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.”

Because of financial concerns, some musical projects never progress past the “light bulb” stage. So, unsurprisingly, one of the most common questions SOCAN members ask is, “How do I get funding?”

Although we can’t cover everything in one article, here are some representative samples of available grants at the international, national, provincial, and municipal levels.

The SOCAN Foundation – Travel Assistance Grant

Available to composers, songwriters, and music publishers in any genre, this grant offsets travel-related costs for activities that “build or define” your career domestically and internationally. Individual artists, charity or non-charity organizations, and music publishers who represent at least four SOCAN members are eligible for funding for, among other activities, performances, residencies, award presentations, and collaborations. Priority is given to artists who demonstrate that the travel in question is important to their career.

Register at the SOCAN Foundation’s online portal and fill out the application. Be sure to have a letter of confirmation or invitation to the event for which you’re requesting funding, and apply well in advance – it takes up to 10 weeks for results.

Successful applicants can receive one grant per calendar year. Maximum funding amounts are:
$400 (for travel from 201 to 1,000 kilometres);
$600 (1,001 to 2,000 km);
$800 (2,001-5,000 km); and
$1000 (5,000-plus km).

There are no specific current deadline dates, and applications are reviewed quarterly.

FACTOR – Artist Development Grant

Prior to applying, read all of the relevant guidelines to ensure that you’re eligible. Applicants need to be in good standing with FACTOR, and can receive this grant once per fiscal year, and twice in total.

Tips and Recommendations

  • Before you do anything, read everything available about the program, ensure that you’re eligible, and reach out to the organization personally.
  • Give yourself plenty of time, provide accurate information, and ensure that any partners you’ve brought on board are confirmed.
  • Adhere to every requirement religiously: If they want a description in five words, write it in five words. Competition is fierce, and trying to be the exception to any rule, or deviating from what’s required, can take you out of the running.
  • Finally, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Even solid applications get turned down. If yours is, ask for feedback.

To be eligible you must qualify as a “General Artist,” “Artist 2,” or “Professional Songwriter.” “General” is a default rating for new artists – this is the category into which most applicants fall. “Artist 2” is determined by various criteria, including album sales and streaming numbers. A “Professional Songwriter” is defined as a member of a performing rights organization, like SOCAN, who primarily writes for other artists.

The grant subsidizes up to 75% (up to a $2,000 maximum) of eligible costs for one year of artist development, which includes, touring, recording/video production, marketing/promotion, and other activities.

First-time applicants must create an Artist and Applicant Profile on the FACTOR website before applying. A “General Artist” only needs to fill out the “Mandatory Information” portion of the “Additional Information” section. Previous applicants use their existing profiles, adding any updates necessary.

With the application, you’ll submit an “Assessment Track” (a recent, unreleased demo in .mp3 format, meeting FACTOR’s MAPL Can-Con requirements), lyrics (if applicable), a current bio, and an Artist Development Plan detailing how you plan to use the funding. Additional resources – photos, tour schedules, recommendations, press, etc. – are also welcome, and may bolster your application.

Current deadlines are before midnight, PST, on May 31, 2018; Sept. 27, 2018; and Jan. 31, 2019.

Canada Council for the Arts – Explore & Create: Concept to Realization

As the name implies, this program supports projects by artists, artistic groups, or arts organizations, from beginning to completion. It covers direct costs – including research, development, creation, production and presentation – for a single project (one annual payment) or composite (annual payments over 1-3 years). Composite grants are only available to applicants who’ve received two or more Canada Council grants in the past five years.

If you’re a new applicant, speak to a Canada Council Program Officer. Then register by creating an account and applicant profile at least 30 days before applying. If eligible, you’ll be notified via e-mail within 15 business days. Be ready to provide information about the project, who’s involved, timeline, promotion/execution details, and budget. Additionally, you’ll need to upload a sample of the work in progress, or previous work, and documents confirming any other partners involved, and what support they’re offering.

Total funding available is $100,000 annually (for single projects) or $300,000 annually (for composite projects). Higher amounts may be considered, but many annual payouts hover around $60,000. Applicants may apply twice a year for single grants, but those projects can’t overlap with others funded by the program.

Applications for single projects may be submitted at any time. The annual deadlines for composite projects are April 6 and Sept. 12.

Ontario Arts Council – Music Recording Projects

This grant offers funding for Ontario-based artists or organizations, and supports composers, songwriters, and beat producers recording in two categories: Demo/EP (25 minutes maximum) or full-length album. EPs/Albums must be intended for public release. Demos may or may not be. Before applying, you should be almost, or actually, ready to record.

Successful applicants must have a permanent physical address in Ontario, and may be professional musicians, composers or collectives/organizations. Funding maximums are $5,000 (for a demo/EP), or $12,000 (for an album), and cover anything recording-related, from studio expenses, to manufacturing, to promotion and marketing. See the OAC site for a complete list of eligible expenses.

Read the OAC’s Guides to Project Programs and Assessment, and contact their Program Officer or Administrator directly – e-mail prompts the swiftest response. Then create a profile on OAC’s online application system, Nova. Again, you’ll need to answer a series of questions, provide basic project information, documents confirming other participants (producer/key players, for example), a budget, résumé, bio, and audio or video samples (five minutes maximum).

The 2018 deadlines are 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time May 16 and Nov. 15. Applications are available starting two months before deadlines.

Toronto Arts Council – Music Creation and Audio Recording

To be eligible for this grant, you may be a Canadian Citizen, Permanent Resident (or current applicant), or approved refugee claimant, but must be a practicing, professional music maker, currently (and for the past year) residing in Toronto, who has completed training, whether formal or informal.

