Category Archives: singer songwriter

From Behind the Cigar: Five Things Uncle Sol Knows About Running A Concert Series

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.

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Filed under concert presenting, music, singer songwriter, Uncategorized, working musician

Is That You, ASSSes (Acoustic Solo Singer Songwriters)? It’s Me, Uncle Sol.

Please, call me Sol.  I book the talent for a large and busy acoustic-music concert series, have a gig writing music reviews for a major folk-music magazine, attend the big music conferences, and sit like a freakin’ pasha judging hundreds of artists for music-conference showcase competitions.  In other words, in our very small world of acoustic music, I’ve heard a B-minor-diminished chord or two.  If you are an Acoustic Solo Singer Songwriter (or as one of my talent-booking colleagues puts it, an ASSS), I’d like you to sit back and listen to your Uncle Solly.  I’ve got some things to say.

Solly’s First AdviceYou’re A Damned Hard Sell

Look.  ASSSes are a hard sell to audiences.  This is not your fault.  Do you remember the scene from “Animal House,” where Stephen Bishop gets his acoustic guitar smashed by John Belushi after he starts to sing a folk song?  No one ever asked, “why is that funny”?

Why is it hell to try to make it as an acoustic singer/songwriter?  For one thing, EVERYONE YOU KNOW, AND HIS BROTHER, HIS SISTER, AND HIS COCKER SPANIEL  IS ALSO AN ACOUSTIC SINGER/SONGWRITER.  They jam the open mics in local coffee shops.  They break out their Yamaha acoustics at family gatherings.  A few years ago, an organization called Just Plain Folks held a songwriting competition.  560,000 songwriters submitted songs.  Five. Hundred. Sixty. Freaking. Thousand.

As Kris Kristofferson would say, Blame It On The Stones (and on the Beatles).  Nearly everyone who was old enough to form an “E” chord picked up a guitar Back In The Day and found out how easy is it to strum some chords and sing along.  From there, the urge to write songs was irresistible.  Comes the era of home-made CDs, and we’ve got trouble, right here in ASSS City.  Because that means that hundreds of thousands of our fellow ‘boomers and gen-x-ers are making mountains of music, often without any particular aptitude or having honed their chops on song structure, narrative, harmony, or style.

I remember once being at a workshop for guitarists, given by the great Jack Williams.  He turned to the thirty or so singer/songwriters in the group and asked for anyone to play by ear the first notes of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.  Not only did no one do it; no one was willing even to try.  Brother, if acoustic songwriters don’t know intervals and scales, you can bet the songs they write won’t have harmonic tension, dissonances, meaningful structure, or melodic interest.  Just sayin’.

Here’s another reason why an ASSS is a hard sell.  The Public has come to fear and loathe any acoustic singer/songwriter they don’t know.  Partly, this is because there’s so much mediocre acoustic music out there, and folks are deathly afraid they’ll be stuck in their seats, applauding meekly while being bored silly.  Partly, this is because it’s really damned hard to command an audience with nothing but a voice, an acoustic guitar, and some folksy patter.  Not that there aren’t geniuses who can capture an audience with a few vibrating strings, like Jake Shimobokuro or Dave Matthews or Chris Smither.  Or maybe you.  But, trust Solly on this…the public will not take the chance that Joe No-Name at the Hungry Bean Café will hold their interest, because the odds are stacked so heavily against it.

Speaking of Joe No-Name, one more reason you’re a hard sell is that name that Mama gave you.  A million singer/songwriters, each going by her own hard-to-remember first and last names.  Good for you if you were born Peyton Tochterman or Brian Gundersdorf; but how’s the public supposed to remember they heard a catchy ditty from Diana Jones or John Flynn?  Look:  Just consider how journeyman songwriters have suddenly become bookable by calling themselves The Tallest Man On Earth or The Sea The Sea or The Copper Ponies or such.  Okay?  Just humor me on this.

Solly’s Second Advice: This Is A Hell Of A “Business”

Picture an aging folkie, dragging his weary ass from his demanding day job to a dim church basement, where he’s failed to draw even a double-digit crowd to his coffeehouse to hear an acoustic singer/songwriter.  As he packs up the last uneaten slice of Sara Lee pound cake, you ask when he’s going to call it quits.  And, of course, he says, “What? And give up show business?”

Acoustic-music presenters are unfailingly generous-hearted big spirits, and their (usually unpaid) labors of love keep the music going.  But, we’re talking honestly here, right?  Most of them don’t know from business.  That’s a problem for you.

