Somewhere deep in my list of items that are on a new bluegrass band’s to-do list was this little, seemingly trivial task: “Book a gig.” I think it was somewhere after selecting stage clothes and seeking endorsement deals.
Many—though by no means all—established bluegrass artists and bands have a booking agent who handles this, but in the early stages you’ll most likely have to do this yourself.
Except for the rare musicians that actually enjoy selling themselves to total strangers (these just happen to the same people you avoid talking to at IBMA), booking yourself ranks somewhere in between getting a wisdom tooth pulled with no anesthesia, and getting a wisdom tooth pulled with local anesthesia.
If you’re in a band of equals, it’s best to delegate this job to the member or members who are the most outgoing (the sulky bass player who lives in a tent by himself in the deep dark forest with his mute dog “Kafka” is out, I’m afraid). Ones who are outgoing, organized and speak English that can be understood outside of their home county are ideal, and should be considered a gift from God. If you’re the sole band leader, guess what? Regardless of how outgoing or organized you are, you are now the booking agent.
Take heart, though. Just the fact that you care about the job is a point in your favor. Don’t make the assumption that because it would be last on your list of career options, an outside agent is bound to be better at it than you are. This turns out not to be true.
The hardest part about booking yourself at first is facing the dreaded “cold call.” For the born salesperson, the cold call is exciting, akin to opening a Christmas present from a secret admirer. For the rest of us, it’s like calling a girl we’ve never met to ask her out on a date. The amount of procrastination this inspires is almost scary, though there can be a productive up side to this: I know someone who designed and built an entire addition onto his house just to avoid making a cold call to a festival promoter. Another friend of mine started a whole new hobby of collecting empty dental floss dispensers.
It’s really not as bad as it might seem. Okay it is, but you have to do it anyway. Just take things a step at a time.
Step one, you might assume, is reaching the person you need to talk to. This presents a whole set of challenges in itself which we’ll address momentarily, but it really isn’t step one. Before you talk to someone, you have to be prepared with what it is you plan to say. Just assuming that you’re not going to reach the person in question and calling completely unprepared is a bad idea because you can end up with this kind of exchange:
“Hello, this is Mark Melody calling. I’d like to speak to Mr. Frank Crumpett of the Seven Lakes Bluegrass Association please.”
“This is Frank”
“Oh…..Hi…..uh…well I was wonder…um….are there really seven lakes there? Because I only know of six.”
Preparation, therefore, is key. Ask yourself, why would I want to hire me? If you can’t think of a good answer to this, talk someone else into doing this job, or start collecting those floss dispensers. Once you’ve answered this question, though, think of the best way to convey that unique positive point, whatever it might be (e.g., you’re the only bluegrass band with an average height of 6’5”, you have a fire-breathing banjo player, you’re unbelievably cheap).
One important caution about preparedness: don’t unload all that you plan to say at once, or you may find yourself in this position:
“Hi, this is Mark Melody calling. I lead a bluegrass band based in the tri-state area, we have a new CD that just came out that’s getting a lot of great response, it’s getting airplay on WYYY, our banjo player is the winner of the Tri-state banjo showdown ’09, our fiddle player does amazing impressions of Larry Sparks, Jim Eanes and Pee Wee Herman,we blend traditional bluegrass with some of the best of newgrass, put on an entertaining show, and we’d love to be considered for your next event.”
“I think you’re calling for Carla, but she hasn’t handed the booking for the association for 8 years. I’m not really sure who’s doing that now. You’ve reached a vinyl siding retailer.”
“Oh. Sorry to trouble you.”
The cold email is always a little easier, and then it’s safer to give too much information (up to a point), but the problem with email is waiting for a reply, not ever really knowing if your email was received. Then, where the bluegrass festival circuit is concerned, there are still numerous festival promoters who don’t use email. Many also don’t have answering machines. No, I’m afraid the one-on-one conversation is still best.