Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Endless Mystery of Booking Gigs

Sometimes things annoy you to the point of anger, but then it moves beyond anger into humor. I just have to laugh at the endless frustration of trying to be your own booking agent. Everyone knows it takes a lot of time and energy, but it's a very weird way to spend your time. I'm talking about the constant emailing of jazz venues. On the good side, some of these better venues, usually run by folks who actually have played an instrument themselves( and they've been in your situation so they understand), will actually respond; it might still take a while, but eventually they might get back to you and tell you: A. We have these dates available, or B. We aren't booking in advance of March yet, or C. We are all booked up at the moment please try back in a few weeks or, D. Sorry but we don't have a spot for you, your music isn't what we are looking for or you don't have a following or you need a few more years to develop. It shows respect for the artist and respect for the scene. On the negative side, some of the venues are booked by people who probably don't have much sympathy for what musicians go through and just string you along forever. Sometimes I wish they would just tell me to kiss off.

I think the worst though is after days, weeks, months, and years(yes, years, people!) of emails (or pre internet: phone calls) you never hear anything, or you might hear once something like, "Oh, it's really busy now, try me next week." and then you just stay in this endless loop of emailing and never hearing anything. Sometimes you wonder if you should stop emailing altogether, or perhaps just be more aggressive and step up the emails. Unfortunately, I don't have any definitive line on what the etiquette is for something like this. I don't know if there are classes on how to approach booking yourself. Pianist and educator Hal Galper has some books on booking your own jazz tours and gigs, and of course there are many things online about this, although these are more geared towards Indie Rock and Pop groups.

I suppose Hollywood movies deals with various theories on the etiquette of things like "How many days after I give a guy my number should he call me?" or "How much should I tip the Red Cap at the airport?" So in this case, is there some rule like, "If you email a jazz venue 5 times and you don't hear back, should you assume they aren't interested? Are They Just Not That Into Me?" This is especially frustrating when you have already played at said venue, and even had what was deemed to be a great, or at least good turnout. "I thought we really had some special......sob.......Oh I just want to eat a pint of Hagen-Daz and cry myself to sleep..."

It's important to realize that anyone who is in charge of booking a jazz club  has pressures that we as the artist don't have to worry about. If we play at the venue, and no one shows up, then yes, we will be depressed, but we can also just move on to another venue and try again, whereas the booking person has to answer to the owner, who needs to worry about keeping the lights on, etc... That booking person could be out of a job if he or she books too many duds. And if the person who books the music owns the joint, they might be even more worried about whether the business is good. They also might be busy running the restaurant, so they might have even less time to get back to you than someone whose only job it is to do the booking.

Furthermore, and this is key, that when you consider how few jazz clubs there are and how many jazz musicians there are in the world, then just imagine how many emails each booking agent gets. Some of these places get 500 emails a day from various musicians, some whom they know and many that they don't, and they all want to play at the club. Can you imagine having to answer 500 emails a day?
I can relate somewhat because as Jazz Area Coordinator of Portland State University's School Of Music, I get so many emails a day and it is challenging to answer all of them. I don't get nearly 500 a day.

Also, it should be noted that traditionally in the arts, the artist is not supposed to book themselves. You are supposed to have a booking agent, or at the very least a manager who does that. This is because artists are notoriously bad with things pertaining to the business. They are also very egotistical, so it can be hard to deal with the realities of making a gig successful when you are dealing with somebody who thinks of themselves as the greatest thing since sliced cheese. "What do you mean I can't fill a 500 seat hall? Have you ever heard me play?" This is why it's better to leave this sort of negotiation to someone who is a little more detached from the situation. Also, you want someone who understands the business so that the artist doesn't get ripped off.

The problem now in jazz is that there just isn't enough money to be made in order for people to want to spend the time booking you, or managing you. As Vanessa Rubin used to say, "If you want a manager, you have to have something to manage!" Most people in this part of the business will come to you if you have already proven yourself in some capacity. Unfortunately, this is also rather abstract. I feel like the guy in the old commercial for joining the Army. The guy tells him he can't have the job because he needs more experience. "But how do I GET the experience?" In years past, jazz musicians made their name as a sideman playing with the greats, and then , if they were so inclined, branched out into leading their own bands. But now that doesn't seem to matter as much; oftentimes promoters and so forth (definitely in my case) just see you as a sideman. Sometimes it's almost easier if you BEGIN your career as a leader, which really makes little sense if you think about it. Do you become the teacher BEFORE you go to school?(This is kind of what was happening in the 90's when record companies were looking for young players-Young Lions, if you will, and musicians who had very little experience were leading groups. Some actually did go on to mature and grow, but many of the Young Lions sort of dropped of the scene; perhaps they might have benefited from having more sideman experiences, in my opinion.)