Take it from Solly.  When it comes to creating a concert series, you can never put in enough time.  Researching and booking the right artists, going to the music conferences, drafting press releases and online calendar listings, doing community outreach, creating posters, patron hand-holding, ticketing, special events, problem-solving, special requests, volunteer-wrangling, tech advancing, green room snack-buying, hospitality advancing, bookkeeping, mail list grooming, radio and newspaper schmoozing, insurance, PROs, taking out the garbage and turning off the lights…lemme sit down, your Uncle Solly’s getting tired just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, for most presenters, something’s gotta give.  And that affects you.  Chances are, it’ll take a year and dozens of unanswered emails for you to get booked, and after all that effort the gig is barely promoted and the joint is an unappealing church basement and you wind up with a small audience and a smaller fee.  Yet, in our biz this is considered to be a primo “listening room” booking.

@[100000295729172:2048:Christine DeLeon] performing her Great Folk Scare at a packed songwriter's workshop at The Folk The Folk @[33773051951:274:The Folk Project (New Jersey)] festival. Musicians everywhere.

Solly’s Third Advice: Talent Will Out

Okay, enough bad news, bubbaleh.  You may be asking, “So how can I ever build a career when the decks are stacked against unknown singer/songwriters?”  To this, there is an answer:  In these days of the long tail, talent will out.

You know this “long tail” idea, right?  Back when we were burning incense in our dorm rooms, a musician got known either by getting a record contract and radio play or by doing nonstop live shows in small rooms.  Mostly, everyone bought the same popular albums.  You were either The Who, or you were just, who? Then came the Internet, home-made CDs, iTunes, YouTube, and social media.  Now, instead of Dylan selling 100,000 albums, a hundred artists sell 1000 albums each.  That’s the long tail.

With this long tail, I can guarantee you, talent will out.  If you are making good music and putting it where it can be heard, your music will get discovered, people will become fans, fans will feel invested in your music and tell their friends, your songs will get downloaded, and presenters will take notice.  Anyone who says, “I can’t get work until I’m known, and I can’t get known unless I work” is either living in the past or hasn’t paid her WiFi bill.

Of course, there’s success and then there’s Success.  When I think of singer/songwriters, I think of college basketball players.  OK, just go with me here. When I watch a college game, I’m amazed at how talented the players are.  And yet, I know that only a very few of them will make it into the NBA.  Something incredible and undefinable separates the true stars from merely very talented.  The players that don’t make the pros can continue to play great ball, but on another level, like the semi-pro clubs.

Et tu, singer/songwriters.  There is always the chance that you are the next Mumfords, John Mayer, or Josh Ritter.  If so, don’t forget your Uncle Solly on your way up.  If not, though, there is a clear and well-worn path to solid, though modest, long-tail success as an acoustic performer.

I’m thinking of the incredibly talented Slaid Cleaves.  Do you ever look at the annual Parade Magazine issue called “What People Earn”?  I won’t ask.  I know you do, just like I do.  A few years back, I was surprised to see Slaid as one of the folks on the magazine cover, with the text “Slaid Cleaves.  Singer/Songwriter.  $30,000/year.”  I’m sure Slaid does much better now, but the point is, he’s one of the many hundreds of working singer/songwriters who are making an okay living by being astoundingly talented, hardworking, and smart about their careers.  (Check out Slaid’s “Advice To A Young Musician,” and while you’re there, show him some love and preorder his new CD).  Jamie Anderson has make a living as a touring musician for 20 years by supplementing her music income with private music lessons and freelance writing.   Kim and Reggie Harris play concerts in the evening and do workshops and school programs in the afternoons.  Nick Annis tours with his tools and does handyman work.

Point is:  A talented singer/songwriter will get recognition.  A hard-working, smart, AND talented singer/songwriter can make a living at music, and maybe even a great living.  But I’m being honest with you here: if you’ve given it all you’ve got, and your career is not getting off the ground, chances are it’s not gonna happen.

 

Solly’s Last Advice:  Isn’t That A Party?

If you’re still awake, you’ve got my drift:  This is a gol-darned hard business, and fame and fortune aren’t likely.  But, there’s every opportunity for a talented ASSS to be a working musician.  My last piece of advice is that there’s more to the working musician’s life than just driving thousands of miles for hundreds of dollars.

Of course, there’s the time on stage.  I’m guessing that you love that part.  Back when I was a performing songwriter, I loved writing songs but I hated being on stage…to me, performing was always like taking a final exam:  It might go well, it might go badly, but all in all I’d rather not be taking the exam at all.  You, though, love this stuff.

Second, working musicians are part of a rich and warm-hearted community.  In every music hot spot from Nashville to Northampton, performers know each other, make music together, and do what they can to support each other.  Try saying the same about your local bar association.

I don’t think it’s ever easy.  Because I run a large concert venue (by folk standards….Madison Square Garden it ain’t), a lot of the artists I present are household names, with top-ten hits and big awards.  Almost all of them are still working their butts off to make a living at music.  But, they’re doing it.  And, mostly, they’re loving it.  Chances are, you can, too.  Trust your Uncle Solly on that.  Okay?

 

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May 27, 2013 · 3:04 pm