Local Current Blog

Who plays where, when and why: Explaining the mysteries of live music booking

Above: A crowd watches Doomtree perform at First Avenue. Below: a view of the Turf Club interior. (both Nate Ryan/MPR)

The process by which bands are booked into venues is, for the casual music fan, opaque. It may even be mystifying — especially if you just can’t understand why your favorite band is playing your least favorite venue.

Booking, say local pros, is both a science and an art — and like the rest of the music industry, it’s built on relationships. “It’s basically the relationships between the buyer, who would be me,” says Tamsen Preston of Sue McLean & Associates, and booking agents, “who would be the representatives of the artists.”

Most touring bands work with booking agents: people whose job it is to help the artists maximize their financial success on the road while also helping to ensure that the shows are accessible to fans in terms of ticket prices, location, and atmosphere. “We discuss different artists [that agents] represent, what they’re looking for coming through the market,” says Preston. “My job is to try to find the [type of] venue that they’re looking for.”

Booking agents work with local bookers — also known as talent buyers — in each market: people who are in a position to cut a deal for a band to play a particular venue on a particular date for an agreed-upon sum. Many bookers represent venues directly; in other cases, bookers represent promoters (like Sue McLean & Associates) that contract separately with the venues.

Agents, explains Eli Flasher of First Avenue, “will reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got so-and-so band coming through your market on these five dates, this time frame.’ We go back and forth on an offer, and then settle on a date that works for both parties.”

First Avenue is a leader in Twin Cities music booking: they not only book their own venues (the Mainroom, the 7th Street Entry, and the Turf Club), but also work with a wide range of other venues to help place artists in the best spots for their shows to succeed. Flasher explains that he and his colleagues book artists at venues not owned by First Avenue “if we’re already booked at one of our other venues, or if we think it fits better style-wise or size-wise with the band we’re working with. Then we just pay a room-rental fee and handle the ticket sales ourselves.”

What makes a venue the right spot for a given show? Ideally, it should be the right size and have the right vibe. The Cedar Cultural Center, for example, “is typically known as a listening room,” says the venue’s booker Grace Evenson. “It’s usually a very attentive audience, and shows that really require the audience to pay attention work well in our room.” The Cedar also has a lot of room for dancing, notes Evenson, when artists like Femi Kuti come through town.

Evenson and her colleagues book the Cedar directly, but not every show at the Cedar is booked by the venue. “We have relationships with other promoters in the Cities,” says Evenson, “and if it’s an artist or an agent that they have a strong relationship with and they just need a different room, our space is then available for them to rent. We also do co-presents with other promoters; again, it usually depends on past experience with the artist and agent.”

This is why relationships are crucial: booking agents and talent buyers (i.e. bookers) often work together over extended periods of time, with both parties having a shared interest in developing bands’ careers so that the artists can return to town again and again — ideally drawing bigger crowds every time.

“Our goal,” says Flasher, “is to have a band that’s going to, say, first time through they’re going to play the Entry and there’s going to be 50 to 100 people. If the band’s good enough, we’re going to work with them throughout the next couple of years and build them up so they’re [eventually] playing the Turf Club and then the Triple Rock and then the Mainroom.”

It’s also part of a booker’s job to agree with the band’s agent on financial terms for the gig. Typically, a touring artist is guaranteed a certain sum for playing the show, with a share of additional revenues if ticket sales exceed a certain agreed-upon number. Often with local artists, venues like the Cedar will make a simpler deal that entails a straightforward “door split”: dividing total ticket revenue at an agreed percentage, however many tickets are sold.

As with movie theaters, music venues make a critical share of their revenue from sales of refreshments — for music venues, that particularly means refreshments of the liquid variety. “We make the majority of our money off bar sales,” says Flasher. “So getting people into the room is step one. That’s not our main goal, but it’s the most obvious goal.”

Sometimes bands’ touring plans are in flux, so venues like First Avenue have a system of ranked “holds” on the spaces to help decide who will have the opportunity to play a room — and who has next dibs if an artist has to release a hold before signing a contract.

“Whoever reaches out first,” explains Flasher, “gets the first hold. It builds like that for second, third, fourth, fifth hold — and then whatever band who’s holding gets to the point in the conversation where we agree on an offer, we go through the list with a process called ‘challenging’ for the date.”

Here’s how that works. “Say the band is the fourth hold,” Flasher continues. “I’m going to go to the first, second, and third hold and say, hey, this band is challenging your hold on this date. Can you please let us know if you want to take the date or not? Usually they have 24 hours to either confirm the date for themselves or release the date.”

What about the rest of the bill? That varies, depending on whether a band is touring with its own support or looking for local openers. “One of the things I’ll ask,” says Flasher, “before I send the offer is, ‘[Should I] budget extra money for local bands, or will you be carrying your own support on this tour?’

“If they aren’t carrying their own support,” continues Flasher, “I’ll reach out to a number of local bands in town and see who’s available and interested. I’ll submit three or four bands to the booking agent, who will then pass those along to either the band themselves or the band’s management. We’ll decide who makes most sense.”

In fact, says Evenson, a good way for a local artist to get booked at a venue they’re aiming to play is to propose themselves as openers for an upcoming touring artist. “It’s always great to have them reach out about specific shows — the more specific the better.”

A booker’s job isn’t particularly glamorous, admits Flasher. “Most of my day is sitting in front of a computer — typing e-mails, answering phones, checking Facebook. It’s kind of a desk job.”

Still, for people who love music, a job working with artists and venues can be incredibly rewarding. “Every day poses a different challenge,” says Preston, “and you end up learning new things along the way. You can be in this business for 20, 30, 50 years and still there’s new stuff that you’re learning.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the July edition of The Growler.