My last post , about the challenges of making it as an acoustic singer/songwriter, got read a lot. So, rather than going back to writing about my marriage, religion, battling football mascots and Wallace Shawn’s penis, I’m giving Solly one more turn on his bully pulpit. After fourteen years as a concert presenter, here are five things your Uncle Sol has figured out.
Who the heck is Sol to blow hot air about concert presenting? Look: Don Kirshner I ain’t. But, then, Don Kirshner never had to figure out how to draw a crowd to a folk music concert in a rented suburban church, with a minuscule budget and a staff of aging volunteers. So, listen up!
Here’s my story. Fourteen years ago I got the “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!” bug. I started by taking over a local folk series in a 100-seat converted schoolhouse. Now, our series is in a 450-seat venue and we sell out about 3/4 of our concerts, with a 9,000-person mailing list and 600 multi-show subscribers. How’d that happen? Well, it doesn’t hurt to be in a crowded, wealthy, entertainment-hungry suburb. But, dumb luck isn’t the whole story. Here, then, are five things your Uncle Sol has learned about running a concert series. Care for a cigar?
1. You Don’t Know Shit (But, You Can Learn)
Admit this to yourself: You know the music you like, but you don’t know what’s going to succeed in your space. You can listen to piles of CDs, stay up all night at music conference “guerilla showcases,” hear that “special something” in that gal who plays the ukulele…but unless Rosanne Cash is asking to play your church basement coffeehouse, you have no idea which new artists are going to sell tickets for you. Neither do I.
Thankfully, there is a solution to this lack-of-shit-knowingness: Hard work.
Get on the mailing lists of all the venues you respect, and watch who they’re booking (take note of who’s selling out). Subscribe to SingOut! (please…they need us now more than ever, plus they pay old Solly to write their CD reviews), No Depression, Acoustic Live, and see who’s getting the buzz. Ask your audience, over and over again, who they want to see (we do this by having every audience member fill out a questionnaire at every concert, then drawing two winners at random to get signed CDs from the performer). Listen to the radio.
Once you’re intrigued by a particular artist, watch her live videos on YouTube. Study her past and future tour schedule to see the kind of places she’s playing, the ticket prices, and also whether she’s overexposed in your area. See if there are any concert reviews on line (taking note of any mentions of the “sparse crowd”). See if her Web site includes active social networking and mentions a publicist. Look up her attendance history on Pollstar (a coupla hundred bucks to subscribe, money well spent). Track the timing of her next CD release if she gets good radio play.
Sure, you can book your artists the way some of my neighboring presenters do. One books only performers she’s “discovered” at Folk Alliance conferences. One books only artists who tickle his personal fancy (usually English harmony groups and virtuoso flatpicking guitarists) and only those he’s seen perform live. One won’t book blues, zydeco, Klezmer, or anything else that’s not “his kind” of music. Guess what? These guys don’t sell tickets.
2. Buy Low, Sell Low (and give the rest away)
Didja see the article in the Times Sunday Magazine today, about how people will spend hundreds of dollars to see the musical acts they crave? Didja see any folk acts mentioned? Nope. Fact is, we folk presenters can succeed only by always giving a sucker an even break.
First, buy low. Not for profit, as they say, is a tax status, not a business plan. Focus on artists who have a good draw but don’t charge a premium for it. Smart performers who like to stay busy (Christine Lavin, The Kennedys, Patty Larkin, Red Molly, Susan Werner…) will always fill your room at a reasonable guarantee. But don’t be a Chazer, Bubbie: Give them a generous bonus (percentage) after your break-even point, so they have skin in the game and get a fair share of the door. And if sales went really well, give them a little extra or a voucher for breakfast the next morning at their hotel.
Second, sell low. Our market is price-sensitive. F’rinstance, this weekend my local folk venue had a triple bill of “emerging” artists, priced at $27. Too much, guys. In our series, we charge $15-20 for an emerging artist, $25 to see a Tom Paxton or Richard Shindell, and a top price of $30 for a Marc Cohn or Nick Lowe. No parking costs, no ticketing fees, no tax. Listen to Solly: giving value is a big part of our biz.
