Recently someone asked me how I am able to book enough gigs to be a truly full-time musician. Have a half dozen piano students doesn't hurt the bank account, but that income is only about one third of my (always fluctuating) monthly income. This got me thinking and I realized that I have developed an actual business method and mentality. At this point it is only a skeleton, but the potential to expand and evolve this concept is high and I will eventually write a longer volume to explain it in full.
First of all, most full-time musicians do not work normal nine-to-five hours. This breeds an almost reverse lifestyle that is comparable to people in the service industry. The difference is: most servers and bartenders know they will be working at the same business tomorrow/next week/next month and are able to be "off" when not at work. (None of us are truly OFF when not working. I want to be clear: I'm not saying that.) A few lucky musicians have secured three nights a week at a restaurant/venue but for the rest of us: this does not work for us, so let's start with...
In November of 2011 I started "office hours". I began with two days a week, 10am until 3pm I forced myself to do "paper work". I eventually added a third and have enough work to keep it up, although some weeks it is shortened. A lot of items fall onto the "office to-do" list. I forced these desk work days on myself so I had to think outside the box and find something more than Netflix and Minesweeper.
After six months I found a rhythm that can be explained as "ONE, SIX, TWENTY-FOUR".
One week. Seven Days.
The immediate future. What are my gigs? I need to remember to eat!
It's Tuesday morning (my Office Hours are on Tuesday, and Wednesday). It's 10:00am. I open my calendar for the first time this week and see:
Thurs. Duo with sax at retirement home / 7pm
Fri. Solo piano at the Tavern / 6pm
Sat. Duo with bassist / wedding reception cocktail / 2pm
Sat. High Rollers at the Green Dragon / 9pm
Sun. Jazz brunch with bassist and sax / 11:30am-3pm.
Mon. Piano students at 11am, 1pm, 3:45pm, 4:30pm, 5:30pm
The first thing I do I send an e-mail, or phone call if e-mail is not an option - I like e-mail because then you have a hard copy if you were given a bad address, phone number, or even paid incorrectly. In this email I list every detail known to the gig. (Details explained in the SIX section.) Make sure you either bring a printed copy of this email or have it easily accessible on a phone or tablet device at your gig.
Next I confirm everything with any musicians involved with gigs that week. If it's my gig I e-mail/call each musician I hired. If I am a sideman I confirm the details with who hired me. Also confirm what you paying/getting paid so the end of the night is smooth. Sometimes I hand out check when the musicians are setting up. I date the check a few days later to ensure that the check I am given has cleared. It's your call.
Always look at how your schedule affects your family and your body. If my wife is working late I note that I need to feed the cats before I leave the house at 6pm. If you have kids: look at the baby-sitting arrangements, if you haven't already. If I have two or more gigs in the same day I need to make the proper arrangements to eat lunch and/or dinner. Always remember to eat. Performing is a very physical activity and alcohol is usually poured liberally if you are "in the band". The combination of all that plus skipping a meal (or two) can be dangerous.
Six weeks. A month-and-a-half. Forty-five days.
I should already have about 70% of my gigs already booked at this point.
The higher paying and/or high profile gigs (weddings, parties, corporate, festivals, etc) are booked months in advance and these gigs usually have the most to deal with. Look at everything you need for the gig. This includes: band members, sound system, monitors, special equipment/rentals, special requested material from the client, is there a back line (this is when something is provided for you, ie: drum set, piano, PA system, etc), does the band need charts, do horn parts need writing/altering, are the songs in the right key for the singer, does it make sense to car-pool, do you need to provide a sound-man (something I suggest for weddings or any gig is larger rooms), is the gig/travel time long enough that the leader should provide food for band, what are parking arrangements, lodging, tolls, load-in time, sound check, load-out time (if out of state: can you leave equipment in club until next morning, ensuring more sleep/rest/down time?), sharing equipment with another band on the bill. And the most important: Do I need to obtain and special permit for my performance. Many places require submission up to four weeks ahead of time. Remember to confirm what you are getting paid.
This is an important subcategory of SIX. If you are not graphically savvy… learn something or email me (email@example.com). You will want to have posters made for any shows that need them. Take all these things and create a document on your computer. One for each gig. Put them in folders by year and sort them with an extensive naming system beginning with the date. For example a wedding on June 23, 2013 would be found in 2013 labeled: 06232013.doc. Sometimes I will add the word WEDDING after the number, or a band name if it's a specific group. Something to make at-a-glace searching easy to do.
Twenty-four weeks. Six months.
It's January and my June calendar is empty, save for that one wedding I have known about since October. I need to find work!
Talk to any place you already play, or have played recently. Ask them if they have looked at their June calendar. Even if their answer is NO they can respond with, "Actually, while I have you on the phone: I had a cancellation for the second Saturday next month. Is your band free?" Once you get a feel for the places you already know about It's time to find possible new venues. Search the calendars of similar bands/musicians. Also look at the calendars of the venues you already gig at. Look at the other bands that play there and find their websites. Does a similar act play at a place you've never heard of? I spend hours every month trolling these other sites.
Remember this: you will only hear back from one third of places you send press kits/inquiries to. Of the ones that respond only one third will express interest and only half of those end up in gigs.
In other words: If I reach out to 30 places regarding potential gigs only 10 will respond. Of that, 6 or 7 will decline or "keep you on file for the future" (which some actually do and will surprise you one day with a call). You will get three responses saying "We love you", "You would fit perfectly here". You will reply and only hear back with dates from one of those three. Remind the other two interested venues a few weeks later with a "Just following up" email.
Don't get frustrated. The booking process is the hardest part of being a working musician (besides the obligatory "band drama"). This is also the part when you get the chance to look the most professional. Once you establish yourself at a level of professionalism that is above and beyond other musicians you will get more calls. You will be able to charge more. You will be able to pay your band more. You will be able to get a professional recording/demo instead of the one you made at home using Garage Band. In short: you will be an actual step closer to being a successful independent musician.
Always remember to share what you know with other musicians. I have gotten some great gigs with the help of someone else, a little more well known, sending an email introducing me to the booking agent of a venue. One time I played a gig and I could tell I wasn't the right fit for. I suggested a friend of mine and he was immediately at home. Was I upset I aided in loosing my own gig? Hell no! Another restaurant is more likely to add live music if they experience it working somewhere else. In the long-term: His success can only help me!