Book your first gig

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.”

“What?”

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:

“Hello.”

“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.

  • Brent Sterling

    Well Chris, as usual, this is the way these cold calls go for me.

    Me: Hello, My name is Brent and I have a family bluegrass band and we wou…
    Promoter: Do you know Chris Jones?
    Me: I’ve met him once.
    Promoter: We’d really like to get Chris Jones. Do you have his e-mail?
    Me: Uh…no…but our fami…
    Promoter: Well, hey thanks for calling Jack. Call us back in 2024 and we’ll see what we can do. CLICK

    Brent Sterling

    • Chris Jones

      Sorry to hear that, Brent. You’re apparently calling the ones with questionable taste. I literally had this conversation with one: after I had just discussed our latest release and the fact that it was our 4th (or something) for Rebel, etc. etc., the promoter came back with: “Do you have any CDs out?” I just put the phone down and banged my head on the desk.

      • Elizabeth Loring

        Maybe he was just trying to be the straight man in the classic Bob and Ray “Komodo Dragon” routine and you missed your cue?

    • SteelStringSession

      Brent – that’s funny.

  • Darby Brandli

    The band: We would really love to come out to play for you in California. Do you think you could also book us a mini tour and arrange lodging so that we can afford to?

  • SteelStringSession

    I swear Chris – this scenario just happened to us and I decided that it would be a good strategy for future bookings. But is means that if we get the booking I really have to jump into action and fill seats. Here was the pitch:

    “Hello, my name is L.J. and I have a band Steel String Session. On (fill in the date that you have already identified as being open on the venue’s calendar) I am looking for a really good music venue where I can bring 200 of our fans (or whatever their seating capacity is)who are holding a reunion in town. They want to go somewhere after their gathering, buy tickets and listen to our band and drink a lot of beer and eat. By any chance do you have space on your calendar for our band to play there that night?”

  • Elizabeth Loring

    Great column, Chris–it’s all so true!

    I am honored to have once been cold-called by Rob Ickes in the early days of Blue Highway, and when I pointed out we had a mutual friend, he replied, “Get out of towwwwwwwnnn!”

    Of course, I was also once cold-called by a lady trying to book a one-legged Elvis impersonator. I swear this was the actual conversation:

    ME: Hello?

    LADY: Hello, Elizabeth? MY name is Elizabeth!

    [long pause]

    ME: …That’s… grrreat!

    LADY: I just saw the article in the Chula Vista Star about your open mike night and I represent an artist and you just have to book him. His name is ___________, and he performs rock and roll, Polynesian, and music of the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties!

    ME: Does he play bluegrass?

    LADY: Does he do what now?

    ME: Does he play bluegrass? We are the San Diego Bluegrass Society.

    LADY: Oh, I’m sure he can play bluegrass. And his fee is very reasonable.

    ME: Well, we don’t pay performers for the open mike night.

    LADY: Oh, but you HAVE TO pay him! He has a lot of medical expenses!

    This conversation went on for 45 minutes and included her story of praying at Elvis’ grave. I did have the presence of mind to ask her for his press kit, which I still have somewhere.