So we are trying to be our own booking agents for ourselves. I think there is something to be said for working on a lower level regularly and building a following; I believe Kurt Rosenwinkle did this by playing at Small's every week and building his reputation as well as developing his sound. Rosenwinkle definitely paid dues in that sense, and over time has become the sensation that he is. However, I noticed a number of years ago a young vocalist I worked with a bit, who had never actually performed any gigs prior, go from playing a weekly stint at a Greenwich Village restaurant to playing 2,000 seaters in one year. How does THAT happen? Well, when you know the right people and have the right connections and the right people behind you, I suppose anything can happen. Unfortunately, I think that's just luck. You can't go looking for that. Although I suppose you could rob a bank and use the money to rent a 2,000 seat venue. Or perhaps become the Heisenberg of jazz. (That's a Breaking Bad reference. I mean that you could cook and sell drugs to finance a major career in jazz. I don't really condone this.)

So some people end up filling huge venues overnight somehow, and some of us keep plugging away trying to get gigs at small clubs. What can be frustrating is the amount of thought and work it takes to get a gig that either pays very little or even nothing. There are a few places in particular that I think of how long it took me to get them to give me a gig and in the end it was hard to justify all the effort. One place in particular, and I swear this is true, I called on and off for 3 years before they gave me December 26th. Yes, the day after Christmas. Needless to say, it was not a good night in terms of turnout, and I took home 60 dollars, a good portion of which went to my taxi ride. (What was really weird is that the booking person would answer the phone and pretend to be her own secretary. I would say, " Is Monica there?" and she would say, in Monica's exact voice, "Monica's not here." That was really strange to me.)

Another venue did call me back and tell me " We really love your music, but we just don't have a place for you at this venue." Which in retrospect was actually very cool. At least I had an answer. However, after a few years of playing there as a sideman,  I guess at some point it seemed as though I had a shot at playing there. At the time, I did have someone helping me with booking. She got me a last minute Mother's Day spot. Again, not the best attendance. Not only was it Mother's Day, and a Sunday, but since it was last minute, we couldn't do much to get the word out even if we wanted to. However, the music was amazing( I brought my organ trio of Tom Guarna and Rodney Holmes), although the guy who booked the music didn't come to the gig, so he never heard the band. ( I also had made it a double bill with the Casey Benjamin Band; Benjamin is an awesome saxophonist and musician and his band was also quite amazing.) It took me another 3 years to get another gig there; my recollection was that it was a pretty good turnout; I had Steve Wilson as a guest, and again the music was really happening. So it only took another SIX YEARS to get another spot there. That's right. SIX YEARS. I emailed, hired someone to send emails,  then went back to doing it myself. Finally, I got another weeknight. Yippee. Not a holiday, at least.

This time, which was my last to date, was an undeniably good night. That's because I put money towards radio spots on WBGO, which were not cheap. I believe that the radio spots plus the all star line up of Lonnie Plaxico, Clarence Penn, Jaleel Shaw, and Debbie Deane really helped to bring folks out. As you might have guessed, after this success, I'm basically back where I started and have been unable to secure a follow up gig after many, many, many emails. Who knows? Maybe in 12 years I'll get another chance.

I guess my issue is that on the last gig, because I spent money on publicity, plus paid for all my own expenses getting to New York and staying somewhere, plus paid the band, in the end I lost quite a bit of money. Which isn't that big a deal; however, if I'm going to continue to try to have a relationship with these venues, what is in it for me? A chance to play my music? Possibly. Am I developing an audience? HELL NO! How can you develop an audience if you only play somewhere once every 3 to 6 years? The problem I have with venues is they don't want to actually help anyone develop an audience. If you can't get a gig with any kind of frequency, how can you develop a following?

Anyway, it's gotten to the point where it's just comical. The venue I mentioned where the lady would pretend to be her secretary? She passed away, and her son runs the club now. I played there a number of times as a leader when someone else booked the gig. I tried to get a repeat myself and never got any response-again after countless emails. When I saw Monica's son at the club, he smiled at me and said, "George! Man, we should get you in here again!" I said, "I would love to do that!" I tried again with the emails and he never responded to a single one.

I'd love to get more feedback on this post. Feel free to share your own experiences. What's the most amount of calls or emails or YEARS you've spent trying to get a gig? I wonder if there is a world record in the category of "Most Emails Sent To Get A Gig...."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.