ‘designated data capture person’ we discussed earlier to go around the venue, asking punters if they’d like to hand over their details. Or make announcements from the stage asking people to sign up (if nothing else, this will give you a bit of free – but admittedly quite dull – stage patter). Or finally, you could leave a clipboard at each table, or cute little cards people can fill out with their details. Whether this sort of data capture is appropriate at your gig or not will depend on the nature of your act, the type of venue you are playing in and how comfortable you feel with hounding people for an email address, but the thing to remember is that there are always ways and means of boosting your email sign-up rate at gigs that go beyond leaving a scrap of paper at front of house that nobody writes on.

5. Incentivise

As with the data capture you carry out on your website, you should ‘incentivise’ the data capture you do at gigs. Offer a free track or EP in exchange for an email address, or a discount code for a future gig. By offering a ‘quid pro quo’ you will find a significantly higher number of people are willing to subscribe to your list. 

Finally, on the face of it, data capture doesn't seem like the sexiest of topics - and it seems a crying shame to be talking about gigs in terms of sending your mum around with an iPad to collect email addresses from unsuspecting fans rather than as an excuse for you to wear leather trousers, play lengthy guitar solos, do a spot of crowd-surfing and impress groupies with witty post-show banter. But when somebody who subscribed to your mailing list at a gig goes on to pledge £100 towards a crowdfunding campaign a couple of months down the line…well, that feels kind of sexy, and may mean that you are now able to afford the leather pants for the next show – that is, if you can convince a bunch of fans to crowdfund some hosiery. Now THAT would be an achievement.

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Time to stop inviting friends to your gigs?

Gig

Being in a new band is a sure way to make sure you stay in touch with your friends. This because as a spankingly new band, nobody will have heard of you…meaning you won’t have any real fans, and will rely on your chums to provide the bums on the seats at gigs you play. As such you will find yourself staying in touch with even the most boring individuals just so that you can invite them to your next gig. We’ve all been there, and irritated lots of people in the process (or been irritated by the aforementioned boring gig invitees).

However, there comes a point where it’s prudent to start looking beyond your ‘friendbase’ and start trying to build a genuine ‘fanbase’. This 'having-a-fanbase' business, of course, is generally the key ingredient to being a popstar, but this essential fact is easy to forget – or wilfully ignore. Making proper fans is difficult and the soft option is to pester friends regularly to come along to your next show. And pester we musicians do – via phone, email, Facebook, letter, carrier pigeon…but it is ultimately a fairly self-defeating strategy. 

What generally happens with friendbases is this: your first gig with your new band is a sell-out. All your mates, and your bandmates’ mates come out in force to support you. You feel like a rock star for 15 minutes, you end up getting off with your guitarist’s sexy but impressionable second cousin and, high on success, decide to put on another show a couple of weeks later. This show is reasonably well attended by your friends, but as you start to play your second shoegazing-hip-hop-grimey-post-rock number, you get a niggling feeling that there are quite a few mates who came to the first gig who didn’t bother to come along to the second. By the time your third gig comes around, you’re struggling to pull a crowd. By the fourth show, even your mum and dad are busy that night. No amount of Facebook-ing, tweeting or personal appeals is going to reverse this situation.

You shouldn’t be offended by this. After all, when you became mates with somebody you did so based on common interests; a shared concern for each other; a mutual love of Carry On films; delighting in some sort of bedroom peccadillo that might actually be illegal. Your best mate Charlie Chum absolutely did not befriend you just so that he could attend every single gig you are ever going to play in your life. And, what’s more, Charlie may adore you – but not your music. In fact he might not like music at all. So why subject a mate repeatedly to something he doesn’t like? Frankly, it’s not very nice of you. And besides which, Charlie prefers watching footie at home on a Monday night to trooping down to the local Dog and Duck for a gig, and has a very busy life involving 2 kids…which is why he is washing his hair by gig 3. You can't compete with football and nappy-changing (or both) indefinitely; the nappies ALWAYS win.

