Want more bookings? For better money?
One of the most valuable things I’ve learned as a self employed artist is this – themed shows get booked.
What’s A Themed Show?
In short…when you put a bunch of music (or narrative pieces, or dances, or whatever it is that you do) together around a theme, and dig up some interesting stories to tell between pieces, you’ve got a themed show.
What kind of theme?
You name it.
It could be as specialized as “Female Songwriters from the American Labor Movement 1935-1974” or as simple as “Songs From Around the World.”
You probably have some material in your repertoire right now that could be grouped together around a topic such as “Irish,” or “American,” or “Blues,” “World,” “Roots,” “Medieval,” “The Grateful Dead!” (see below).
My assertion is that even a simple change from promoting yourself as “Jack Smith Blues Band” to promoting a show called “The Blues: America’s Music (with the Jack Smith Blues Band)” will get you more bookings, and you may not even need to change any of your repertoire in order to make that kind of switch!
To generate a few quick ideas for topics, imagine your college professor friend has asked you to do a presentation for their music students, performing (probably virtually!) and talking with them about your material. What would you want them to know?
From Concerts to “Shows” or “Programs”
Concerts are filled with music; “shows” (also known in many circles as “programs”) are filled with music, stories, and a bit of learning.
I’ve been doing far more “programs” and “shows” than “concerts” over the last 25 years, and I can tell you that they sell really well, and for much better money.
- They’re unique
- They serve a purpose beyond just entertainment
- They have built-in audiences (people who don’t even know you but care about the topic)
- They’re easier to describe
- They’re easier to market
- There are WAY more places you can book them
In fact, at this point I have over a dozen themes that I offer as performances, and I can also combine that material in unique ways to try to accomodate a special request.
A “Themed Program” Example
I tried a little experiment a few years back…
In 2016, my group The Canal Street String Band (CSSB for short) had some unexpected success with a workshop topic we had thrown together fairly quickly, so I decided to see if I could market it as a “show” to some brand-new (to me) venues.
We had the pleasure of performing at the Old Songs Folk Festival in Altamont NY where, over a three-day weekend, each act performs one mainstage concert and participates in a handful of workshops.
Months before the event, the organizer solicits ideas from the performers for workshop topics.
(If you’re not accustomed to folk festival lingo, “workshop” often translates to a bunch of musicians who don’t know each other getting thrown together on stage for an hour and letting the chips fall where they may.)
I thought it would be fun to do a “Folk and Blues Roots of the Grateful Dead” session along with any other like-minded musicians who’d be at the festival.
Since I didn’t yet know who else was booked, I had no idea who those other musicians might be.
Well, the organizer liked the workshop topic, selected it, and put my group solely in charge of the whole thing. There would be no other performers, and we had sixty minutes to cover on one of the most beautiful and well-attended stages at the festival!
Now, that would have been AWESOME if it weren’t for one small problem – two of the three guys in my band never even liked or listened to the Grateful Dead very much….
Do I go back to the organizer and say it isn’t going to work without other musicians to flesh out the hour (whiny and high maintenance on our part, and a pain in the butt for them), or should we suck it up and put something together?
That Distinct Sucking Sound…
Perhaps we’ll talk about how we put the show together in another post, but for now let’s just say that we rummaged through our current repertoire for relevant material, added a bunch of new things quickly, and researched the musical influences of Jerry Garcia and company.
The response was over-the-top positive! I can’t even explain it, but this program really resonated with the standing-room-only audience.
All through the weekend, and afterwards on social media, people went out of their way to tell us how much they enjoyed that session.
What really struck us was how many people came up and said they didn’t even LIKE the Grateful Dead, but absolutely loved hearing the music that influenced them, and the stories behind it.
That Gave Me a New Show to Book!
It didn’t take long for the wheels to start turning….
If people who don’t even like the Grateful Dead showed up to the session (when there were seven other choices for them on other stages!), and they were this happy with it….
Maybe this themed presentation has some “legs!”
So, who else might want to book it?
- Colleges? I had no experience doing programs on college campuses, but this sure seems like something they might be interested in, right?
- Jamband Music Festivals? Kind of a no-brainer.
- Larger Folk Music Venues? They’re always interested in bringing a younger crowd into the folk scene, and/or keeping the younger, hipper members of the audience happy at their events.
