Ralph James

Ralph James

“10,000 hours isn’t sufficient, it’s 20,000 hours now.” If those numbers don’t scare you away from attempting a career in music, read on. Considering the source, veteran agent Ralph James – doubling author Malcolm Gladwell’s rule that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field – you’d best take the advice seriously. James, of the Agency for the Performing Arts in Toronto, and five-time winner of Canadian Music Week’s Booking Agent of the Year award, says that the best way to get an untried band booked for those all-important early gigs is to be very, very good at what you’re doing. That’s the bottom line, but it’s only the beginning. SOCAN spoke with a cross-section of booking experts to learn the rest.

To say that technology has turned the music business upside down (more than once) in the last 30 years is a huge understatement. However much things change, though, some of them obstinately stay the same. It’s never been easy for a newcomer musician to get booked for a gig. Of course, those great strides in technology also created some unexpected collateral damage. One was a sudden influx of one-hit wonders – songs could be written, recorded, “videoed,” and released without the performer having any experience outside their home studio, thereby diluting the number of capable, career-minded musicians. Another was that, with so many more people believing they can make a go of a music career (along with an economy that has whittled away at the number of venues available), the competition for existing dates has grown exponentially. So how, with so many people vying to get the same small handful of bookers to even click “open” on a soliciting email, let alone hear their music, does a newcomer get a break?

Derek Andrews, who’s been booking acts in Toronto since the 1980s (at The Edge, Albert’s Hall, Harbourfront, and now Hugh’s Room Live), e-mailed a checklist that aims to provide the bedrock that all musicians require in order to build the foundations for their careers:

  • 10,000 hours: (Ralph James aside) Get really good in performance by playing a lot.
  • Research: You want to dig into every possible corner to find gigs, and data.
  • Consult: With colleague musicians, and anyone who knows what’s going on.
  • Mentor: Find one, or more. Get them to believe in you by being serious about your goals.
  • Showcase: Apply to every one for which you qualify.
  • Conference: Attend all the appropriate ones, even if you’re not showcasing.
  • Network: Everywhere you can, including showcases, gigs, and industry functions.
  • Video: You want to have a solid performance video on your website, YouTube, or social media.
  • Profile: Build your profile with a really active social media strategy.
Derek Andrews

Derek Andrews

Seeing a performance is still Andrews’ preferred way to select acts, but he knows that’s not always possible. There are two other things he looks for in those cases. The first is referrals – it’s a small industry and everyone talks. As Ralph James says, “What gets the attention of bookers is bands that can draw people. [Establish] a track record of being able to fill rooms, or to do reasonable business when you get the opportunity. Let’s say you get the opportunity to play any night at a club in Toronto and you [do well], everybody knows about it. It’s not a secret. If, in the course of a week or 10 days, you hear about the same band from three or four people, then that gets your attention.”

To capitalize on those early opportunities, you need to know where you ought to be playing. Booking a cozy teahouse for your rollicking, five-piece klezmer band isn’t a good fit, and won’t do anyone any good. That’s where research comes in handy. Mike Campbell, who’s been booking shows at the Carleton Music Bar + Grill in Halifax since 2008, agrees that knowing which venues to approach is a very good first step. He’ll know immediately whether you’ve checked out the Carleton beforehand, because he’s headed you off at the pass with a “So You Want To Book A Gig” FAQ page on the venue’s website. Go take a look, at http://www.thecarleton.ca/music/booking-faqs/.

Charlotte Cornfield, a working musician herself (both as a singer-songwriter and a drummer-for-hire), has been booking acts at The Burdock in Toronto for the last three years. She’s not so concerned with the artist’s genre or back catalogue. Her first priority is, “Would it do well on our stage?” After her first year at The Burdock, in a NOW magazine interview, Cornfield laid out the five questions she asks herself whenever someone pitches her a show:

Charlotte Cornfield

Charlotte Cornfield

  1. Am I excited about it?
  2. Does it… reflect the city and the neighbourhood we’re in?
  3. Will it draw?
  4. Is there an online presence?
  5. Are there positive vibes?

She’s used her booking experience to further her own career by learning how to write an effective solicitation e-mail: “Be short, punchy and to the point: what is the reason for my show, why is it exciting?”

Derek Andrews’ second option, when he can’t see the band for himself is to look for what FACTOR and other funding organizations are looking for: “The size of your digital profile. We’re looking for how many people are watching your videos and liking your Facebook page. It used to be record sales, but now it’s your digital profile.”

The Importance of Block Booking
What’s most important about the showcase events listed below is that talent buyers and festival producers are guaranteed to be there. They take advantage of the moment by getting together to do something called “block booking.” “Block booking meetings happen through the fall,” Andrews explains. “That’s when the planning cycle begins for festivals that are produced in the summer… Block booking is done when a group of presenters agree to co-ordinate a tour directly with an artist, or an agent – (in part) to ensure access to the touring grants that are available at Canada Council, or FACTOR… Historically, there was a date in December that was a deadline to apply for tour support. So, if you work backwards from that date, you had to have some kind of discussion going on in September or October to find the groups that you wanted to support [the next summer]…”

He says, “The first thing I’ll ask them: Is your show calendar clear?” For local acts he wants your calendar clear in the general vicinity for three weeks before and three weeks after, but he’s quick to add, “unless the band is really taking off.” Burke offers up one major insight: “If a band says they’re going to draw between 50 and 100 people, chances are it’s an empty promise. Why such a wide range? That immediately puts up a red flag.”
There are other practical concerns as well. Dan Burke, who until recently was booking the late, lamented Silver Dollar in Toronto (and now booking shows at The Horseshoe, Lee’s Palace and The Monarch) won’t book you if you’re overexposed in the market. Or maybe he will.

All five experts agreed that networking at various levels is paramount. That doesn’t just mean communicating through social media to like-minded communities, or targeted demographics. It means getting out there and meeting the movers and shakers, face-to-face, as often as possible. Going to as many conferences and showcases as you can might seem like a big investment, but it can really pay off. In recent years, the bookers themselves have organized and regularly meet at showcase events like Contact Ontario, whose website calls it “an opportunity for those working in the touring performing arts sector to come together to network, and to share information in a three-day conference.”

Other such events happen all across Canada:

If you thought there were any shortcuts, or special, secret ways to get booked, there aren’t. To make it in the music business today, you need social and communication skills that weren’t necessary before. But take James’ advice: “Don’t get distracted by how much time you’re spending working on your websites, and all of your social media… These days there’s so much involved, there are so many different things that need to get done, that somehow some bands forget that the top priority should be the performance and songwriting.” Sure, it may take 20 hours a day to get everything done. But hey, he adds, “sleep is for humans.”