How to Put on a Show

If you’re playing a large city with a vibrant club scene, concert promotion is generally best left to the pros: promoters who work several clubs and/or several acts at once. But elsewhere, where the scenes are smaller and the venues fewer, if you want to see a band, you have to DIY. So let’s put on a show! And not lose our shirts!

Enthusiasm, risk-tolerance and advance planning are essential. (If you only have the first two, take your shirt off now.) Here’s a breakdown of what you need to do to kick-start your career as Canada’s next Michael Cohl.
Three months to go: Before committing to anything, research the costs and make an expense budget including the following generously estimated categories: venue rental, licenses, insurance, band costs, concessions (pop and chips, or beer if you’re licensed), security and other personnel, promotions (designer, photocopying, etc), and a ten percent contingency. Then, based on the venue capacity, the number of people you think you can draw, ticket price and projected concession sales, work out how much revenue you’ll have. Be conservative in your estimates. If it’s 100 people at six bucks a head, plus projected pop sales of $200, and your expense budget comes in at $2,000, this is clearly a shirt-losing venture. But if there’s only a hundred or two difference and you can shave the expenses, it might still be worthwhile.

You may need some start-up cash for your gig to pay for up-front expenses like licenses, concessions and printing. Do not borrow this from your friends, because if your show tanks, you will be in an awkward, potentially friend-losing position.

Two and a half months to go: Book the bands. Depending on how popular they are and how far they’re coming for the gig, you’ll need to do this even further in advance. Negotiate a contract with the bands. They will be happy if you guarantee them a fee, even if it’s only a few hundred dollars, but don’t forget that a guarantee is a legally enforceable contract. If you don’t bring it in on the door, it will come out of your pocket. Many bands will be happy to play for all or a percentage of the door, or some combination of a low guarantee plus a percentage. In addition to the money, your contract with the bands should include load-in info, set length and times, and a rider for food, drink, and accommodation if any. Many touring indie bands would rather have a guaranteed hotel room and a pizza than a fat but uncertain cut of door sales. A note to novices: a contract can be written or oral. If you promise the band $500 to play, and they show up and play, you owe them $500. If you don’t pay up, you may not get sued, but your name will be written in shit on bathroom stalls from St. John’s to Victoria.

Two months to go: Book the venue. If it’s on campus, you may need to deal with your Student Union’s party-throwing committee. Off-campus, talk to the owner or property manager. Be prepared to discuss issues like insurance, damage deposit, security, licensing, city bylaws and so on before you approach them. The key contract points are: the rental fee and damage deposit; who pays for bar, door, security and technical staff; load-in and load-out times; gear rental fees like a PA or a rental backline; insurance requirements; the liquor license, and who is responsible for promoting the event and at what cost; whether it’s okay to sell merchandise and where; and whether the venue is prepared to share bar sales with you. Some of them will: after all, you are bringing in a crowd. Of course, if you run your own bar or concession, the money’s all yours (minus your expenses).

One month to go: Make a promotions plan with a schedule. Find out press deadlines and ad costs with your local arts weekly and others. Call the campus and/or commercial radio station to find out how and when to submit gig listings. If your artist is cool with it, see about setting up phone interviews with local radio and newspapers to advance the show.

Two weeks to go: Make up posters and handbills, but know the bylaws about legal postering. Many cities are now fining people for putting up posters on light poles and so on — or at least, city employees will tear them all down. Handbills can be more effective than posters: spend a day or two at schools, major intersections, and nightclubs and make people pay attention to you. Novice promoters tend to get all horny for design and forget the essentials, so make sure your posters and handbills state clearly who, where, when and how much — and whether it’s a licensed venue. Book any rentals you need for the night: sound gear, transport, etc.

One week to go: Check in with the bands, the venue, the gear rental people, your staff — and make sure everyone’s still on board. If you are expecting a large and/or potentially rowdy crowd, consider making a courtesy call to the cop shop. Assure them that you have all the necessary licenses and give them your contact number. If they have any concerns, they’ll know where to reach you to, and it really doesn’t hurt to have cops think well of you. Then do a second round of postering and handbilling.

One day to go: Make arrangements to pick up your gear. Confirm your venue access times, load-in location, keys and staff, etc. Go shopping for your concession items. Also pick up some kind of a stamp or marker, a cash box, and a cash float. Make a record of how much the float is and who it belongs to. Review your band contracts and make sure any arrangements for accommodations and food are ready. Do a last round of handbilling.

The Big Day: Get to the venue with your sound crew to set up as early as possible. Nine times out of ten, you’re short a cable or a power bar, some dumb little thing that’s going to require a run to Canadian Tire. Everything should be ready for sound check by the time the bands load in. Schedule the load-in and sound check to wrap an hour before doors open. Have concessions ready when doors open, and put space aside for the bands to sell merchandise. If you can’t stay all night, designate a responsible assistant to stay there and deal with anything that comes up. Have whoever’s working the door ready to go an hour before opening, with the stamp, cash box and float at hand. Do not ever leave the door or the cash box unattended. During the show, it’s a good idea to take all the cash out of the box (leaving the float) and hang on to it: that way, if some little bugger makes off with the box, you’ve got most of the money. Do not get drunk at your own show.

At the end of the night, settle up with the bands. They will be thrilled if they don’t have to chase you around to get paid. Then bask in the glory of putting on a great show. Next stop: booking the hockey rink!

Frequently Asked Questions

The community hall wants to charge $100 damage deposit and they say it’s non-refundable. Can they do that?
Damage deposits are by definition refundable — it’s a deposit against the cost of future damage, if any. A certain amount of wear and tear is to be expected, and if your show doesn’t cause damage beyond the norm, then you should get the deposit back. You and the property manager should agree on what kind of damage will result in them withholding the deposit. Used toilet paper, no, but broken windows, yes. Then do a walk-through before the show with the guy to make sure you don’t get dinged for something that was already busted.

This café agreed to let us put on a show, but when they realized it was a hip-hop show they pulled out. We think it’s blatant racism. What can we do?
It may well be discrimination, and if you can prove it, you could file a complaint with your local Human Rights Commission. But getting any justice will take a zillion years, and the venue might successfully argue that they’re running a folk music place and that hip-hop just doesn’t fit the programming, or some other bullshit. You might do better by negotiating with the venue to find out what their concerns are, and if they are at all legitimate, try to solve them cooperatively. If after all that they are still being racist pricks, find a new venue and then phone the local paper.

We played an all-ages show where we agreed with the promoter to let all the bands use our drum kit. The kick pedal somehow got smashed and the promoter is like "tough shit.” Kick pedals are expensive! What can we do?
Know you’re in the right. Even though you may not have signed a contract, you had a verbal agreement with the promoter to "rent” him your kit for the night, with an implied agreement that he should pay for the damage, as he would with any other rental. The problem is, he’s being a dick. You could sue him in small claims court, but even the relatively small cost of suing might exceed the cost of buying a new pedal. You may have to chalk this one up to experience: don’t let people use your gear unless there’s an unequivocal promise to pay for damage, and don’t work with dicks.