Besides all that, friends aren't evangelical about your music - most will view it as your hobby and who spreads the word about people's hobbies? - but real fans, when they get on the case, can seriously wax lyrical about you. So if you want to grow in popularity, you HAVE to build a fanbase (there is also the added bonus that by ceasing to invite your mates to gigs all the time you might stop losing friends and alienating people). The question is: how do you build this fanbase? It's very difficult, and involves loads of work, but based on my experience of building my own, er, shall we say 'boutique fanbase', and watching other (infinitely more successful) acts go about it, these are the main things you need to do:

1 Write great songs, and ensure they are stonkingly-well produced. Easier said than done of course, but if you don’t get the music right, nobody’s going to like it enough to become a fan.

2 Give some of this music away for free – in exchange, preferably, for an email address. Some acts are a bit sniffy about doing this, but people need to hear your tracks in order to be able to like them (hence the freebie) and you need some way to communicate with fans (hence the nabbing of an email address). 

3 Find ways of targeting people who will actually like your music. If you happen to be the next Rod Stewart, maybe find some Rod Stewart fan groups on the internet and ask them (politely) to have a listen to your tracks, invite them to give some feedback etc. Find the correct audience: don’t go onto One Direction forums flogging your ‘Maggie May’-inspired EP.

4 Rehearse your ass off, because you will need to be a great live act in time for my next suggestion.

5 Play loads of gigs that are not 'yours' – i.e., where you are not topping the bill (or booking the venue and taking the door etc.). Put your ego aside for ten minutes (well, ten years) and play second fiddle to as many already popular bands as you can. In a nutshell, the aim of the game is to nick other bands' fans. And of course, don't bother playing live at all unless you are truly fantastic.

6 Try to capture as much data as humanly possible at each and every gig. Again, you need to stay in contact with the people who like your music. Use this data to invite people to the next show.

7 Repeat steps 1 to 6 until you are not relying on any cousins to make the crowd look decent.

If you manage all the above correctly, and are finding yourself in that happy place where you have a lot of genuine fans downloading your music and attending gigs, it’s time to take things a step further, by seeing if you can get some industry / media figures enthused about your act. It’s these sort of ‘filters’ / gatekeepers that can ‘upscale’ your project and increase the number of fans. This can be done via a lot of research into who's who in the music biz, creating big Excel spreadsheets of industry contacts, and approaching them extremely carefully and methodically with your music. Heck, you could even consider hiring the likes of Prescription to do the hard work for you. It’s really important however not to overdo the communications – just as your friends will get peeved by being nagged about your music, so will industry figures, journalists and bloggers. Often, the key thing is to ask for advice rather than a record deal – people in the entertainment industry tend to have big egos and love venturing an opinion, so you might have a better chance of forming a relationship with, say, a Svengali by acting like you find him/her interesting and getting their insights on the future of the CD (there isn’t one – you heard it here first) instead of bombarding them with your music. 

Now, one last thought on all this: there is still a place for your friends – there are times when you will still REALLY need them. For example, in a crowd-funding project, or to support you at a very important showcase. You don’t need to write them off completely – you just need to think hard about when to blag a favour. And in the meantime, go out looking for real fans. Good hunting.

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How to get a good gig

A gig. Hard come by sometimes.

A gig. Hard come by sometimes.

It’s tough getting a gig, isn’t it? First you have to get to know promoters, then you’ve got to convince them that you actually have an audience, and finally you have to listen to them say “no” anyway, because Billie Piper has decided to leave ‘acting’ behind to do a comeback tour of the UK and there’s no room now on the bill for any independent musicians like you. Ha!

Depressing stuff. However, all is not lost because in this post, I thought I’d make a few recommendations about some of the other ways you can get, or put on, a good gig.

