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Stacking the Deck in Your Favor

The Basics

Before we get to some of the frills that might help tip the scales in your direction, let's recognize that there are certain things that you must have to even be in the game.

  1. Biography: Keep it honest but there is nothing wrong with presenting the information in the best possible light. If your song was voted #10 in the region last year at the local station, you may want to say "One of 1996's Top 10 songs at WLUD." The description is still accurate but a bit more exciting. If your budget is tight, settle for the best presentation (both in terms of content and appearance) that you can come up with yourself. If there is any extra cash to put into this project, consider getting someone to help you write it. Writing about yourself in a complimentary fashion is one of the hardest things to do. If there is still cash in the till, introduce a graphic artist into the equation. You'll be glad you did.

  2. Credit Sheet: Here the concept is to provide some of your history that will help the reader put you in the correct context. If you have been playing out, list the venues where you have been; any interesting projects that are relevant. I personally think that including open mikes is cheating but you will have to develop your own ethical system. Frankly, I don't think the idea here is to overstate what you have been doing but rather to give the booker some idea of your true level of expertise. Not every booker cares about such a listing but many do and you are trying to cover all the bases.

  3. Photographs: To my mind, this is a critical area and has two levels. The first is getting a good picture to begin with. Don't go with a snapshot! Do some research. Spend some time thinking about what aspects of what you do are unique and how you can feature/portray those. Take a trip to your local newspaper and ask them if you can spend an hour in their photo file. Sit down and look at a hundred photos - it will convince you that you never want to send out another head shot again. The person who is picking the picture for the Weekend Section may have 20+ photos in front of him/her - make yours the one that stands out.

    My own bias is to use a professional photographer if economically feasible at all. There's simply no other way to get the quality, creativity and clarity that go into a good photograph. Ask friends whom they use and check out photo credits on CDs, newspaper photos, etc. Often one name will begin to emerge. Get recommendations and then call for pricing. This is just too important an item to do in a haphazard or niggardly fashion. A good photo will get you press coverage you never would have gotten otherwise - the same can be said for audience and even gigs. Trust me on this one….

    The second level here is having photos in quantity. You need lots of them, period. If you are primarily going to be using photos for newspapers, the lithograph level of reproduction is fine. Frankly, the newspaper is probably going to do a mediocre job of reproducing it whether it's a glossy or a lithograph. You can get 500 photos for about $90.00. Despite any discussions of moirés (that odd pattern you get when putting a screen over an already screened photo), an experienced camera operator (and most newspaper people have been at it a while) has no problems dealing with that. At less than .20 each, you will feel comfortable sending lots of photos to anyone which is really the important thing. One good photo in a well-read paper will glean you more audience members than all the schedule listings for 50 miles in every direction. (on the other hand, a photo sent to a radio station gains you nothing - don't bother.)

Okay! Now you are all set with the basics. Yes, I know you need a demo tape/CD also but you've taken care of that, haven't you? - and some of the ins and outs of those choices are a whole 'nother discussion. Let's look at some other ideas that might make you the guy/gal most likely to get the gig, the audience, etc.

Other Promo Kit Possibilities

  1. Q & A: If you are the articulate type, (and, surprise, many writers do have a way with words!), include an interview with yourself. Answer all the usual questions: who were your influences, how do you write songs - there's an endless array of choices. Give valid information (or not, if you can do so in an engaging way - it worked for Bob Dylan) but make it interesting. Accomplishes a couple of things. First of all, you don't see this in every kit that shows up (though maybe we will now…) so it's a way to cut yourself out of the pack. If done well, it will give the reader (be it booker or attendee) a sense of who you are and becomes part of that mysterious process of attracting fans. It is also a useful tool for newspapers - they will be able to quote you accurately without ever picking up the telephone. That appeals to them.

  2. Generic Press Release: The first thing I do when an artist and I start working together is to create a "fill in the blanks" press release which goes out with every press kit. For all the gnashing of teeth that goes on about the venues don't advertise, I don't see a lot being done to try and do something constructive about that. If you look at the schedules for the average club, it quickly becomes clear that it's going to be a pretty demanding task to create decent releases for all those performers. This way, it is already done for them; they can use it as is or edit as needed. In this way, you also have some control or what is being sent out about you - keeps them from misspelling your name or characterizing you as "the new whiz kid on the harmonica" when you swear by the tuba.