- Other Music Festivals? Why not?
- Arts Centers? Sure. This is going to have a bigger draw than a straight-up concert by a regional string band.
The truth is, it would normally be an uphill battle for CSSB to secure a booking at some of these venues.
But the Grateful Dead have a much bigger name than we do, and that’s the whole key.
With this new “product,” it’s not just my band I’m offering them – it’s the show as performed by my band.
OK, How To Promote It?
It would’ve been really nice to have some video clips of us doing this show, allowing potential bookers to see the audience reactions, hear snippets of the stories along with the music, etc.
I didn’t have any of that though. (We’d only done the show once.)
What I did have was as follows:
- a band website
- a written description of the new program
- screenshots of three great comments from social media (captured with Snagit)
- a relationship with the festival we performed the show at – I can see if they’re willing to provide a recommendation
Here’s What I Did
#1 – Create a new page on the CSSB website dedicated to this “special presentation,” and mention it on other pages of the site with a link to the new page. I included the program description and the warm quotes from social media along with a few photos and a link for “booking information.”
#2 – Went through my existing email database of venue contacts and created a new group out of the ones I thought could potentially be interested in this program.
#3 – Reached out personally to the contacts I have strong relationships with to let them know about the new show.
#4 – Created a promotional email that I sent “en masse” to other venues (eventually making two or more versions of the email with slightly different language targeted to the type of venue – festival, college, etc)
#5 – After I’d made my current network aware of the program, it was time to find contact info for a lot more likely venues, many of which would be new to me. That meant lots and lots of online research, outreach, and networking.
#6 – Analyze the results of all the above on an ongoing basis, adjust accordingly, and continue working on next steps (more new venues, getting listed on touring rosters, showcase applications, arts presenters groups, etc).
Late 2020 Update…
Of course, not much has happened this year due to COVID, but the “Folk and Blues Roots of the Grateful Dead” show has been booked dozens of times between 2017-2020 in theaters, concert series, folk music organizations and more.
(Not so much luck with colleges, yet….)
One unanticipated benefit of putting this show together has been that venues now have two choices when booking the band (our regular show or this themed show), and we often decide together that perhaps the themed show is the one to do first if we’ve not played in that town before. It all but guarantees a good turnout where folks have otherwise not heard of my group, and then, we can go back a year or two later and do our standard show to folks that are already very “warm” to what we do.
This is Not Limited to Folk Musicians!
Not by any stretch.
In fact, I can’t think of a single category of performance art, from hip hop to juggling to opera to spoken word to dance and beyond, that couldn’t put a themed presentation together and start marketing it to new venues.
Musician friends on both sides of the Atlantic have told me that putting themed shows together has gotten them bookings at venues and festivals they simply couldn’t get into otherwise.
The wild thing?
Much of the material – including the banter and stories between songs – is the same as what they do anyways! But, by packaging their material around a theme – and, of course, learning some new material to flesh out the topic – they’ve become much more marketable.
What could your theme be?
Jump into the Facebook Group, or the Comments section is below.
About The Blog
Since leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.
Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.
The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.
A friend just sent me your site and I have really enjoyed and gotten a lot out of the articles. I love the “Theme idea” and thought of one while I was reading. I didn’t start performing professionally until I was 55 and in recent years relocated and haven’t quite “launched” in my new area…I play a gig here and there, but haven’t really promoted here yet. However, after reading some of these articles I’m inspired to get a giggin’ again… I’m semi-retired and frankly…tired in general, but still need to earn a living. Not thrilled with the nowhere and part time job I got to get me out of the house and out of my funk, I think I’m going to gear up and see what I can drum up this spring and summer. I can literally earn more in one gig than I make at the part-time job. Thanks for the advice and inspiration.. Usually, when one does what they enjoy, love, and create…it’s energizing and one won’t feel like napping all the time. (smile)
Great article Dave. I discovered the same about a year ago when I booked an 80’s Night” party at a local watering hole (I’m solo acoustic). Since then I’ve done Parrot head parties (Buffet and beach songs) and tribute nights to certain acts. It’s been my experience that anyone can come out on a Friday night to see you. If they miss the show, big deal there’s always next week. Events are different as there is the fear of missing out..
