Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How to book hip hop shows

You've worked on your writing. Your voice sounds great. Like really great. You've been practicing your live performance a lot, and you're ready to rock a show. But how do you get one? Who do you contact? What can you expect to be paid? The answer to all of these questions (and more) will be revealed in this article.

The only important question: Define your goals

The first question you should ask yourself if you're starting out is this: do you NEED to book a show? Or should you even? Do you want to make money, or do you just care about people appreciating the music?

The reason I ask this question is because often times newer artists will be excited to get their material out, and naturally playing in front of people is the natural progression from playing by yourself. The issue with this line of thinking is often people are misguided about what the best move is for their performance career, and arbitrarily focus on getting bar shows when that's not necessarily the best option for them.

To answer this question, I will list a few different types of shows that you might want to pursue instead. First, I'll define the "ideal" show a lot of people have in their heads.

Prime Time Bar Shows


A bar show means that you will be playing in a popular, local bar during prime time (generally Thursday-Saturday evenings) where you will get a decent crowd of locals regardless of whether or not they know or care about your music, just by virtue of the fact that they enjoy the bar. Generally, only established or touring bands will get to headline at these places, because the bar owner knows it will bring a good crowd.

Here's the harsh reality of 99% of bar owners: Their ability to PROFIT from your show is #1. They don't give a fuck about your artistic vision, they don't give a fuck that you're the hottest new rapper around, they don't give a shit about the fact that you live breathe and cry hip-hop day and night. If you want to get bar shows, you need to convince the bar owner beyond any doubt that you will MAKE THEM MORE MONEY THAN IF THEY LET SOMEONE ELSE PLAY.

Note: There are some bar owners/managers who are great people and genuinely care about the music. The fact remains that everyone needs to make money at their business. If the manager is an awesome person, all the more reason for you to consider this point so you can help them make money while also benefiting yourself.

Now you might be saying to yourself "Why would I want to play somewhere where my music isn't appreciated? I don't give a shit about money".

The benefit for YOU as a musician is that these gigs are usually the best paying because you have the ability to get a larger crowd who will pay premium cover for entry to the bar. Generally speaking, this is NOT the optimal way to market your music or get it out there for the hardcore hiphop heads. These types of gigs are about developing a strong local following who love to come and party with you on the weekends, and may or may not go to your smaller showers, buy your cds, etc so you can gain some capital (i.e, MONEY) so you can do other cool things like tour, record an EP, buy merch and equipment, etc.

Without a strong local following where you know you can play a few shows and net a few thousand bucks to put into the band, it makes doing bigger and better promotion even more difficult. Plus, these shows are still really fun!

Pros: Big crowd, more $$$
Cons: Harder to get, have to cater to the crowd

Bar owners will naturally be weary of anything outside of the "norm" of music in the town. Depending on where you live, it can be hard to get a gig as a hip-hop artist.

So if you have to be established before you can get a big bar show to rake in the cash, what else can you do? Well, my personal favorite...

House Party shows!


Playing at a house party is about as genuinely hip-hop as it gets. This is the essence of the whole culture when DJ Kool Herc started spinning way back in 1967.

The prime benefits of a house show are that
  • They're incredibly fun, because you get to party while it's happening,
  • You get to work on your performance in a low risk environment (it's mostly your friends, and everyone should just be having a good time).
  • You can throw one (almost) whenever you want.
However, the sneaky goal of a house show is this: Gain new fans in an intimate environment where they are having fun, and they will want to see you play again.

Why is this you ask? Well, it's great that your 5 closest buddies came to your party and rocked out. Duh, they're you're 5 closest buddies...if they're real friends they'd watch you come play in a fucking alleyway in -10 degree weather.

The real point of this is that if you invite some less than super close friends to the party, bring in some outsiders, and they have a BLAST, when you tell them (because you're making an effort to meet people and talk about your music, right?) that you have a show at a bar coming up in a month, they'll be more likely to come.

Bottom line, making new people (and your friends of course) associate:

Your Music + An Awesome Fun Time = A really good chance they'll pay to watch you again.