The grant subsidizes writing/production of original material in any genre, and consists of three categories: Creation (maximum $5000), Recording – Demo/EP (maximum $4000), Recording – Full-Length (maximum $10,000). Categories vary in terms of eligible costs and activities. Updated guidelines will be available in June of 2018.

First-timers should contact the TAC’s Music Officer prior to applying, to ensure eligibility. Applications are submitted through TAC Grants Online, where you’ll register as an individual or organization.

The 2018 deadline is Sept. 17 at 11:59 p.m.


Maylee Todd is a Canadian independent singer-songwriter, musician, performance artist, producer, and creative powerhouse. Her song “Baby’s Got It” reached number 10 on the Tokyo radio charts in Japan, where she’s had much success, performing at the Billboard Live Tokyo venue and performing at other prestigious international music festivals like Trans Musicales in France and the C/O Pop festival in Germany. Her music covers a wide variety of genres, including pop, indie-rock, soul, jazz, electronic, experimental and bossa nova. She has a taste for eclectic instruments and sequencers, while her performances demonstrate a flair for both comedy and the dramatic arts. On Nov. 3, 2017, Todd released her third studio album, Acts of Love. Here, she shares point-by-point advice drawn from her career in music.

Working as a multi-media conceptual artist, producer, and musician means I have to wear many hats. I produce my own work, and put on conceptual shows that highlight music, 3-D projection mapping, waccking, installation, and interactive therapy. My interests lie in personal experience and impacting culture in a positive way, with psychology, spirituality and self-awareness acting as the core themes of my shows.

What does it mean to be alive? Do I want to live my life by design, or default? If I’m to be realistic, I know I won’t be able to control my experiences, but I’ll be able to guide my life in a direction that feels purposeful and has meaning to me. With this in mind, I have to be relatively fearless on many fronts. I can’t be afraid of putting work out that isn’t “good enough.” Creative expression and authenticity is the future for humanity.

Here are some navigational tools that I’ve used for this industry:

Seeing Opportunities
There are opportunities out there, it’s just a matter of having the lens to see them. I joined the Canada Council for the Arts jury to better understand how the grant system worked. I worked in a music store to understand how music pedals work, and met with industry folks for coffee to hear their learned experiences, and maybe work/volunteer for them.

Be Your Unique Self
Your authenticity has value. There are a ton of people in this world, some are smarter, have more talent, and have more money than you. What will set you apart? Your unique experience, your unique style, and your unique perspective.

I think it’s important to understand your strengths and your weaknesses while developing them. I love that Michael Jackson got different writers for Off the Wall and still wanted to develop his skills by writing and producing a couple of tracks on the record. You can get help, you can be collaborative, and you can also develop yourself as an artist.

Contracts must be clear and concise, there’s no room for assumptions. I book, pitch, collaborate with many people, festivals, and venues. There can be a lot of miscommunication and assumptions. Best to draw up contracts. I always try to be clear in e-mails, but I’ve noticed even that can get messy. I’ve been in this business so long that I’ve found even between friends, sometimes there can be miscommunications. Everyone I’ve worked with has been incredible, understands processes, the bigger picture, and what’s best for the project. I’ve collaborated with hundreds of people, and yet I can count maybe five people on my hand that have been very challenging and take up mental space. With contracts, it’s clean and clear; job description, term, and payment.

Gender/Race Bullshit
This one is so real it makes me want to puke. Some people have decided on their own type of hierarchy. They will discredit years of experience, talent, and hard work for their own issues with race and gender. Get outta there. It’s not worth it.

And If You Don’t Have The Choice, Use The Power Of Wit:
There was a workshop for women that I taught for 10 years, called The Power Of Wit. Historically I couldn’t call out misogyny, or I’d get fired, so I started this tactic. The trick is when you come across a misogynist in power that you can’t call out, you take a stab back with a witty remark that reminds them you still have your power, without absolutely making them feel threatened. It is the weirdest tactic I know. But it has historically helped me navigate through this patriarchal system. Seriously though, just call them out. It’s not the ‘80s or ‘90s anymore. Its 2017.

I’ll always try to invest in projects I believe in, and take more financial risks. It seems daunting, especially if you don’t have money to begin with. I started a savings account for artistic/hobby endeavors. It’s amazing how much money I can spend on materials that don’t bring meaning or substance into my life. Prioritizing has been helpful. For each gig I get paid, I put a little of that into that savings account even if it’s a small amount.

Use Credit Cards That Have Benefits
Point systems are great! I have gotten groceries, flights and a printer from my points card. I make a lot of payments on my credit cards, and pay them off right away so I don’t climb into debt.

Circumstances will change and sometimes things may not go according to plan. Just like in evolution, one needs to be able to adapt to the circumstances. You cannot control everything, and sometimes these changes are gifts. Use them.

Time Management
I was a personal trainer for 10 years and I used to hear this same line: “I just don’t have the time.” They were just not prioritizing the time. And that’s OK. But you can’t really use that excuse if you indulge in social media five hours a day, or watch Netflix. If you have two minutes a day, you could work on scales on your guitar. Or maybe spend one minute to tune and one minute to practice scales. It all adds up.

Patience and Perseverance
I know I will get there, maybe not next week, maybe not next year, perhaps it will be years from now. But I will get there. You can apply this to everything.

At the End of the Day
It’s all work. It’s producing over and over again. It’s writing 100 jokes a day and maybe one of them is funny. It’s a practice for a reason. Each show is a rehearsal for the next. Life is a work in progress. Data checking and aligning with your value system is important. My mantra is: Living your life by design, not by default, while balancing the art of adaptation.