Thanks for sharing that, Paul.
Love love love these versions, video and concept!
As always, these articles are very helpful. As a vendor and funder, we struggle to get regional musicians to define what they do. Meaning, when we book them to play they list what they will do during the public performance in the most generic way possible, for example, “Blues, Rock, Country, Jazz, and Folk” Wow, I have no idea what to expect? I wish they would target this to the audience of the venue and be more specific. Personally, I am more likely to want to go see a “themed” show so I know more what to expect and if it would be of interest to me. This generic “we do a little bit of everything” doesn’t seem terribly interesting. How can we get musicians to share a bit more specifics of what they will be playing so we can better market their shows? We are just trying to help them, but we need their help to do it! Any thoughts would be appreciated!
Shannon – nice to hear from you, and I wish I had a good answer for your question. I think it’s fair to say that most artists (and businesses for that matter) feel like casting as wide a net as possible is the way to get the most interest. It can be counterintuitive to think about describing ourselves very specifically as we don’t want to exclude any potentially interested parties. But in my experience it’s just the opposite, as I tried to spell out clearly in another article (found at this link) on being a “jack of all trades” vs. being a specialist. The specialist wins almost every time. I think for people in your position, just asking very specific questions of the musicians you book will help – who is your ideal audience? who does your performance appeal to most? people will love your band if they like (fill in the blank with a well-known artist name). Or just simply state “generic band descriptions listing multiple genres aren’t that helpful in promoting your event – please tell us specifically what you do and who it appeals most to.”
Dave, you are absolutely correct! I have had a classic rock band called Classic Example for years in the Sacramento area, then I moved to Phoenix Arizona. I have always loved to play oldies, and since there are so many senior citizens and 55 plus retirement communities here, I decided to put together a 60’s tribute band and I call it 60’s Forever! I got the idea for this tribute band from a band in New Jersey called the British Invasion Tribute (now called the British Invasion Years) and set up a similar show where we start off with British Invasion songs, then move along to American bands like CCR and The doors. We dress up in tie dye shirts and wear hippie clothes. I also put up a Wix website, and I got a call from Sun City here in Arizona and got a cold call booking from them to play in front of over 2,000 people! I have never had that happen with my plain old classic rock/oldies band! Thanks for the article. I’m certainly going to push the tribute band even more now. I really appreciate you taking the time by posting these music related articles and sharing your wisdom with us. Thanks again!
Thanks for sharing that story Dan! In a lot of cases, it’s the same material we’d be performing anyways – just a matter of “packaging” it differently.
Do you think I would be marketable in the venues you mentioned, ie; libraries, schools, convention halls, ect. as a ventriloquist? My themed show is titled as “Giggle Your Way to Good grades.” This would be my premise and I perform with a cockroach, a bird character, and a baby, which the baby goes over really well at birthday parties. My comedy material content is silly and a little physical. What are your thoughts on my concept?
Hey Dave. I’m happy to hear your new program is starting to take off. I have a question. I currently have a program called “Juggling Around the World.” It’s a show and tell type of presentation where I discuss the homemade and primitive props used by jugglers ages ago as well as modern day equipment. I also share interesting stories, facts, and figures. I’ve done this program in schools, libraries, daycares, senior citizens groups. Can you think of other venues that might be interested in this program?
Hi Bill – well, arts centers and family performance series come to mind. Have you tapped into the elementary school curriculum to find out which grade level studies world cultures though? In NY, it’s third grade, and my “World Communities Concert” of music and instruments from around the world has been quite popular with third grade teachers.
Your blogs are both helpful and inspiring thanks!
Hey Dave. Adding theme shows to the mix seems like a great idea. Here’s my situation: I was recently contacted by an organization who is putting on an environmental festival in September. They asked if I could incorporate a recycling theme into my juggling show. Should I charge a higher fee for this? After all, it will take some work. I’ll have to put everything together from scratch. Research, new patter, and some new routines would have to be put together. If I should be asking for a higher fee, not sure how much. I’ve never been asked to do a theme show before. Any help would be appreciated.