1. Become your own promoter

Don’t just sit there waiting for Live Nation to call – run your own shows. Many venues, particularly in these times of double-dip recessions and whatnot, are more than happy for bands to pay a hundred quid, play a gig, invite their relatives along to drink themselves silly and let the band keep the takings from the door. The key bit here really is ‘keeping the takings from the door’. It’s hard to get people to come along to shows – either they’ve heard you before, have kids that need looking after or just generally aren't inclined to venture out into another miserable, wet British summer night. So, when booking your venue, be realistic about how many people you can definitely get to come along to your show – in other words, don’t book the Albert Hall when you are going to struggle to fill the function room in the local Slug and Lettuce.

However, if you do your sums right, you may find that you can actually turn a little profit from booking and performing at a small venue. If you spend £100 on a venue and convince 80 people to pay £8 to watch your band, you’re looking at taking £640 at the door, meaning a profit of £540. If you’re in a 4-piece band, that’s £135 each – not awful for an evening’s work (and certainly not awful for a band playing original material).

As with much else in the music industry these days, the key to success in getting people to come along to your self-booked and promoted show is, yes, our old friend, ‘data’. To have any chance of filling your venue, you ideally need to compile a database of absolutely everybody you know, along with ‘real fans’ on your mailing list, and let both groups know (in a polite, non-annoying way) about the event.

2. Do gigs in unusual places

Many acts forget this, but the function room in the Slug and Lettuce is not your only option for a cheap performance space. You may actually find that more people are interested in coming along to a gig in a toilet than a proper venue, because they view it as a more interesting experience than standing around in a humdrum room watching a mate’s shoegazing band play.

Additionally, such weird shows can attract media attention – I did a series of gigs on London public transport back in 2006/2007 to promote my Twisted City record (I played on a bus, a boat, a train and a taxi) and these, ahem, ‘concerts’ resulted in two TV appearances and a whole lot of other coverage that I would never have got out of my more conventional gigs. In hindsight, perhaps my efforts were a little on the gimmicky side, but, done in a clever way, odd gigs can really boost the profile of an artist.

3. Do unusual gigs

In addition to thinking about unusual venues for your gigs, think how you can make the content of the gigs themselves unusual. By this, I mean looking beyond musical content and thinking about how you could create a show that involved lots of different art forms. For example, you could involve photographers, painters, video-makers, dancers and other arty buddies in presenting an event that allows punters to enjoy a wider range of artistic content than just your music.

There are loads of advantages in doing this – firstly, you’ll make the event appeal to a wider audience, and secondly, the arty people you’re collaborating with are likely to bring their own fans to the event, thus increasing the size of the crowd that has the fortune / misfortune of hearing your band play.

4. Do gigs online

If you’ve been doing a lot of online promo you may find that you end up with a decent number of listeners – but, thanks to the global nature of the internet, they happen to live all over the planet. This means that although they’d absolutely love to, they’re simply not going to be able to make it down to the function room of your local Slug and Lettuce anytime soon.

Thankfully, there is another way to play to these people – via online gigs. I’ve done quite a few of them in the past via Ustream and they can be very enjoyable, engaging experiences for all involved. Not only can fans see you play live, they can interact with you via a chatroom and ask for requests, comment on tracks, clap virtual hands and share your live performance on social networks. For cash-strapped, gig-strapped musicians, online gigs are definitely worth looking at.

And finally…

However you approach getting a gig, there are few important things to remember when the events themselves come around:

  • Make sure you put on an incredible show.
  • Don’t forget to sell merchandise – it can significantly boost the revenue your show generates.
  • Always ask people at the gig to join your mailing list, either by the good old ‘list at the door’ approach or through some fancypants smartphone / texting arrangement.
  • See if you can convince local bands with decent followings to support you (and more importantly, bring their fans to the gig!).
  • Even if you are running your own gig, you should view it as a platform to engage industry professionals. So try to get some industry people down – publishers, promoters, A&Rs and teaboys. Despite the merits of the DIY approach, a bit of record industry cash can still go a long way – and mean that you might not have to do interesting gigs in toilets for the rest of your career.

'The Prescription' is written by independent musician and Head of Digital Communications at Prescription PR, Chris Singleton.  

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