Even if they're not big hiphop fans, like 90% of people who go out on the weekend they care more about the social aspect than a riveting musical experience.

A few points to make this happen:
  • Spend $60 and rent a decent fucking sound system. Making people's ears bleed is not a good way to get them coming back for more. Think of it as an investment in your musical career.
  • Invite a lot of people and get them pumped about it. A couple free rounds of shots, some food, lots of cute single girls...make it a good ass party!
  • PLAY PARTY TRACKS. Leave the sad emotional shit for later on in the night when everyone tired/ half drunk and mellowing out. It's a party....so party.
  • Make sure nothing stupid like noise complaints or the cops happen, as that's a great way to kill the vibe. If you're not old enough to have your own place or it's not a good spot for parties, convince a buddy to host. Offer to help clean and give him a little cash. Convince him it's for the good of your band and not just because you want to throw a rager.

Pros: Intimate, get to meet new fans, they're amazingly fun, low stress environment, you can have them whenever you want.
Cons: You have to have a big party with loud music: cleanup, dealing with people, etc. Cost of renting a PA, time involved in setup and organizing.

So you have a good crew of people who would definitely come out to see you at a bar or bigger venue. You've worked on your live show and it's tight, and you know a thing or two about setting up a show and dealing with equipment failure or unruly fans. How do you crack into that bar gig?

Open Mic


There are open mics in every town. They vary in quality, price, and atmosphere. Feel free to spend some time searching out what one works for you. The reason open mics are fun are:
  • A nice, relaxed time with friends. And, you usually get a free drink.
  • They can sometimes be pretty busy, and turn in to a bigger show that you got just by showing up.
  • Potential for new fans and a great opportunity to practice your live show.
However, all of these things are just bonuses for the real, sinister and career advancing purpose of doing open mic nights:

The bar owner or music manager will be there.

This is not always true, and occasionally it's just the bar staff that are around. The point? The bar now knows you. Tip the doorman and the bartender big. Thank the staff and the place for letting you play. Be an awesome person to be around, and have fun...make the open night mic better for the establishment.

Oh, and ABSOLUTELY KILL the show. Even if it's a more intimate environment, you want to amp up the energy and really have an amazing time. Why? Well, all of this is geared towards convincing the bar manager you would be a good fit for a prime time opening gig.

If you do well, and have a time, and impress everyone, if the employee who books shows at that bar is any good at their job, you will end up getting an offer to play. It might be an opening gig on a Tuesday night, or it might be that a touring band is in town that weekend and you'd be a great fit.

Whatever the case, you now have your foot in the door, have shown that you will be beneficial to the bar, and that you're a decent person. Don't go to open mic and be a downer, go play your two shitty songs and bore everyone to tears, and then leave. This is your opportunity to say "Your establishment is missing out by not having me play here". All the better if you bring 10 friends along to show you have a following.

The point here is not to be a dick and be cocky...it's to establish a mutually beneficial business relationship with the person who can book you a show. If you're good at what you do and and will bring people in, it's a win-win.

This post is getting long, so I will make another, separate post about how to be an opening act as it comes with it's own unique challenges and scenarios.

UPDATE: The post on how to be a good opening act is here.

All in all, this is just a general guideline if you want to view your music as a business or if it's legitimately what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you're just looking to have a good time, play some tunes, or spread the hiphop culture, public shows, open mics, and spreading your stuff on the internet is a great way to do things. If you want to play stadiums with 30,000 people though, you need to be a little more systematic about it.

This a post for another day, but I wrote this article with the assumption that playing local shows is mostly to help you get money to do bigger, better things. If you live somewhere with a thriving hip-hop scene, the landscape will be different. If you live in smaller towns like me, the best way to get your shit out there is through the internet and touring; small local shows are just to gather the funds to do these things. If this doesn't apply to you, act accordingly.
Hope that was helpful, and I'd love to hear some feedback!

Peace, Love, and Unity.

Sleepy K