Hey Bill – For me, this would come down to whether the new material will have a life beyond the one gig, i.e. is the show I’m putting together for the gig going to be marketable afterwards? If yes, then I’d use the first gig as motivation to get the show together (at no extra charge), then start thinking about where else I could book it. It seems to me that a recycling themed juggling show would have legs long after the one gig, at schools, libraries, around Earth Day, environmental centers and events, etc.
On the other hand, I’ve been commissioned to put shows together around very specific historical themes that may not ever be marketable beyond the one gig – in that case, I charge more for my time and effort.
Does that help?
Thanks Dave. I think a recycling juggling show could be marketed to other venues. I haven’t decided weather or not to accept the booking for September. I need to let them know soon. Not sure if I will be able to come up with something on such short notice. Whenever I put together a new program, I want it to be of the highest quality. I have a program called “Juggling Around the World.” It took me almost a year to put together! When it comes to theme type shows, I feel you should be enthusiastic and passionate about the subject matter rather than doing it just so you can make more money. Just my thoughts.
Agree 100% Bill. Good luck with the decision!
Thank you for posting and taking the time to pass these ideas along. I am 53 and play in an acoustic based duo named 2Peace here in Florida. My song list is well over 300 songs mostly from the 60’s and 70’s. We have been working on a sort of theme painting our gear in psychedelic colors, I often introduce the year and writer/artist of the song, and we intend on working on a relevant wardrobe. I look forward to your FB input for more specific angles to take it up another notch. Thanks again I look forward to the interaction.
Glad to have you in the group Gary.
wonderful information…I would like to know more…I write original instrumentals on the banjo for accompaniment by strings, guitar,etc that are thematic, trying to paint tone pictures about the mountains where I live.. some are banjo and string quartet, some banjo and many instruments like guitar, bazouki, mandolin, slide guitar,percussion….have done one album “That Evening Sun” Thom Moore
Sounds great Thom – why not jump into the Facebook group where there’s lots of good discussion and brainstorming going on,
Like your philosophy…I have two main “Themes” I prefer to perform these days. Looking to become more active in this area now that I’m retired from my “Day Job”
Looking forward to more info…
Thanks Terry. What are your themes?
Brilliant Idea – Especially about the landing page.
My wife’s band has this going already; And I guess i need to work on one for my group as well.
applied to the FB group.
Love the idea about playing for schools and libraries but just don’t have the contacts to even try that here in my new state of MO; any advice about how to get that info?
Hey Ben, welcome here and to the FB group. The articles on getting gigs in schools, getting gigs in libraries, and marketing for musicians should be helpful. It’s going to boil down to cultivating your own list of contacts which you own and can use any time you want. I may also be doing an online seminar soon with lots of specifics on working in schools as a performer. Will let you know.
I am about to play an American Legion, Vietnam Vets group at the post. You think an all Vietnam war era song theme would be too broad?
Hi Garrison – makes sense to me! Let us know how it goes.
I agree. Themed Shows have some traction. We decided to go with Piano Music Show and Comedy. We are also working on developing a character Stan Baloney.
I joined the group.
Looking forward to checking out your blog and seeing how your themed shows progress. I just turned 58 and have been doing this a long time. That said, the music business has changed completely since I started playing full time professionally, for many different reasons. I’m just trying to stay relevant while surviving and doing what I know an love doing. Thanks again.
Thanks for checking in here JohnnyMack. What kind of music do you do?
I know someone who had a song called Chocolate Kisses and when she sang that she thew out chocolate kisses sweeties. Whilst not exactly a themed show it was novel.
Could shows be themed around food I ask myself? I could make confections that reflect a particular band but hmmm.
I went to a Burlesque evening and that was fantastic a mix of music and vaudeville and worked great and the varying music styles fitted in perfectly even though they were modern.
Hey Frank – why not? I’m happy to toss some ideas around with you inside the Facebook group.
Just applied to Facebook group.
I’ve seen a show by a cat who called himself the Sauce Boss, an his deal was to literally make a pot of gumbo throughout the evening as he and his band sang an played Louisiana blues, cajun, zydeco and swamp pop. When the show was finished, the gumbo was served and that was included as part of the program. Big hit. Stayed booked. Good gumbo, too, which was essential to his program.
I’ve seen him too over the years, at the old Lafayette Tap Room here in Buffalo. Great show, and yes, a great “hook.”
Excellent. The same could be done for socca, reggae and zouk etc.