10 Essential Tips for New Bands From L.A. Music Industry Experts
Los Angeles is full of young musicians trying to make it in (or, rather, out of) our city’s bustling music scene. Well, baby bands, this list is for you. We’ve gathered the advice of local experts, including talent buyers, producers and successful touring musicians, about how to get from your first local shows to your first regional tour. So get that van you found on Craigslist checked out, practice your instruments (no, really, please practice your instruments) and read on for 10 essential tips.
1. Want to build a following? Start with your friends.
“You’re always going to start with your friends, and that kind of plays into promoting as well. Don’t be afraid to promote because you think you’re annoying your friends. Your friends are your friends! And they’re proud of you,” says Britt Witt, talent buyer for Highland Park venue the Hi Hat, speaking on a recent panel hosted by local organization Play Like a Girl about “The Business of Touring”
Witt says this is doubly important when your friends have bands of their own — as is paying them back in kind. “When you go to their shows and you’re supporting them, you’re meeting other people at those shows, you’re supporting other bands, and you’re basically just building this network … and that’s how you’re going to get a local following. You convince other bands that you’re cool, too, and it goes into this cycle of everyone supporting each other.”
2. Let your music do (most of) the talking.
“This is what I start with: Have good music,” Witt says. “That’s probably the absolute most important thing. Be passionate about your project, and that kind of flows into everything else that we’ll be looking at, like your social media, the way you email us — the cadence, what you include, how professional you are. A lot of times it’s that your friends have mentioned you before, so you’re already familiar.”
“Talent buyers are inundated constantly by bands who want to play our room. Keep it short; we don’t need paragraphs on your history,” advises Liz Garo, talent buyer for Spaceland Presents, which handles the Echo and Echoplex, Echo Park Rising, Desert Daze, the Regent Theater and concerts everywhere from the Natural History Museum to Santa Monica Pier. She emphasizes the importance of an artist or group having an original, discernible aesthetic. “If there’s a particular show that you think your band would work on, that’s helpful, too,” she says — especially if you’re looking to fill an opening-act slot, or you’ve already played with other bands that have played at that particular venue. Also, be persistent — “but persistent does not mean sending an email Monday at 2 p.m. and following up Tuesday at 8 a.m.,” she adds. “Do not do that. Give it a couple days in between, or a week in between.”
What should you include in your pitch? In this case, less is more: “I always try to make the person’s life who’s reading it really easy,” says Kiran Gandhi, activist and internationally touring artist, once as M.I.A.’s drummer and now as a solo artist under the name Madame Gandhi. “So like, no paragraphs — everything is really short and clean. I make all the links clickable. I also try to notice that if the person is booking a week of rap artists, then I’ll make sure the song I send them has me rapping, as opposed to more of a pop song.” Her main piece of advice? “Decrease the stress of the person who would be booking me, so it increases my chance of getting that show tonight!”
3. Play constantly, then selectively.
Murphy “In the beginning, bands play a lot. Play as many shows as you can. Network. Do that for a couple months, build up your chops on how to load in, how to work your amp and be a better all-around player,” Garo says. “Then maybe after two or three months of that, you can hold back a little bit and maybe only play once a month or twice a month. Be careful of the shows you play.” Once you’ve done that, set your sights higher: “Ideally, you try to get on a bill where you open for somebody bigger, and you meet more people that way.”
“From a marketing standpoint, when you do get to that point of where you don’t need to take every show, and you’re thinking of taking every show, it can actually work against you,” says Megan Gersch, creative director at Spaceland Presents. “Say you’re playing the Echo, and then you’re playing the Hi Hat two days later — that splits your audience and you’re going to have half-full rooms.”
4. Market yourself.
“The responsibility of marketing the show is not solely on the talent buyer or the venue,” Witt says. “The venue can reach its audience as much as it can, and it can do flyering and all that … but it’s all supplemental to what the artist can do. You’re the only one that can actually reach your fan base very specifically. So it’s kind of a tandem thing where we’re both holding hands and we’re marketing your show and it’s gonna be awesome because we’re doing it together.”
“For most talent buyers, our job is to get people in the room and sell them beer,” Garo says. “Sorry, it’s not very romantic, but that’s basically what we’re doing.”
In other words, the onus of promoting your project is on you. See if you can narrow down some target cities (a tour plan, if you will), and experiment with the timing and number of your posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Nifty analytics tools (such as those provided by Google and Twitter) and apps such as Iconosquare for Instagram and Cyfe as a complete online business suite (and yes, you’re a business) can help you find the best ways to reach your audience.
Also, perhaps most important, know what you stand for. “Don’t contribute to the clutter,” Gandhi says. “People tend to react to something that has a voice, that has an opinion, that takes a stance. It makes them want to click on the page and interact. … Unless your content is really, really good and interesting, everybody is just buying advertisements.”
5. Get a residency.
The best way to get your music to entire venues full of people that aren’t your friends? “It’s really about getting a residency,” Gandhi says. “That way, if somebody is like, ‘Oh I really wish I could come this Saturday, but I can’t,’ then you can be like, ‘That’s OK because you have four Saturdays!’” A residency — typically, playing the same night of the week at the same venue for a month — means you have multiple nights to show audiences (and talent buyers) what you’ve got. It’s important to get creative with a residency — choose different themes, play a different set of songs each night, invite special guests to perform with you. Do whatever you need to do to get people to come back and see you again — or at least tell their friends about you.
