I just got back from a nice trip to the Midwest for a couple weddings and a camping trip with Dad. It was a nice break from LA and I was reminded what nature looks like when it’s not starved for water.
While in Madison this past weekend we decided to grab dinner at the beautiful outdoor University of Wisconsin Union Terrace. Growing up in Madison where virtually every music venue was 21+, there were few places I could go check out live music when I was in high school. The Union Terrace was one of those places. Most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights over the Summer I spent down there taking in whatever talent the UW committee decided to bring for the community to enjoy (for free), outside, overlooking the lake. It’s quite the scene. Some nights it’s a non-stop dance party. Others it’s an indie rock outfit. I caught Umphrey’s McGee here for the first time – before anyone knew who they were. And Jon Fishman (of Phish) played with The Jazz Mandolin Project on the Terrace back when Phish was on hiatus. The beauty is, no matter who is playing, if it’s a nice night, there are nearly 2,000 people hanging out, drinking local brews and chowing down on Wisconsin brats. It was a dream come true when I finally got a chance to play this legendary venue a few years back.
So, this past Friday, I organized a little get together with friends and family for brats, burgers and beer at the Terrace. I noticed they now have live jazz over the dinner hour in addition to the evening rock bands.
Even though it had just stormed a couple hours prior, the Terrace was packed. We found the last couple remaining tables. There was a phenomenal two piece performing a nice blend of contemporary folk, pop and jazz tunes. The singer had a sultry Norah Jones timbre to her voice and traded off between the ukulele and keys and had a solid upright bassist backing her up.
I wanted to buy her CD or vinyl, but there was no merch table to be found. I wanted to Like her on Facebook, sign up for her email list, follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Spotify, but she never mentioned her name. I thought about referring her for a couple looking for a singer for their wedding. I started asking around if anyone knew who this was. I finally found a woman who was a friend of the singer’s and she looked annoyed that I interrupted her journalling (sorry). She curtly shot back, “that’s her husband on the bass.” Uh, ok, never mind. I guess she thought I wanted to go hit on her married friend.
Guaranteed I wasn’t the only one there who was enjoying this performance. This singer was phenomenal. Sure I wasn’t hanging on every word like I would be watching her in a theater. Because that’s not what this environment was suited for. This was background music to enjoy your friends’ company. And she served this purpose perfectly. But I would have gone to see her in a theater setting, but, again, I had no idea who this was. She lost a fan in me, and everyone else there. But not because of her music.
When you have an opportunity to play in front of a large crowd at a fair, festival or other venue like this, you need to capitalize on it. This is a HUGE opportunity. You should ask a few friends or members of your street team to walk around the crowd holding up CDs, vinyls, and flyers wearing your shirt. Make sure each friend is equipped with a Square or PayPal credit card swiper hooked up to their phone, and plenty of cash for change. They should have backpacks with extra merch and a mailing list clipboard, or better yet, an iPad or phone signup. Anyone who is interested ask them to sign the list. Sell them merch, or at least hand them a flyer so they can start the process of becoming a life long fan. They will most likely come see you again.
If you’re doing a bunch of these kinds of performances, invest in a retractable banner stand. These are typically about 2-3 feet wide and 6 feet tall and cost $80 – 150 depending on the quality and company. Put your name/logo big and bold on it with the logos of the social sites you’re on. BuildASign.com and Popupbanner.com are a couple companies who offer these. These are also perfect for anytime you get a big opening slot. Of course you need to say your name on stage a few times, but people will miss it or not know how to spell it. If this banner is planted on stage next to you they will take a photo of it and remember. Want to try something fun? Put your Snapchat QR code on it big enough for people in the crowd to scan.
Have someone planted at the merch table as well with the mailing list signup, flyers and all merch. On the flyer make sure there’s a booking contact email and phone number. These kinds of performances is how you leverage a $300 one off gig into a $1,400 wedding.
Never look at a performance for just the paycheck you are receiving. Look at the performance for the paychecks you could receive in the future, the lifelong fans you could gain, the merch you could sell, the career you are building.
Now, don’t take this to the extreme. People will try to convince you over and over to play their restaurants, bars, backyards, benefits for “exposure.” Be very careful with these shows because they are slippery slopes and every show you take for no pay, you diminish your worth (and the value of every other performing artist).
Every show you play put to The Perfect 30 test:
Payment = 10. Career building = 10. Enjoyment = 10.
You don’t want to play any shows for less than a total of 15 on the scale. If the payment is incredible (10), but there will be very little career building potential (3) or enjoyment (2), that equals 15. If there is decent payment (5), but will bring great enjoyment (9), but little career building potential (1), that also equals a 15. Take these shows. The shows you shouldn’t take are the ones for little to no money (1), very little career building potential (3) and very little enjoyment (3) = 7 total. Pass!
But, career building potential doesn’t just happen. You have to MAKE it happen. This duo’s show on the Terrace COULD have had a 10 for career building potential had they had volunteers walking around with flyers/business cards and a mailing list signup, and COULD have had a 10 on the payment scale had these volunteers walked around selling merch (they would have made a killing) and had the artist set up a merch table. Assuming this show paid decently well, this was the difference between a 15 and a 25 on The Perfect 30 scale.
A funk/reggae band I used to manage got a chance to open for Damian Marley at Summerfest in Milwaukee in front of nearly 3,000 reggae lovers. We employed this exact approach and not only did their roaming volunteers sell $2,000 in merch during their 90 minute set, they sold tickets (and passed out flyers) to an upcoming Milwaukee show which ended up selling out. This Summerfest show was The Perfect 30.
If you believe in your music enough to turn it into a long lasting career, these are the kinds of strategies you need to employ make it a reality.
PS – if you know who this singer is, please post in the comments so I can find more of her great music