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?
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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.