“When we give residencies, we try to pick the bands that have worked with us and have developed with us. We try to give them an opportunity to reach a bigger audience. That’s definitively a way a venue can help build your career,” Garo says. “You do the residency, and then you disappear for a month to six weeks, and then you come back to do a ticketed show. That’s always been the format.” But, she adds, don’t ask a venue for a residency the first time you pitch them.
“It’s always a big turning point for a band when their friends aren’t in the audience,” Garo continues. “That’s a good turning point, when you’re getting paying customers to come hear you.”
6. Get a manager — or put someone in your band in the manager’s role.
“Make sure one guy who is capable is in charge of it, whether [they’re] inside or outside the band,” says Joel Jerome, indie producer, sound engineer, multi-instrumentalist, member of L.A.-based band Dios and solo artist. He notes that this person should have “good communication and follow-up skills, answer and send emails, stay in touch with promoters — basically stay on it.”
On top of that, your manager — or at least whoever is playing the role of manager — is, essentially, an extension of you and what you represent. Make sure you pick someone who will benefit your reputation and make working with you an easy, favorable experience (otherwise you might not get booked!).
“Don’t outsource the intel of the business to somebody else. Business is just the exchange of value. It’s figuring it out on your own and finding what works for you — that’s the best way,” says Gandhi, who happens to have an MBA from Harvard Business School.
“If you’re a young band, you should be doing the work,” Garo says. “You should be booking the shows. You should be the one talking to promoters, talking to labels. Do not rely on a manager because you need to learn this stuff. You need to learn who the players are, you need to know the people you need to talk to, because this whole industry is based on your relationships and connections.”
7. Don’t be a dick.
“Be nice to literally everyone. And be genuinely nice!” says Anna Bulbrook, founder of the Girlschool collective and former touring violinist with The Airborne Toxic Event and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. “First, it’s just a good thing to be nice to people. Second, the music industry is small, and only gets smaller! If you lose it on someone, you have no idea how that will ripple outward and affect you later.” Also, she adds, “It’s not cool to be late.”
“Be nice to the sound guy, get to know everybody in the venue. Very, very important,” Garo agrees. “I have not booked bands because our security guards have had bad experiences, or they were rude to the bartenders. We talk about that stuff.”
8. Book a tour with friends.
There’s no need to wait to sign with (or pay) a booking agency for your first tour — just look to your friends for leverage. “My advice for first-timers is to book a tour with another band they’re friends with, and can maybe share members with, especially if those friends have friends in surrounding or distant cities,” Jerome says.
He also suggests starting small; in other words, don’t try to conquer the world (or the whole country) on your first go. For L.A. bands, “Start with regional tours: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego. Maybe add Phoenix or Tucson, eventually. Try to reach out to bands in those cities that [your friends] like, and hopefully have a draw, and try to get them on the bill.” As Garo suggests, shoot for a venue in their town that they have already played. “Hopefully,” he continues, “that will make the shows better and [you] can make friends in other cities with similar-minded kids.” (Pro tip: Offer to return the favor when those bands in other towns come through your city.)
Jerome recommends planning your tour at least three months in advance of heading out on the road. Leave yourself enough time to finalize all bookings, create and send event flyers, lock in housing and transportation and, of course, promote.
9. You’ve booked your first tour! Now make sure you survive it.
Avoiding drama is key, says Bulbrook, seasoned tourer of 10-plus years. “Do a little emotional homework before you head out,” she says. “Ask your bandmates to make a few group agreements about how to handle or resolve feelings or conflicts that are, inevitably, going to arise. You are about to do literally everything together for many days in a row, so getting along and hanging out is going to be most of what you’re doing.”
Her suggestions for keeping yourself in check? Take it easy with alcohol and other substances. “You need to be able to move stuff, play a show and be a nice person to the other humans trapped in a tube with you.” Also, be clean, she says. “It’s not noble to smell bad.”
Eat as well as you possibly can — just because you’re on tour doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly capable of subsisting on chips and beer. “It’s the dirty secret of the music industry that a lot of the biggest bands in the world are incredibly health-conscious,” Bulbrook adds. “In addition to your actual instrument, your body is your instrument, and you need it to work well to perform.”
10. Make sure the tour is worth it.
Touring can be a enchanting, door-opening experience for some, but for others — especially baby bands who are just finding their way — the financial (or other) strain it can cause is a good reason to put it off, at least until the timing is right. “Make sure the tour is worth doing,” Jerome says. “Does it work financially? Is it good for networking? To do any show, let alone tour, I ask myself four things: Is it for the money, connections, experience or fun? It’s gotta be a few of those to make it worth it.”
Keep in mind, you’re bound to lose money, especially on your first go: “Breaking even would be a miracle,” he adds.
But, of course, it’s not all about the money. To Taleen Kali, leader of the eponymous “cosmic femme pop” project, editor of Dum Dum Zine and founder of Kali Punk Yoga, the friends and fans she’s met on the road have made the pains of being broke, tired and perpetually outside the realms of “comfort zone” totally worth it. “Those are your best friends for life, and they take care of you when you come back to town. They tell their friends about you, buy out your merch, and while the show itself may or may not have a guarantee, those shows are pretty much the only reason I still tour.”