Third, give the rest away. Figure out what else you can manage to give your audience. We give free refreshments at intermission, we hand out mints to the audience as they leave (along with a quick personal thanks-for-coming to each audience member), and three times a year we swallow most of the costs and charge $10 admission to see emerging artists like David Wax Museum or Treasa Leveasseur. As P.T. Barnum Guthrie once said, you’ll never go broke overestimating your audience’s love of a good bargain.
And, trust Solly: You won’t go broke. As Sam-boy Walton would say, you’re making it up on volume. And, since “volume” in our biz means more people coming to your concerts, you’re going to be one happy boychick.
3. There’s No Crying In Folk Music
A volunteer-run folk concert can be a fraught thing. The performer is driving for hours, often not knowing how he’ll be treated once he arrives. The volunteers are giving up prime weekend nights to work for the pure love of music (and an occasional free CD). Your job is make everyone walk out happy.
So, here are Solly’s secrets to happiness: Food, recognition, and community.
First, everybody eats! In our series, everyone eats like Fershlugginer lumberjacks. We put out a big communal dinner for the volunteers and performers to share. They freakin’ LOVE that: The performers will often mention the dinner during their sets, and the volunteers always call ahead of time to find out what’s on the menu. We fill the green room with snacks. THEN, all the volunteers go out to a diner after the show, on us. Yes, this adds about $250 to our expenses, which might not be in your budget; but take it from Solly, a little bit of chow makes a big difference. Anyone remember that concert presenter whose trademark was free banana pudding at every concert?
Second, don’t forget a little lagniappe. Our volunteers get thank-you gifts, maybe some mail-order cakes or gift certificates, during our winter break. Our performers get a little canvas bag filled with local artisanal foods to snack on during the long drive to the next gig. Warning: you will get hugged for this.
Finally, it’s no fun unless you all get along. So, we organize parties and concert outings for our volunteers. Hey, it’s good to be part of the audience sometimes.
Didja ever hear the episode of This American Life, about the gift shop at the Smithsonian that kept losing cash and merchandise? Turned out the volunteers were just taking whatever they wanted. Their theory was that they were working for free, so they were entitled. Moral? Make your volunteers feel rewarded. They deserve it. And, they won’t steal your favorite coffee mug.
4. Be Mister Cellophane
Okay, here’s where Solly gets to complain about his friends. (Ya know I love ya, right?).
At one local folk venue, the volunteers distract the audience by constantly moving around the concert room. At another, the sound crew chatters throughout the concert. At one nearby venue, the presenter introduces the performer by putting on about five minutes of jokey schtick, including an interview of the artist; in another (which divides its evenings into two opener sets and two feature sets), there are long jokey emcee announcements before and after each Fershlugginer segment. The presenter at one of my neighbor venues owns a specialty-food business and frequently uses his concerts, and his concert mailing list, to pitch his products. Finally, MANY venues are run by presenters who are also performers, who book themselves to open most of the shows.
Don’t be those guys. Like a baseball umpire or a good sound guy, if you’re doing your job right no one will notice you. Keep the artist announcement down to two sentences. Mingle amiably with your audience during intermission and ask how they’re enjoying the concert. Be Mister Cellophane.
5. They Like Us! They Really Like Us!
They say in business school that it takes 8 times more effort to find a new customer than to keep an old one. For us, that means making new audience members into “regulars.”
You know the basics. Have a great sound system. Create a comfortable and pleasant environment. Book consistently incredible acts. Don’t let anyone leave without signing up for the mailing list.
Here’s one more thing: Get your audience members invested in your concert series. I see more and more series offering memberships: For a nominal amount (say $100 for a season), patrons become “members,” and are entitled to perks like VIP seating or advance ticketing or freebies. Then, when Saturday night comes around, they’re likely to choose to go to the place where they’ve put down some money for special treatment. We now have six hundred members. Six. Freaking. Hundred. Kinda handy when we have to fill another 100 seats for Cherish The Ladies, knowwhattimean?
Also, I run an online group called “The Booking Club.” The members are our series’ oldest and most loyal patrons. When a new booking opportunity comes up, I post a message to the Club, asking for their opinions. It’s a great help to me, and it makes every member of the Club feel invested in the series and in the bookings they recommended. By the way, it’s amazing how many shows your audience members see, and how much knowledge they have. Tap that, Bubbie.
Okay. As they say in show business, always leave ’em wanting more. Solly, out.