    I include it in the kit that I send long before I know whether I'm going to be able to land a gig there because I want to let them know that I see marketing as important and am willing to help out. My own approach to this is that we all (artist, venue, performer) want the same thing: a room full of happy people who are spending money. Any efforts that we can team up on to make this happen are going to improve our chances of success.

    Remember that you are not antagonists; you are on the same team and you are trying to do everything you can to make their job easier (if only because it is in your best interests.) I also accept the harsh reality that, in some cases, the club's efforts are going to be given to their proven draws (they make money; they get attention - it's not a complicated equation) If it's my artist's first time in there, it's simply more complicated to market him/her - not a known entity yet so they can't just do everything off the top of their heads; maybe it isn't going to go well and then they will have expended all that efforts for nothing, etc. They have lots of other things to worry about so it behooves the artists and his/her team (even if the team is currently him/herself) to do everything they can to make it work. You can argue until the cows come home that the club's priorities are misplaced but this is not going to change.

  3. Poster: This choice may be more optional than the others, if only because it's hard to do without spending a bit more cash. (However, probably less than you think: last quote I got for 250 BXW posters on glossy paper was $60 - bring your own artwork) But it's money well-spent and the investment can be held down. If you are doing a recording project, look into running posters, using an enlarged and/or expanded version of your artwork, along with the rest of your printing. See #2 for all the reason why having posters is a good idea.

    Personal aside: sometimes when I float this idea past an artist (none of mine, of course!), the response I get is, "Oh, they're too expensive. I'm going to wait until I get a record deal and they can buy me that stuff." I always find it fascinating that they would see the value of doing something but only if someone else picks up the tab. If you aren't willing to invest in yourself, why should anyone else be interested?

Ideas That Give You an Edge

  1. Plan to Upgrade: From the minute you finish one part of your kit, be thinking about what you want to do next. Maybe you put together the basic kit and now you would like a graphic designer to give it a new look. You got the pictures in quantity; a second pose would be great. A newsletter would be a fun idea. No matter what it is, pick a goal, get some idea what it cost and develop a plan for putting that money aside. Posters cost a hundred dollars that you don't have? Take $5 out of every gig and stash it in a drawer until you have the money. Keep changing and improving things. It will help to keep you energized also because you will feel things are getting better even when you are in one of those inevitable troughs that just happen. Plus when someone asks for an update, you may actually have something slightly different to send them.

  2. Mailing Lists: In this rather unpredictable entertainment business, there aren't a lot of things that are just plain ol' straight-ahead but a mailing list is. If you get an easily filled out form, put it out religiously along with the prerequisite pen, you will start to build a database of names. (Mentioning that you would love to have people sign the list is a big plus) Of course, these days, the big thing is to get e-mail addresses also since unlimited electronic messages are often included in the cost of Internet service. Hard to resist. Mailing lists seem to me to be such an obviously useful tool that I am never clear why everyone doesn't see it that way. A strong mailing list in a region almost inevitably correlates positively with a high attendance at a show. Even before you get the gig, it's a good booking tool. If a booker at a venue is equally artistically intrigued by two performers, the one who can say, "Oh, by the way, I have about 200 names in your region on my mailing list" suddenly just went to the top of the list. Being able to tap into an identifiably interested group of folks is also helpful when you have new product. Chances are they will respond positively to a mail-order form. Tough to find a down side to all this.

    In fact , the only likely down side to a mailing list is not using it. If you can find someone to handle data entry and label printing for you, go for it. There are often a group of people who really want to be more involved with the performer than as audience. There are some dangers here but, if you can find someone with whom you feel comfortable, try and farm all this out. Now you have the beginnings of your fan club. The sad truth is that typing in a lot of names or assembling bulk mailings is tedious work. Chances are good that if you have to do itself yourself, it won't get done. (You'll be off doing something more fascinating, such as dusting or inventorying your spoon collection.) The whole thing falls apart if you aren't using the list. If you can't bear to do it yourself, hire a service.

  3. Record-keeping: You need some way to keep track of what you are doing or things will get out of hand fairly quickly unless you have a truly astounding memory. I use a spiral notebook where I take notes on every conversation. Not particularly sophisticated but it works for me. I maintain a file of contracts so I am able to go back and see what previous arrangements were. If I am unable to schedule a date when I make contact, I try and remember to always ask when it would be convenient to call back. I keep my call list in a scheduling program in the computer so I can get back to people when I said I would. I print out a call list every couple of days so I know what I'm used to be doing (not to be confused with what I actually end up doing…) However convenient, the computer is not a necessity - I used to keep this in a "hot" file on 3X5 cards with two months of daily dividers and a year on monthly dividers. One place where I did need the computer is to keep track of the promo kits that I send out. However, I am dealing with multiple performers. If it is just yourself you can probably do everything that needs to be done in a log book. You do need to keep track of it all somehow or it will quickly become a hopeless muddle. There's no denying that the computer is great for this (it really does do large databases of information really well). I keep both my databases of venues and of promo kits sent in Access, which allows me to sort it in a multitude of ways. I can create reports that are "telephone directories" for each performer that tell me when I sent the material, what the number is and whom I want to speak to. It's a little bit of heaven for a workaholic.

  4. Telephone Etiquette: Some of this is going to sound so simplistic that you will wonder why I even bring it up and the best I can tell you is that I have had too many people who contact me not do these things to just ignore them as issues. As soon as you reach the person you want to talk with, give them your name, the reason why you are calling (the reason, not a summary of your latest press clippings) and ask them if they have a minute to talk with you. If it's a bad time (for instance, the kitchen just developed a fat fire..), they aren't going to really hear you anyway plus they will associate you with vaguely annoying feelings. Better to make arrangements to call at another time. If they have time to talk with you, great. I generally ask them about the club/venue because I want to get a feel for which performers fit their situation. Then I ask if it is all right to send them some promotional info and whom I want to send. My own personal preference is not to spend much time "selling" the artist when they haven't even heard the music. Words can be pretty inadequate in trying to describe music and "pitching" may become unnecessary after they have browsed the material.

    Really try and focus on the other person's needs: do they sound harried? Maybe it's not a good time to talk. Do they have a preference on demo format? It's fewer folks all the time but some people want tapes for their car. No matter what, don't have some format/agenda of your own that you try and stick to instead of paying attention to the person on the other end. I once had an artist call me looking for representation who was incredibly pushy about wanting to play me one of his songs over the phone. I was pretty gracious in refusing to sit still for that the first time he asked but, by the fourth time (the "what is it about 'no' that you don't understand" stage), I wouldn't have worked with this guy if had a letter from Zeus saying he was going to hit like the Beatles.

  5. Telephone Etiquette - The Other Side of the Coin: Make a serious attempt not to make yourself crazy with the phone calls that are needed to get bookings in this business. I believe Albert Einstein said something to the effect that "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result". If you have made 37 phone calls to a venue and they have never gotten back to you, it may be time to come up with a new plan. Leave a message politely saying that you can only assume that their not getting back to you means that they are not interested at this time and you will not be calling although you may want to send them periodic updates. (Interestingly enough, this occasionally results in someone picking up the phone and calling me to say that they actually are interested, just swamped, have a family crisis, etc.) There are other ways to communicate with people; try sending a fax, a postcard, e-mail if you have them. It is difficult to interpret silence; perhaps they hated your material or perhaps they have not listened to it yet. If you are consistently getting no response at all, you might have to ask yourself if you are sending your materials to totally inappropriate places. I suspect the most common mistake is to send materials to venues that are way beyond your reach (I think that because that was the mistake I made). Everybody and their brother wants to play the Birchmere, the Iron Horse, etc. Take a long hard look at their schedule and, if you aren't playing in that league, forbear from sending your material until you bring a bit more to the table.

    For whatever the thought is worth, I notice that the "pros" tend to respond in one way or another rather than just letting you twist in the wind. They will send a postcard acknowledging receipt of materials, a letter declining for one year but saying they keep things on file or call saying they are interested. I am more likely to hear from Bob Jones at the Newport Folk Festival than the person who is booking an event that draws 500 people. I guess they just handle things in a more business-like way, bless them! If you do get feedback from a venue regarding why they aren't interested at this time, be sure to pay attention. It's important information on what you need to consider to get that particular gig. You may decide that you can't or don't want to do that but it's important information nevertheless. Don't dismiss it with "So and so was so rude." That may be true but use the information also.

GOOD LUCK IN YOUR ENDEAVORS!

© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions

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